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In this week’s parashah, Toldot, Jacob, our wily ancestor, swindles his brother Esau out of both his birthright and his blessing. Jacob (later known as Israel), perhaps even more than Abraham or Isaac, is the father of the Jewish people–we are, after all, called the children of Israel. Yet this swindle hardly seems an auspicious beginning for the Jewish people–it is an incident perhaps better left unmentioned than proudly displayed in the family album. There is, however, a radical message here, a message essential to what it means to be a Jew. For what exactly is Jacob’s crime?
Jacob lives in a society that arbitrarily assigns material and spiritual priority to the firstborn son. In the case of Esau, this is a son who was born with his brother Jacob hanging by his heel. What Jacob, like those after and before him, demonstrates is that the established order and the assumed hierarchies are neither inviolable nor necessary.
Indeed, the privilege of the first born is a widespread assumption in the Bible. Yet this privilege is repeatedly subverted. It is Isaac, the second-born, not Ishmael the first, who receives his father’s inheritance. It is Judah and Joseph, rather than the first-born Reuben or second-born Simeon, who take over the mantle of leadership when Jacob ages. When Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons on his deathbed, he purposefully puts his right hand on Ephraim, the younger, indicating his preeminence, despite Joseph’s objections.
The leaders of the Jewish people also arise from unlikely corners. Moses, the greatest prophet, God’s mouthpiece, has a speech impediment. Saul, the first King of Israel, is, by his own admission, “from the smallest of the tribes of Israel, and my clan is the least of all the clans of the tribe…” (Samuel I, 9:21). And David, a boy untrained in military combat, defeats the Philistine champion Goliath.
A Challenge to the Inevitability of History
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