Overcoming Destiny

Jacob and Rebekah teach us that we can alter our destinies and achieve greatness.

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Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

The Torah portion of Toldot, which begins,"And these are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham,"(Genesis 25:19) explores the meaning of human experience as the Biblical story passes from one generation to the next. This reading tells the story of the birth of Jacob and Esau, their struggle for dominance over each other, and the ultimate selection of Jacob as the Patriarch through whom Jewish destiny will be transmitted. It also offers two distinct theories of history, indicating different approaches on how humans should conduct themselves in the face of momentous choices.

Defining Fate

The first theory of history is that human destiny is controlled by iron fate. We are born with a certain character, follow its dictates throughout our lives, and die without fundamentally changing our nature or, by extension, our effect on others. In this approach, our life course is set from the moment we enter this world.

The Torah conveys this view of history in its descriptions and explanations of names. The names that people are given at birth determine their character for their entire lives.

At the beginning of Toldot, we are told, "The first one emerged [from the womb] red, like a hairy mantle all over, so they named him Esau" (meaning "hairy" or "rough") (Genesis 25:25). Indeed, as long as he lives, Esau will reaffirm this birth experience by acting wildly, roughly, ruled by passion and emotion.

His brother arrives hanging on to Esau’s heel (25:26), and so receives the name Jacob, derived from the Hebrew for "heel." This name signals that Jacob's whole life (and, according to Rabbinic interpretation, the lives of his descendants) will be consumed by a struggle for dominance over his brother.

Moreover, the name Jacob has another meaning, as Esau makes clear after his younger brother preceded him to Isaac and received his blessing. "That is why they called him Jacob," Esau says in 27:36, meaning "sneak" (Everett Fox's translation), charging that his brother has stolen both his birthright and his blessing. Esau is asserting here that Jacob must act like a sneak since that is the Hebrew root of his very name. In other words, Jacob's actions mirror his personality that was destined since his naming at birth. In fact, later on in Genesis, the narrative will again highlight these qualities in Jacob’s confrontation with Laban.

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Gary Rubin was the former Managing Director of UJA-Federation's Commission on the Jewish People. He died suddenly in April 2003.