Everett Fox

Fox Tales: Parashat Toledot–Stage Drama

To my mind, the central story of this reading, recounting Yaakov’s stealing of the blessing meant for his brother (Gen. 27), is the most stage-worthy piece in the Bible. By this I mean that unlike Hollywood versions of the Bible, with their casts of thousands and their special effects, this story exists very much in a world that is humanly recognizable and relatable, as an intimate family drama. And the chapter contains by itself all the elements needed for effective transition to the theatre. These include:

  1. A situation of high tension. The whole story turns on whether Yitzhak will find out what’s really happening, which could occur at almost any moment. As Yaakov is felt by his blind father, he risks being turned out of the household, and we are on tenterhooks along with him. And the text describes another unbearably close call: “Now it was, when Yaakov had gone out, just gone out from Yitzhak his father, / his brother came back from his hunting.” The unusual phraseology here emphasizes how the two brothers have missed each other by milliseconds. And adding to the tension is the reality that once the blessing has been given, it cannot be taken back. What will Yitzhak and Esav do now?
  2. The use of repetition in action and speech. Four times, the father questions who’s there to receive the blessing–“Which one are you, my son?” (v. 18); “Pray come closer, that I may feel you, my son, / whether you are really my son Esav or not” (v.21); “Are you he, my son Esav?” (v. 24); and “Which one are you?” (v. 32). There is a double reaction when the ruse is discovered: Yaakov trembles with a “very great” trembling (v. 33), and Esav emits a “very great and bitter” cry (v. 34) at having been duped. And twice, the psychologically wounded Esav wails to Yitzhak, “Bless me, me too, Father!” (vv. 34 and 38). The purpose of these repetitions is to heighten the emotional impact of such moments, which should be felt by an attentive audience.
  3. Emotions in plain sight. Nothing is left unsaid in this story. In addition to the moments that demonstrate repetition, the characters readily reveal their fears by their words, such as when Yaakov reacts to his mother’s scheme by saying, “But my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man; / perhaps my father will feel me–then I will be like a trickster in his eyes, / and I will bring a curse and not a blessing on myself!” (v. 12).
  4. A split setting. The action takes place in at least two connected locales. When Rivka overhears the initial conversation between Yitzhak and Esav, and then when she unfolds her scheme to Yaakov, there clearly must be an alcove or some other kind of adjacent location.
  5. The use of the five senses. Unusual in one story, let alone a single chapter, all five senses make their appearance here. Yitzhak has lost the use of his sight. He clearly hears, and recognizes, Yaakov’s voice, but his sense of touch misleads him into thinking that it’s Esav. He is ruled by his love for wild game, the taste of which makes him partial to the hunter Esav. And he mistakes the smell of the animal skins on Yaakov’s arms for the earthy odor of Esav, the “man of the field” (25:27). All these perceptions are integrated into a whole, providing the audience with a rich sensory experience.

It is no accident that this scene is portrayed so vividly. It’s at the heart of the Yaakov stories, involving four key family members, and thus is emblematic of the kinds of family conflict which are so central to Genesis. And it sets in motion events which will not be resolved until the very end of the book, with the aged Yaakov and all his sons at last reunited and forgiven for their transgressions toward each other.

With the drama laid out so visually and viscerally, the reader or audience can proceed to the big questions raised in this chapter: Do Rivka and Yaakov act morally? Does Esav deserve to have his blessing pilfered? What does the blind father really know? And where is God, or a divine plan, in all of this? As with all successful theatre experiences, we are left to figure it all out for ourselves.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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