Parashat Toledot – Learning from God’s bad example

It seems fitting that the origins of the Jewish people should be founded on societal rule-breaking.  This week’s parashah presents us with fine example.

Finding herself dealing with an unusually difficult pregnancy, Rivka, consults an oracle, which, in the way of oracles, is ambiguous:

Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall diverge from your belly. One nation will struggle against the other; and the elder shall serve the younger.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה׳ לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י גוֹיִם֙ בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַֽעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר:

We usually translate this as I have done here: “the elder will serve the younger.” However, it could also be interpreted the other way around: “the elder, the younger will serve.”

And indeed, it would have been far more natural for Rivka to interpret it in the second way. After all, the firstborn was the natural heir to the family wealth, history, and traditions. He was also the “family priest,” who offered sacrifice on behalf of his family. This status will later be enshrined in the Torah:

He [the father] must acknowledge the firstborn . . . and give him a double share in all that he possesses, for he [the firstborn son] is the first fruits of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his. (Deuteronomy 21:17.)

Divine rule-breaking

And yet, there are hints throughout B’reishit that the inheritance of the firstborn has exceptions. We first get an inkling of this when Abel’s sacrifice is accepted, while Cain’s is not, even though Abel is the younger of the two. This seems to be a subtle hint that Abel is more worthy to “inherit” the family’s contract with God than his older brother. This example of divine rule-breaking may have been the proximate cause for the first fratricide.

This tendency to buck tradition is even more blatant in God’s command to Avraham that Yitzhak be his heir, against Avraham’s will. Upon his being told that Sarah would bear a son for him, Avraham is incredulous. He laughs at the very notion, and argues on behalf of the son he already has, rather than risk it all on one yet unborn: “If only Yishmael will live before You (ie. assume the right of the firstborn).” Left to his own devices, Avraham would have been content to respect the societal norms; Yishmael would inherit both the family wealth and the family mission.

One could argue that this break with “the way things are done” is yet another divine test of the patriarch’s willingness to go against the grain of his time. But the very fact that God explicitly commands a break with tradition reinforces the tradition. After all, there’s no need for a command to do what one is expected to do anyway.

Ambiguity and free will

In the case of Yaakov and Esau, there is no divine command. The very ambiguity of the oracle left the choice up to Rivka; she could interpret it either way. Perhaps she observed something as the boys grew up that told her which way to read the oracle. Or perhaps she took her cue from the story of Yitzhak and Yishmael. Whatever the reason, she concluded that Yaakov was the chosen one, against all tradition and custom.

Evidently, Rivka did not reveal her thinking to Yitzhak. Is this because he was already so obviously besotted with the elder son, so unlike himself? Or is it simply that the tradition was so unshakeable—so set in stone—that any mention of changing the order would have been rejected out of hand?

In any case, the direction of development is clear, while Avraham was commanded to choose the younger over the elder—despite social conventions—Rivka makes the choice on her own, based only on a divine hint (not command). This trend will continue in the next generation; in the case of Yaakov’s choice of Yoseph, and of Yoseph’s own younger son, even the divine hint is absent; it is purely a human choice.

When halakhah and aggadah clash

While the Torah explicitly cautions against putting the younger before the elder in terms of inheritance, time and time again, the aggadic portions of the Torah provide a lesson to the contrary: Yitzhak before Yishmael, Yaakov before Esau, Rahel before Leah, Yoseph before all his elder brothers, and Ephraim before Menashe.1

What is the meaning of this odd discord between law and example? What is the Torah trying to tell us?

Perhaps one lesson is this: Yes, there are rules for how we are to do things. Yes, our interactions are meant to fit a certain framework, and in the absence of pressing need, that framework is not to be lightly set aside. But sometimes a situation arises that simply doesn’t fit the framework. The eldest son is not the most suited to inherit. The most promising child is the younger. Or is female. In that case, the aggadot give us a hint: Do as I do, not as I say! You have My permission to go out of bounds, so long as you acknowledge the line as you step across it. So long as you understand that this is an exception and not the rule.

The limits of exceptional cases

Exceptions may be made for the sake of the outliers, or in exceptional times. But such exceptions must not be seen as paradigmatic. It is the more mainstream behaviors which reinforce a particular life-affirming and life-generating culture. This is clear in the Torah’s prohibition of setting the younger before the elder; clearly, favoritism is not conducive to peace, and would be disruptive of society if it were to become the norm. Thus, any exception to the rule of firstborn inheritance—or any other society norm—must be done quietly, and with full acknowledgment that a line has been crossed. It is not to be considered a precedent or something to be emulated.

While the exceptions may require sui generis solutions, it is the norm that must inform our future behavior. Using the language of evolution: there are mutations that set the pattern for the future (i.e., those which have viable offspring), but the vast majority either have no long-term impact or are actually detrimental to the survival of the species.2

In the end, while the exceptions may pave the way for change, it is our normative behavior that determines what we will become.


  1. This tendency to contrast rules and norms against narrative examples continues in the Talmud. There, meta-halakhic principles are not formally incorporated into law; rather, they serve as the implicit background to halakhic discourse. They find their expression in midrash aggadah, the associative vehicle for bringing forth deeper truths from the subconscious of the listener.
  2. The need to reinforce societal stability is clear in the law of mamzerut as well.  This law is there for a reason—it is a natural outgrowth of the notion that paternity matters, that family stability is at the base of societal stability. And yet, what if something happens that does not violate the rule in spirit, but does violate it in practice? What do we do with the exceptions? Here again, perhaps the aggadata can guide us to a solution.
About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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