Although it is a basic tenant of traditional Judaism that there are no words wasted in the Torah, many of us can recognize certain passages that we glance over because they seem simple or too familiar. One such is the narrative of Isaac and Rebecca travelling to Gerar – perhaps because it is the third iteration of “my wife is my sister” – and the detailing of the activity around wells being dug by Isaac’s servants. It is all the more easily passed over as it is sandwiched between the exciting narratives of the sale of the birthright from Esau to Jacob and the drama of Isaac’s blessings to his sons.
But the events are not without significance, and, like all of the Torah, this section has an impact even unto our generation. After their full identity as a family was discovered, “Avimelech commanded all the people saying: ‘He that touches this man or his wife shall surely be put to death’” (26:11). Then Isaac settles and grows wealthy, which seems to cause a chain reaction: “The Philistines became jealous of him. And all the wells which the servants of his father had dug in the days of Avraham his father, the Philistines had closed them up and filled them with earth. Avimelech then said to Isaac: ‘Go away, for you have become much greater than us’” (26: 14-16). Isaac accepted Avimelech’s request, left the city and continued to be harassed. He dug a well and the Philistine herdsman – not the men of the city who had seen him grow wealthy – claimed it as their own. This happened twice, and then “he moved away from there and dug another well, and over that they did not quarrel” (26:22).
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, writing with his 19th century perspective, commented thus on the Philistine hostility: …How the envy and jealousy of the nations who find the Jews well-to-do….send them out of their countries – may form not the least of God’s method for our salvation. Who can tell how easily Isaac, in the hustle and bustle of managing his great wealth, and in the prominent civic position he won through it, might not have given himself up to it more than would be seemly for the son of Abraham and the nearer of his spiritual heritage, had not the jealousy of the Philistines driven him again into isolation…
The message Rabbi Hirsch was communicating is clear. It’s one we have seen replayed over and over throughout our generations. A nation invites us in or welcomes Jewish settlement, but when we get too comfortable or wealthy…then we are not only expelled, but all that we have done that has benefited that nation is forgotten or credited to others.
It would be lovely if this was a new thought, but it was hard to look at this week’s parsha and not think about anti-Semitism and the uncertain times we are facing right now where every other Jewish social media article is about the anti-Semitism on both sides of the political spectrum. And yet, the fate of our people to be subjected to the trauma of national rivalry is not only in the parsha in Isaac’s dealings with Gerar, but both at the beginning and end of the parsha as well.
Parshas Toldos opens with Rebecca conceiving twins who struggle so fiercely in utero that she seeks Divine guidance on her troubles. The response she receives is that: “Two nations are in your womb. Two separate people shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (25:23). This is the first prophecy of the national rivalry to come.
At the end of the parsha, Isaac gives his sons the following blessings:
To Jacob: “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesses you” (27:19).
To Esau: “And by your sword shall you live, and you shall serve your brother; and it shall come to pass when you shall break loose, that you shall shake his yoke from off your neck” (27:40).
Once again, national rivalry is predicted.
In a recent online conversation in a more political group, a poll was taken asking what members believed was responsible for the recent increase in anti-Semitism. The answers were all political – ranging on both sides of the spectrum. Perhaps the answer is far less simple. Anti-Semitism is so nonsensical, so hypocritical, and so ceaselessly pervasive that it can only chalk it up to Divine plan … Trying to intellectually dissect anti-Semitism leads to madness.
Our great ancestors did not know that they were setting a pathway for history – if they had they could not have functioned as human beings. But we have the tools to look back and see how the world has been structured. When the people of Gerar and the herdsmen of Gerar acted from envy and jealousy, Esau and Jacob were not small children. They were with their parents. They were witness to the actions of the world, and who knows what lessons Esau learned from their actions about how to win, how to acquire, and how to drive an enemy away. These are the tools his descendants use to bring themselves to ascendance. While we are dealing with the rage of Ishmael (a subject for another time), we are seeing Esau struggling to remind us what happens when we do not live up to our precious birthright blessing.