Toldot - Destiny Rules

by Rabbi Alexis Roberts

In Parshat Toldot, we have a familiar story and a familiar question arises from it: Do we control our own lives, or is everything pre-ordained? The answer is…yes. Here we find people struggling and scheming to bring about what God has foretold. Are they helping or hindering by trying so hard ? Are they promised abundance and given life experiences full of doubt, drought, and jealousy just to test and develop their characters? Is the abundance the real gift, or the faith to trust in it despite appearances? The answer is…yes.

We begin with Rebecca, like Sarah before her, unable to conceive. Then God answers her husband’s prayer and she becomes pregnant with twins. In the Bible, God is always the source of fertility. Each child has a destiny distinct from the longings of a mother or a father.

Then the pregnancy is so difficult that Rebecca is driven to ask God what it means. She is told that the younger one, Jacob, will be head of a great people, and that the older one, Esau, will serve him. In Genesis, it is never the expected heir, the eldest son, who is God’s chosen. God’s choices are not confined to social custom, evidently.

There is the famous scene in Gen.25:27-33 where Esau comes in exhausted and starving from hunting, and Jacob won’t feed him unless Esau sells his birthright. Even though we know from the oracle that Jacob will prevail, he still feels the need to scheme to bring it about. Both brothers are full of resentment, and very far from knowing, at this point, what really matters.

Then there is a section about a famine and about Isaac quarreling with neighboring peoples over wells and land. If the oracle tells us why Rebecca prefers Jacob, perhaps this is a clue about why Jacob prefers Esau. If his neighbors are powerful opponents, he may think Esau, the strong courageous hunter is better able to take the lead.

Wells haunt Genesis; they are places of strife and of destiny, where shepherds fight and lovers discover each other and the most desperate thirst is slaked. In mystical commentaries, wells are symbols of the presence of God “welling up”. For Isaac to re-open Abraham’s wells may mean that God’s blessing of Abraham is flowing to Isaac, and will flow to Jacob, who will soon first see Rachel at a well.

And then comes the scene where Isaac thinks he’s dying (although he won’t actually die for many years) and asks Esau to bring him his favorite fresh game, after which Isaac will confer the firstborn’s blessing upon Esau. Rebecca overhears and quickly substitutes a somewhat reluctant Jacob so that old blind Isaac will confer the blessing on her favorite, and, she believes, God’s chosen.

Did she have to manipulate things for God’s will to manifest?

Doesn’t Isaac realize what is happening?

Couldn’t any father tell the difference between sons with his eyes closed?

But Isaac is portrayed as being genuinely confused and terribly saddened by the deception. Esau is furious enough to be thinking of killing Jacob, so Rebecca plots to have him sent away to her brother Laban. We know that is where Jacob will marry his wives, and start the family that becomes the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

The quarreling that began in the womb will define the relationship of these twin brothers, and influence events for generations, until it culminates in Joseph being sold to Egypt, and thereby providing a lifeline of escape from a famine that would have ended the Jewish people in four generations. If it began in the womb, did it come from God? If it came from God, does that make it a good thing? Is jealousy and hate among brothers ever a good thing?

The answer is…no. Some of the conditions we find when we come into this world seem like set-ups for failure or violence. Sometimes we have no idea what our destiny is supposed to be, especially when the things we dream of or depend on fall apart. Sometimes our mistakes turn out to be the best things that ever happened to us. But in Toldot, and other stories, we learn that none can avoid their destiny, nor are we ever free of struggle to become ourselves. Hope must sometimes be stretched very thin before redemption occurs. But we keep at it, trying to overcome our rivalries and jealousies with love and understanding, acting on what we believe as best we can. Then we may be blessed to find godliness welling up in our lives at exactly the right moment. Perhaps it is always there, just below the surface.