With this week’s Torah portion (Toldot), we continue the story of our patriarchs and matriarchs. And some troubling events are described. The narrative doesn’t seem to have very nice things to say about them.
The Torah is not hesitant to present our greatest heroes warts and all. And the scriptural record rarely inserts its own verdict on the actions committed by its characters.
For example, Jacob is described as deceiving his father to gain the ancestral blessing, and takes advantage of his brother Esau’s weakness to gain the birthright.
But some of the Rabbinic midrashim suggest we are not getting the complete story. For example, what events took place the day Esau sold his birthright to Jacob? The Torah records, “once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished.’”
Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so what use is my birthright to me.” And, the narrative, continues, Esau eventually spurns the birthright.
The Rabbinic commentaries ask: since when did Jacob become a cook, preparing soup for the family? And they answer by suggesting a context not included in the Torah. Namely, Abraham passed away, the world is cast into deep mourning, Isaac and Rebecca are deeply shocked, and family and friends gather to pay final tribute to Abraham.
And everyone was there, but Esau. The midrash suggests that, while the funeral and “shiva” were going on, Esau was out hunting, unmindful and disinterested in all that had transpired that day. He worked up a voracious appetite, and now wants to eat.
The Rabbis suggest that Jacob, shocked and ashamed, resolves that Esau did not merit continuing the line of his grandfather, to get the birthright.
Are the Rabbis attempting to whitewash what Jacob had done? No–there is no question that Jacob will ultimately be punished with a litany of sorrows.
But the lesson is a simple one, reiterated in the Talmud by Joshua Ben Perachya:
Judge everyone with the scale weighted in his favor.
In other words, give people the benefit of the doubt. Things are not always as they appear to be. Before we condemn, let’s understand.
-Rabbi David Vorspan, Rabbi-in-Residence