Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 22 November 2014 / 29 Heshvan 5775

Parshat Toldot

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The beginning of this Parsha describes Rivka’s pregnancy after a long period of infertility. The Torah relates:

“The children agitated within her, and she said, ‘if so, why am I thus?’. And she went to inquire of G-d. And G-d said to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb; two regimes from your insides will be separated; the might will pass from one regime to the other, and the elder will serve the younger.’ When she reached full term, behold, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, entirely like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esav. After that his brother emerged with his hand grasping on to the heel of Esav; so he called his name Yaakov.”

Abarbanel explains that contained in this brief narrative is both an insight into the essence of the characters of Yaakov and his brother Esav as well as a prophetic analysis of Jewish history.

According to Abrabanel her inquiry is directed to Avraham, whose enigmatic response hints at four different aspects of the thousands of years of Jewish history to follow:

  1. She is told that she is carrying twins; two separate nations will develop from them, one representing one extreme and the other its opposite. For this reason they struggled and agitated inside her; they could not coexist in one place.
  2. “Two nations” is a reference to the qualitative difference between the two. “Two regimes” is a reference to the fact that they will produce two populous nations when they leave the womb.
  3. These two diametrically opposite and populous nations will be in state of permanent contention. Sometimes one will prevail and sometimes the other.
  4. Unlike the normal situation, here the younger one will dominate the older one. As a result, the older one (Esav) will try to reverse this through natural geopolitical devices, while Yaakov will try to maintain his dominance by invoking the assistance of Divine Providence. Esav’s dominance will be physical while Yaakov’s will be through the power of spirituality and intellect. The success of each depends on the failure of the other.

The periods of Yaakov’s subservience will not be the result of Esav’s strength but rather as a punishment for the nation’s transgressions. “When it was that Israel ruled with G-d and was faithful to the Holy One” (Hoshea 12:1) then the older served the younger. When Israel becomes mired in transgressions, “…the earth trembles because of a slave who reigns” (Mishlei 30:21-22). The ‘slave’ is a reference to Esav.

Esav’s redness was an indication of his bloody, violent nature; his hairiness was an indication that his cruelty and other negative characteristics were fully developed and would control his decisions and behavior. Yaakov’s physical nature, on the other hand, was entirely subservient to his elevated spiritual level and did not require any specific mention.

Finally Yaakov’s grasping Esav’s heel hints to several different ideas:

  1. The fate of the two nations would always be intertwined. This relationship began in the womb.
  2. Yaakov grasped onto the ideas and behaviors that Esav trampled under his heel, i.e. moral, ethical and spiritual matters. He attached importance only to the material world. The letter ‘yud’, which stands for G-d, is added to the word for heel to form the name Yaakov. This is an indication that G-d was always with him.
  3. There would be times when Yaakov and his progeny would be under Esav’s heel, i.e. subservient to him. This is especially true in the long years of the exile of the Jewish People.
  4. This is an indication that in the end Yaakov will grasp dominance without any more interruptions. It will come after the dominance of Esav; it will be the end of his reign, just as the heel is at the end of the body. The dominance of Esav will not end until Yaakov rises up and takes it away from him in the Messianic era.

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