Rebekah's Spiritual Crisis

Like Rebekah, we should turn toward God, not away, in our moments of spiritual crisis.

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Provided by KOLEL--The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada's Reform movement.


Toldot is the only parashah in the Torah that puts Isaac at the centre of the action. Yet it jumps right into the next generation. The portion begins with the birth of Isaac and Rebekah's twin sons Jacob and Esau. Like Sarah before her, Rebekah is deemed to be barren, but then miraculously gives birth later in life. It's a difficult pregnancy. She "inquires of the Eternal" and finds out that she's carrying twins.

The first child emerges all red and hairy, and is named Esau. The second boy comes out holding onto his brother's heel. He is named Jacob, from the Hebrew root meaning "heel." When they grow up, Esau becomes a hunter, "a man of the field." Jacob is described as a "mild man," who preferred to remain back in the camp. Isaac favoured Esau. Rebekah prefers Jacob.

This context of parental favouritism and sibling rivalry serves as the backdrop for the complex relations and tragic events that follow. Jacob takes advantage of a weakened Esau and gets him to sell his birthright for a bowl of lentils.

Later, famine forces the family to leave Canaan and travel to Gerar. Isaac and Rebekah repeat (third time--second with Abimelech) the wife/sister confusion of Abraham and Sarah, and then they must deal with some issues of water rights left over from Abraham. Now wealthy, they end up settling in Beer Sheva, where God appears to Isaac, and Abimelech, the King of Gerar, established a treaty with him. This section ends with the news that Esau, at the age of forty, married two Hittite women. They are described as being a "source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah."

The story continues some time later when Isaac is old and blind. Fearing the end of his days is near, he called his oldest son Esau to receive his final blessing. But first he asks Esau to hunt and prepare him some game. Rebekah overhears this request and, while Esau is out is the field, she prepares the food and dresses Jacob like his brother and sends him in to receive the special blessing in Esau's place. Esau comes in later, and it is then that he and his father Isaac realize they have been tricked. Isaac offers Esau a secondary blessing, but it is not enough. Having now been tricked out of both his birthright and his blessing, Esau declares his hatred for Jacob and his intention to kill him. Rebekah hears of the plot and arranges for Jacob to flee to Haran, to the home of her brother Laban.

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Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen

Jordan D. Cohen is the rabbi of Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously, he worked as Associate Director of KOLEL - The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Prior to his return to Canada, Rabbi Cohen served as Rabbi of the United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong, and Associate Rabbi of the North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.