Parashat Toldot: Survival story is continuing saga

By Rabbi Lane Steinger

Picture the aged Patriarch, confined to his bed, eyes too dim to see. He summons his oldest child, his first born and favorite son. Isaac says to Esau, the hirsute outdoorsman, the manly hunter, “Make for me tasty dishes such as I love and bring them to me, and I will eat so that my soul will bless you before I die” (Genesis 27:4).

Ever independent, Rebekah, our Matriarch, Isaac’s wife, has other plans. Mindful of the divine word which came to her during her difficult pregnancy with the twins, the oracle that the elder will serve the younger, she conspires with Jacob, Esau’s younger, milder twin, for her preferred child to receive her husband’s blessing. Jacob, in Esau’s clothes, his arms and nape covered with skins, savory victuals in hand, poses as his older brother. The ruse works! With some misgivings, Isaac bestows his blessing, not upon his first born child – who already had bartered away his birthright for a pot of stew – but on the second son, Jacob, Rebekah’s favorite (and apparently God’s, too).

Ever so subtly and skillfully the Torah intertwines the tale of the b’khorah – the right and privilege of primogeniture – with the b’rakhah – the blessing. As so often is the case in Scripture, the special status of the first born male is overridden in favor of another choice. The inheritor, the one who will carry on is not the one expected to do so. Isaac continues the line, not his older, half-brother Ishmael. Jacob, not Esau becomes Israel. Joseph saves the family, not Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn. The descendants of fourth-born Judah ascend over all the other tribes through Peretz, not Zerach (see Genesis 38:27-30 and Ruth 4:18-22). David succeeds Saul. Solomon, not Adoniyah reigns following their father David’s death. The returnees from the Exile in Babylon supersede the Israelites who never left the land.

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Machiavellian plots and political ploys? Blind luck? Strange twists of fate? Divine intervention? Perhaps. But this much we know for sure: the People of Israel have persevered and those who conquered us (or sought to do so) – the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and even the Nazis -where are they now?

Without doubt, many factors have contributed to Jewish survival. Not least among them has been our will to endure. Is this not a miracle?

Nowadays we are told that the persistence of the Jews once more is in question, that in the face of a negative birth rate, rising anti-Semitism, and Jewish apathy, our survival is far from assured. In the past, against all odds and in spite of all expectations to the contrary, we Jews (or at least a saving remnant of our people) chose to persevere. We can do it again. As Herzl put it, “Im tirtzu eyn zo agadah/If you will it, it’s no fairy tale.”

Perhaps once again those of us who believe Judaism and the Jewish people should exist need the unexpected. Perhaps going forward the miracle we now require is that we – you and I -need a renewal of our will.

Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.