I asked my congregation to read Parshat Toldot, and come up with some Big Questions. Here are some of the questions from them, which I plan to use tomorrow at our New Member Shabbat as material for discussion. [Note: These are not real Twitter accounts. I just used the @ sign to be cute.]
- With this history of common ancestry and generations of envy, rivalry and hostility, what is God’s ( or anyone’s) recipe/guidance for achieving a peaceful co-existence in the foreseeable future?
- Are we supposed to be proud of Jacob’s cleverness, or Isaac’s apparent lack of it, or Rebecca’s collusion?
- Are we supposed to feel that somehow Esau deserved his treatment?
- Should we assume that God intended everything to happen just the way it did?
- What is a birthright anyway? How does it differ from the blessing? What does it all have to do with the inheritance of wealth or possessions?
- What does Isaac’s blessing mean? Is it a prophecy? Is it a prediction? Is it something that is binding somehow on God to fulfill?
- Why couldn’t Isaac just call Jacob into his tent, scold him and then give his blessing to Esau, if he wanted to?
- Why were the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) such poor role models as parents? (E.g. Abraham loved Isaac more than Ismael; Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, while Rebecca was the opposite; Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other children.)
- Why did the Patriarchs lie so often? (E.g. Abraham passed his wife off as his sister (twice), and so did Isaac; Isaac tricked Esau out of his birthright; Rebecca and Jacob tricked Isaac).
Jacob represents the second generation when the younger son inherits his father’s favored portion and becomes the one through whom God’s blessing of Abraham flows. Because of this, we trace our Jewish lineage through these younger sons back to Abraham. We also know that in some weeks ahead, we will learn that Joseph, one of Jacob’s younger children will be the major actor in the continuance of the “Jewish family.”
- What does the Torah mean by tracing Jewish lineage through younger sons and how has that shaped the history and character of our people?
- This story made me think about making judgements about people who work with their hands versus people whose labor isn’t physical.
- How should we consider deception and lying in the light of Rebecca’s’ choices…or in considering our own choices in difficult situations… terrible ones, such as hiding a friend from the KGB in Russia, or easier ones, such as when an auntie asks if we like their new coat or hat?
- If Jacob becomes Israel, what currently represents Esav?
- Looking back at this story from today, does the birthright really matter? Shouldn’t they have attempted to preserve the relationship instead?
Within the larger story in Toldot, is another story about an incident where Isaac, fearing for his safety and that of his family, tells the Philistines that Rebekah is his sister, not his wife (see Genesis 26:6-12). This story seems to be parallel to a story told earlier where Abraham tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister not his wife (see Genesis 12: 14-17). In each case, the Israelite man later reveals the fact that he has lied, and that the woman is really his wife. On hearing this, both the Egyptian (in the case of Abraham) and the Philistine (in the case of Isaac) become so fearful that they send the Israelite on his way in peace, with various gifts.
- Why were Abraham’s and Isaac’s ploys so successful on these occasions?
- What do these two stories tell us about the ethical norms of those societies at that time?