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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Toldot

Parashat Toldot

Kislev 2, 5980 – November 30, 2019

Torah Reading: Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Haftarah: Malachi 1:1 – 2:7

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Toldot, which means generations. In this parashah, there are three events regarding the lives of Isaac and Rebecca that echo major themes that have appeared throughout previous parashot: (1) Rebecca is barren as Sarah was barren, and this is transformed through prayer as Rebecca then gives birth to Jacob and Esau; (2) Isaac is faced with a famine as was his father Abraham, but instead of descending into Egypt, Isaac is told to go to Philistia and settle in Gerar; (3) there, we encounter the third ‘wife-sister narrative’ from Genesis where Isaac – fearing for his safety, and mimicking Abraham’s ruse – states that Rebecca is his sister, which leads to an involvement (yet again) with Abimelech. The title of the parashah – Toldot, or generations – is also connected to the birth of Jacob, who is to become (what biblical scholars refer to as) the “eponymous” ancestor of the Israelites, or the ancestor who will carry forward Israel’s name.[1] The first line of the parashah is an interesting line, and I’d like to read it to you because it encapsulates the essence of the synergy and interplay amongst generations. The line reads:

וְאֵ֛לֶּה תּֽוֹלְדֹ֥ת יִצְחָ֖ק בֶּן־אַבְרָהָ֑ם אַבְרָהָ֖ם הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־יִצְחָֽק :

(And these are the offspring of Isaac son of Abraham – Abraham begot Isaac)

A similar literary tactic is used here as we saw in the opening of Parashat Noach, whereby the offspring of Isaac are mentioned (without naming Jacob and Esau) before naming Abraham and continuing with the story of Rebecca’s pregnancy. The Torah is alluding to an inter-generational dynamic that is forged within a non-linear matrix of human action. To put this more simply, generations are intergenerational; the Torah has an interesting way of playing with the effects of action that are unbound by time and space, and this is encapsulated within the opening line of this parashah which relays the order of the patriarchs in a non-linear fashion. Take, for instance, the wells that were dug in Abraham’s time – these would then influence the geo-political disputes that unfold over the control of water with Isaac after he is forced to relocate during the famine. The agitation in Rebecca’s womb due to the tension between Jacob and Esau is a signpost of what was and what is to come – the destinies of Jacob and Esau represent, very literally, two diverging nations (Jacob, as just mentioned, comes to represent Israel and Esau comes to represent Edom); but the story that unfolds between Jacob and Esau is also very much about the primordial tension between good and evil[2] (Jacob [meaning heel] was born grasping Esau’s heel, which is a reverberation of the conflict between Cain and Abel).[3] In this way, Isaac – and the blessing he bestows – serves as a bridge between the cosmic past and the future destiny of the Jewish people. Toldot, or generations, is pointing to the importance of the past and the importance of the future in guiding our actions, yet making the distinction between eras to heal generational patterns.

The most straightforward environmental message in this parashah revolves around the dispute over the wells. After a famine forces Isaac into new lands, Isaac actually flourishes, and we are told that he “sowed in that land, and in that year he reaped a hundredfold.” (26:12) Following this passage, the Torah relays that the Philistines envied him [that being Isaac], and commentators on this passage emphasize that the envy was directed at Isaac, not at his wealth.[4] This is an important distinction because one would imagine that in a land where water is scarce, Isaac’s ability to tap into his father’s wells would allow him to produce wealth from the land. If one controls a limited resource that is essential for survival, one controls the potential for survival off the land and can consequently extend that control into other spheres of influence. This would explain the desire of the Philistines to fill up Isaac’s wells with “earth,” and to force him away into a new space to find an alternative source of water – even at the expense of their own ability to draw water from those wells. An argument could be made that the Torah is offering a teaching regarding our treatment of natural resources in times of conflict.[5] Water, particularly fresh water, is a critically limited resource and to sully it during times of war jeopardizes the ability of future generations to live off that land. In modern times, the issue of our treatment of water is a primary concern. Tragedies – such as what happened in Flint, Michigan or documentaries like The Devil We Know regarding the health effects of teflon on local water systems – are bringing attention to the contemporary water crisis and its impact on human health and the environment. On one level, the Torah is urging us to not defile natural resources during times of conflict (or any time for that matter!), because everyone suffers – not just those immediately involved. We should never compromise an essential resource to obtain a political end.

As I mentioned, the Philistines took issue with Isaac’s person, not with his wealth. Abimelech even says to Isaac, “Go away from us for you have become much mightier than we!” (26:17) Rashi states that: “wells symbolize the spiritual wealth that is hidden beneath the layers of human smugness, materialism, and laziness…[wells] represent a quest for spiritual riches that lay beneath the surface.”[6] The Torah is teaching us that Isaac’s mightiness was a consequence of his righteousness, not due to his control of natural resources. Even as the narrative progresses, and more conflict over wells ensue, Isaac continues to relocate until he finds a water source over which there is no conflict (and this is Rehoboth). One could make the argument that wells, or access to resources amidst a struggle, are the result of a search for new solutions. Isaac was forced to abandon wells that his father dug, and even some wells of his own, to avoid serious conflict. But the message has a double meaning. Isaac kept moving until he found access to a well, which very literally meant access to water and a resource for survival. But the Philistines were attacking Isaac’s spiritual wealth, and his capacity to find supplementary sources of water, which symbolize supplementary reservoirs of spiritual strength. The message here is quite simple: water security is a primary issue, and will always be a concern across generations. In our day and age, this is becoming more and more evident as our treatment of water is severely impacting the environment, which has had ramifications for human health. But the issue of water is related to our relationship with G-d. Natural resources are critically limited, and unless we find a way to persevere beyond the varieties of solutions related to political ends, we will never be able to balance our own needs with a variety of spiritual progression that brings balance into the world.

If the first environmental message has to do with water, then the second environmental message of this parashah has to do with animals – for this scholars in the field of animal studies have looked to the story of Jacob and Esau and (I will add) that there is incredible potential to have this story be the subject of study when considering religion and ecology. The qualities they displayed at birth, their personalities, Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob, and Rebecca’s scheme to secure Isaac’s blessing for Jacob all enmesh the symbolic creation of Israel with – what Ken Stone refers to as – “the constitutive importance of ‘companion species.’”[7] Ken continues: “[In short] the presence of animals structures Jacob’s story, and hence the story of Israel’s origins and identity, from the beginning.”[8] In the events leading up to Isaac’s blessing, Esau is asked (by Isaac) “to go out into the field to hunt game” to make a meal. (27:4) Upon hearing this, Rebecca commands Jacob to go out to the flock and to “fetch two young choice kids of the goats” so that Isaac could be deceived whilst Esau is gone. (27:10) It is important to note that, as both Jacob and Esau came of age, their personalities correlated to the variety of animals they worked with and reflected variegated forms of masculinity. Even at birth Esau was described as “red” and “hairy” (25:24), and “became the one who knows trapping, a man of the field” (25:27). Jacob, on the other hand, was “a smooth skinned man” (27:11) and was described as a “wholesome man, abiding in tents.” (25:27) But commentators note that, as the brothers’ personalities emerged, “Esau turned to idols and Jacob [went] to the study hall. Esau became a hunter, but not only in the literal sense. He became adept at trapping his father by asking questions that would make him appear to be unusually pious.”[9] According to the theories of Donna Harraway, the different animal species associated with Jacob and Esau could be interpreted as “co-constitutive ‘companion species’ that ‘entangle’ [the brothers] in contact zones”[10] which ultimately has an influence on the destiny of the Jewish people. In this way, animals become active participants in the story of Israel, and are not simply part of the canvas that provides a background or context for the story.[11]

I am not saying that the differing animals that Jacob and Esau worked with are what formed a blueprint for their destiny. Rather, the animals exaggerated or exposed their existing constitutions, and the divergent moral directions they would choose to encourage. I do find, that while Jacob is associated with domesticated animals and Esau with wild animals, both require varying forms of subsistence strategies.[12] Ken Stone notes that the two young goats that Rebecca asked Jacob to bring in from the flock were most likely used for eating because “young males don’t contribute milk, reach a good size within two or three years, and are not needed in large numbers for reproduction with the herd.”[13] Esau, who is described as red when he is born, is said to have been red because he loved killing too much[14], which would obviously be problematic if he dealt with domesticated animals but is also a perverted and immoral way to handle wild game, as it invokes additional complications regarding subsistence strategies. But I do think there is something much deeper going on here regarding the state of the soul. In Chaim Miller’s lecture series that I mentioned last week, Torah in Ten, he describes how the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden was tantamount to the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry, and sexual misconduct.[15] According to the Kabbalistic point of view, the patriarchs are said to be reincarnations of Adam and their respective varieties of atonement (tikkun) – the rift in the cosmos for which they have come to repair – correlates with the primary characteristic which they need to embody for demonstrating that tikkun. For Abraham this is chessed (which I’ve talked about in previous commentaries) and idolatry, for Isaac this is gevurah (which is really about discerning the difference between good and evil, and relates to the blessing he bestows) and murder, and for Jacob this is tif’eret and sexual misconduct (and is about bringing balance and harmony to the integration of chessed and gevurah). In the Garden, Adam and Eve were said to be wearing garments of light, and this changed after the incident with the Tree of Knowledge and they were instead clothed in garments of leather (skin). I bring this up, because in Hebrew there is a word play going on. The word for light (אור), is pronounced the same as the word for skin (or leather) (עור), although they differ by a letter. Leather is associated with a kind of sinfulness, that is, until Jacob fulfills his tikkun. Rebecca’s use of an animal skin to trick Isaac into believing that Jacob was Esau, was an act that ritually initiated the atonement for G-d’s clothing of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Somehow the putting on of animal skins (these garments of Eden[16]) are related to Jacob’s tikkun, and the symbolic creation of Israel relies upon a balanced relationship with animals.

I’ll close with a line from Claude Levi-Strauss, who “famously observed that animals are not only ‘good to eat’ but also ‘good to think.’”[17] I hope this got you thinking. Thanks for listening and catch you next week.

Topics Include: inter-generational patterns, conflict over water, treatment of natural resources, animal studies and the tension between Jacob and Esau

Main Events of the Parashah

Rebecca’s barrenness and pregnancy (25:19)

The birth of Jacob and Esau (25:24)

The personalities of the twins emerge (25:27)

Esau’s sale of the birthright to Jacob (25:29)

A famine forces Isaac to Philistia (26:1)

Isaac in Gerar fears for his life (26:6)

Abimelech’s protection (26:10)

The prophetic dispute over the wells (26:15)

God assures Isaac of the blessings (26:23)

Abimelech reaffirms the treaty (26:26)

Esau marries Caananite women (26:34)

Isaac’s decision to bless Esau (27:1)

Rebecca’s scheme to obtain the blessing for Jacob

“I am a smooth skinned man” (27:11)

Jacob comes to Isaac (27:18)

“The hands are Esau’s hands…” (27:20)

Jacob receives Isaac’s blessings (27:26)

Esau arrives for his blessings (27:30)

Esau’s hatred of Jacob (27:41)

Jacob is told to flee to Laban (27:42)

The admonition against marrying a Caananite (27:46-28:1-5)

The Abrahamic blessing is conveyed to Jacob (28:1)

Esau marries the daughter of Ishmael (28:6)


Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Stone, Ken. Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies. Stanford University Press, 2017.

[1] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies, p.24

[2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p. 124

[3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p. 124

[4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p. 130

[6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p. 131

[7] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies, p.14

[8] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies, p.26

[9] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p. 127

[10] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies, p.29

[11] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies, p.29

[12] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies, p.41

[13] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies, p.30-31 – Chaim Miller adds that the two goats, for the two different types of foods to be prepared, was about healing the duality of good and evil

[14] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p. 128

[16] Chaim Miller states: “According to tradition Nimrod got his hands on these garments and Esau killed him and got them for himself, so when Jacob is entering Isaacs chamber he is wearing the garments of the Garden of Eden”

[17] Stone, Reading the Hebrew Bible with Animal Studies, p.5

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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