This week, in Parasha Toldos, through the experiences of our ancestors Isaac and his wife, Rebecca, and their son Jacob, we learn a difficult lesson about dealing with people.
We see several events the Patriarchs and Matriarchs have experienced before.
- Rebecca is unable to bear a child, like Sarah before her. Isaac prayed for children, and God blessed Rebecca with twin boys, Esau, the first-born, and Jacob.
- There is again a famine in Canaan. God tells Isaac not to go to Egypt, so he approaches the king of the Philistines, Abimelech.
- Because Rebecca is very beautiful and Isaac fears a powerful man will kill him to marry Rebecca, Isaac tells Abimelech she is his sister, not his wife. Abimelech saw this explanation before with Abraham and Sarah. He learns Rebecca is Isaac’s wife, and becomes upset because he actually wanted Rebecca for his own.
- Isaac’s flocks grow very large, and his shepherds argue with the Canaanite shepherds over water, just as when Abraham lived there. Isaac and Abimelech ultimately make peace over the ownership of the wells, because Isaac gives up his claims to certain wells and digs a new well.
From these experiences, Isaac and Rebecca learned selfish people like Abimelech act true to their characters, and act selfishly all the time.
This lesson in the nature of selfish people is helpful in understanding the other big story in this parasha.
The twin boys are very different. Esau is a wild man. Jacob is a student of Torah.
Esau comes in from hunting one day and is very hungry. Jacob has just finished cooking a bowl of lentil stew. Esau tells Jacob to give him some of the stew, and Jacob says he will do so only if Esau sells him Esau’s birthright. While this seems selfish of Jacob, his motive is honorable. The birthright is not about money, land or flocks – it is the right to lead the family’s religious practices. Jacob knows that, if Esau will give this important position up for a bowl of lentils, Esau is not a good choice to have the birthright because he will not honor his responsibility to lead the family in worshipping God. Esau agrees to the bargain, and gets the lentils.
When Isaac is very old, he asks Esau to prepare him a delicious meal of wild game, and he will bless Esau before he dies. Rebecca overhears this request. She knows that Esau is not the right person to lead the family, so she carries out a plan to make sure Isaac blesses Jacob. She prepares a wonderful meal for Isaac, and tells Jacob to put on Esau’s clothes and some wool skins on his arms and neck, to pretend to be Esau. The disguised Jacob takes the dinner to Isaac who gives his blessing of prosperity to Jacob, including that “you will be a lord to your kinsmen, and your mother’s sons will prostrate themselves to you”. (Genesis 27: 29) When Esau learns his younger brother has gotten the best blessing, he cries, and Isaac gives him a lesser blessing.
Fortunately for Jacob and the Jewish people, Rebecca was very wise and had been blessed with great insight. Not everyone can correctly anticipate other people’s actions.
However, most people do react to us based on our actions. If I act selfishly, other people will believe I will always be selfish. If I am thoughtful of others when I act, other people expect I will treat them respectfully and fairly.