Parashat Toldot: Antagonists and Protagonists, Fathers and Sons

hero image
09 Nov 2007

Parshat Chayei Sarah and Toldot 5768

Dear Friends: The following is an abridged version of the original which was deemed “too inflammatory.” You can receive the original on request by notifying

Part one: Antagonists, Protagonists

With the birth of Esav, history enters a stage which will radically change the world. Our tradition states that at some point descendants of Esav turned northward to settle in the continent of Europe – from Russia in the east to Portugal in the west; from Lapland in the north to the unholy kingdom of Rome in the south.

The gemara in Pesachim (118,b) describes an episode which will transpire at the time of the Mashiach:

“עתידה מצרים שתביא דורון למשיח כסבור אינו מקבל מהם אמר לו הקב”ה למשיח קבל מהם אכסניא עשו לבניי במצרים… נשאה כוש ק”ו בעצמה ומה הללו שנשתעבדו בהן כך אני שלא נשתעבדתי בהן לא כ”ש אמר לו הקב”ה קבל מהם… נשאה מלכות רומי הרשעה ק”ו בעצמה ומה הללו שאין אחיהן כך אנו שאנו אחיהן לא כ”ש אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא לגבריאל… דכתיב יכרסמנה חזיר מיער”

In the future, the Egyptians will want to bring a gift to the Mashiach but will hesitate to do so for fear that he will not accept it. Then Hashem will direct the Mashiach to receive the gift in view of the fact that the Jewish people did live there for several years in comfort. The nation of Cush (some say Ethiopia and others say Kashmir) will conclude that if the Mashiach received a gift from the Egyptians, despite the many years that they subjugated the Jews, he will certainly accept our gift since we never treated the Jews as slaves. Then the evil nation of Rome (a general epithet given to the descendants of Esav who settled in Europe) will conclude that if the Mashiach received the gifts of those people who are blood-related to the Jews, he will certainly receive our gift for we are descendants of Esav, brother of Yaakov.

Hashem will then command the angel Gavriel to prevent the acceptance of the gift from Rome (including all the descendants of Esav in Europe) and quotes the pasuk (Tehilim 80:14)

יכרסמנה חזיר מיער

as a pig which gnaws in the forest.

What makes the descendants of Esav, the peoples of Europe, so abominable to Hashem?

For this we have to turn to the three major episodes in parshat Chayei Sarah: The purchase by Avraham of Ma’arat HaMachpela as a burial cave for his wife Sarah, the dispatching of Eliezer to Avraham’s family to bring a wife for Yitzchak and the demise of Avraham.

Each episode is problematic itself and collectively they appear to be unconnected.

1- Efron’s extortion of Avraham, at the time when Avraham needs immediately to bury his beloved Sarah, has no place in the holy Torah.

2- How does Avraham entrust the future of Am Yisrael to the gentile slave Eliezer? One would expect that the delicate task of finding Yitzhak a wife, who will serve as the second matriarch of our nation, would have been performed by Avraham himself.

3- In the pasuk (Bereishit 25, 9)

ויקברו אתו יצחק וישמעאל בניו אל מערת המכפלה

And his sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael, buried (Avraham) in the cave of Machpela

The name of the younger brother Yitzchak precedes the name of the older brother Yishmael, from which our rabbis taught that the Torah is informing us that Yishmael repented. However, we know that Yishmael remained a faithful adherent of idolatry to the end of his life and even accepted Esav as a son-in-law. This is not exactly what we mean by “doing teshuva!”

I suggest the following:

The three episodes in parashat Chayei Sarah are connected by a common theme – antagonist turned protagonist.

1- In the episode of Avraham’s purchase of Ma’arat Ha’Machpela, the elders of Chevron (Hittites who emerged from what is today Turkey) regarded themselves as the legitimate proprietors of the land of Canaan. Yet when Avraham appears before them, they designate him with the appellation

נשיא א-להים אתה בתוכנו

You are the chosen one of the Lord in our midst

implying that Avraham need not pay for the land, since it is his God-given birthright for all time. Antagonist turned protagonist.

2- Eliezer is despatched to choose a wife for Yitzchak, even though Eliezer claims that his own daughter is the worthiest for that role. Is Eliezer not the faithful student and servant of Avraham? Was it not he who accompanied Avraham in the military campaign against the four mighty kings of the north? Did Avraham not say to Hashem before the birth of Yitzchak that Eliezer is the natural heir to all that belongs to Avraham? Is it not now beyond all doubt that the most suitable wife for Yitzchak is Eliezer’s daughter?

Eliezer, possessing an apparently legitimate claim that his daughter be the next matriarch of the Jewish nation, is the potential antagonist to the intrusion of any other woman into the spiritual hierarchy of Avraham’s family. He is the one who must choose the wife of Yitzchak, and thereby relinquish any and all claim to become part of the Jewish nation.

Eliezer sees the hand of God in the elegant, errorless, fastidious, flawless, impeccable, incomparable, irreproachable choice of Rivka as opposed to his own daughter of whose inadequate qualities he is well aware. Eliezer returns with God’s choice of the second matriarch of the Jewish nation. Antagonist turned protagonist.

3- The matter of teshuva (repentance) is subjective, depending on the spiritual state of every human being. Yishmael, as the rabbis have taught, did indeed repent in the manner which corresponded to his major iniquity – his rejection of the spiritual supremacy of Yitzchak.

At their father’s burial, Yishmael finally realizes that Yitzchak was chosen by Hashem and exhibits this recognition by granting Yitzchak the paramount role as depicted in the pasuk. Antagonist turned protagonist.

In the parsha, three adversaries of God’s chosen people relinquish their adversarial relationship and accept the inevitable, as decreed by God. In contradiction to their newly acquired recognition, no where in the Torah do we find a parallel awareness on the part of Esav or his descendants. Esav was and continues – through Christianity – to be the pre-eminent antagonist of the Jewish nation to this very day.

In the above-mentioned quote from the gemara in Pesachim, a verse is recorded comparing Esav to a “pig in the forest.” Rashi (Bereishit 26:34) quotes a midrash which explains that Esav (and his European descendants) are likened to a pig. When laying down, a pig extends its split hoofs in order to attest to being kosher, when in reality it is entirely treif.

This is to teach us that the distinguishing trait of Esav and all his descendants is hypocrisy. God and the Jewish nation can deal with people who regret their evil pasts but not with the hypocrite, because one never knows his true thoughts.

Part two: My father, My Son

In verse 34, Esav returns from the hunt to bring his father meat for the mitzva of korban Pesach (as stated in ‘Pirkei de’Rabbi Eliezer’). When he learns that his father’s major bracha was already given to Yaakov, Esav goes into a bitter, screaming tantrum in the face of his loss; and in the ensuing dialogue between Yitzchak and Esav , Esav repeatedly calls out the words, “my father”.

In verse 34, “when Esav heard what his father said, he let out a great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me too, my father”.

In verse 38, “and Esav said to his father, Have you only one blessing my father? Bless me too my father”.

The combined repetition of “my father,” as quoted from Esav , and “his father,” as said by the “narrator,” number seven times. This is highly significant.

The repetition of “my father” and “his father” brings to mind a similar scene in the Tanach, but with one very significant difference.

The book of Shmuel 2, chapter 19, relates that when King David is informed of the death of his rebellious son, Avshalom, the love of David the father, to the great chagrin of his general Yoav, overcomes the stoic response called for from a leader at such a desperate moment in the kingdom’s history.

In verse 1, David paces on the walls of the city, crying, “My son Avshalom, my son, my son Avshalom, would that my life had been lost instead of yours, Avshalom my son, my son.” And in verse 5, David continues, “…my son Avshalom, Avshalom my son”.

David repeats “my son,” just as the words “my father” of Esav and the narrator’s “his father” are repeated, but with one huge difference. David repeats “my son” eight times, whereas “my father” and “his father are repeated only seven times.

What does all this mean?

In the sefer “Pirkei de’Rabbi Eliezer”, we are told that when Avshalom’s beautiful hair became entangled in the branches of a tree, and he drew out his sword to cut his hair, Avshalom saw the gates of Gehennom opened beneath him. The Gemara in Sotah, 9b, explains why King David repeats “my son” eight times. There are seven levels of Gehennom, one more terrifying than the next. Each time David cried out, “my son”, he extradited Avshalom from a lower level to a higher one. After the seventh time, Avshalom is released from Gehennom; and with the eighth mention of “my son”, David brings Avshalom into Gan Eden.

In our parsha, verse 33, on the words, “And there came over Yitzchak a great fear,” Rashi tells us that at that moment of Esav’s entrance into the tent, Yitzchak saw that under Esav were the open gates of Gehennom. When Esav sees this, he begins pleading seven times to his father, Yitzchak the tzaddik, to extricate him from the seven levels of Gehennom.

Esav and Avshalom – Gehennom opens under them, and their fathers plead to God to release their sons from the endless pit of sinners. Yitzchak succeeds but is limited to seven repetitions. David reaches the eighth level and brings Avshalom into Gan Eden; Yitzchak cannot bring Esav into Gan Eden.

Esav is devastated. He too wants to share in the eternal rewards of Gan Eden.

However, Yitzchak knows that Esav can never reach Gan Eden through mitzvot, so he blesses him in a manner appropriate to Esav’s character. In this way, perhaps he will merit some part of eternity – “Al Charbecha tich’ye” – You shall live by your sword and be subservient to your brother (Yaakov); and when he (Yaakov) does not keep the Torah, you shall become free.

At that moment, Yitzchak appoints Esav as the “watchdog” over Am Yisrael, ready, at any moment, to pounce upon Yaakov and his descendants if we do not keep the Torah. This function, if performed properly, can bring merit to Esav, if indeed fear of Esav’s wrath is performed for the purpose of forcing the children of Yaakov to cling to the Torah.

However, we sinned, and Esav, in the form of Rome, destroyed the Bet HaMikdash and murdered countless numbers of our ancestors. He continued, in his wrath, through the teachings of Christianity (brought so tellingly in a soon-to-be-seen motion picture), when they burned our books, our homes, our bodies. In his rampages in Spain, the Crusades, and countless pogroms, his irrational hatred of Yaakov’s descendants emerged, until this very day, when the Esavs of Europe sit and plan the destruction of the State of Israel. The watchdog has become a terrifying, rabid beast, which, instead of using his bark, pounces upon his helpless victims with an insatiable lust to kill.

Esav’s assignment was to restrain the conduct of his brother Yaakov to keep the Torah; but Esav, being who he was, manifest in the nature of his descendants, took advantage of his “license” and sought to annihilate the Jewish nation.

Esav will never succeed in annihilating us but will succeed in his own destruction, as the Prophet Ovadia says in chap 1:21, which we recite every day at the end of pesukei de’zimra: “And saviors will arise on Mount Zion to judge Mount Esav, and G-d shall reign forever“.

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.