2018-11-07 / Religion Column

Truth is impossible without direct relationships with others

Assistant rabbi - Temple Emanuel

Parashat Toledot
Gen. 25:19-28:9

Parasha Toledot, with its painful account of the strife that characterizes Jacob and Esau’s childhood, calls to mind the film classic “Rashomon.” “Rashomon” is a film by the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa that tells the same story from the perspective of four different protagonists. All four storytellers were firsthand witnesses to a crime in which they were personally involved, leading to four wildly varying accounts of the same events. The film was an instant classic for the way that it captured something essential about human experience. “Rashomon” reminds us of how difficult it is to access an “objective truth” about events. So it is with parasha Toledot. The Torah provides us with one account, but depending on your sympathies, the portion tells widely varying stories.

A simplistic retelling of Toledot might go something like this. Isaac’s wife Rebecca is pregnant with twins who struggle greatly inutero. God tells her that she has two nations growing within her. “The older will serve the younger.” Esau is born first, ruddy and hairy. Esau grows into a skilled hunter, an outdoorsman. Jacob remains indoors; he “keeps to the tents.” One day Esau returns from the hunt so famished that he foolishly and impulsively sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Years later, when Isaac is dying and blind, Jacob makes good on the sale of the birthright. He dresses up as his brother and hoodwinks Isaac into giving him the birthright blessing.

The rabbis saw Esau as an evil figure, the father of some of the Jewish people’s greatest enemies. There is thus a strong tradition of the straightforward reading I have offered above, which vilifies Esau.

A close reading of the narratives reveals a much more complex reality.

Starting from God’s message to Rebecca, “the older will serve the younger,” everything is up for debate. The Hebrew is vague, so that the words could mean the opposite. Even without this ambiguity, perhaps what we have is Rebecca’s interpretation of God’s message. Rebecca repeatedly tips the scales in Jacob’s favor. She might say that this is fulfilling God’s will. We might say that she is simply playing favorites. We may say that Jacob is justified in his trickery to receive a birthright he has legitimately purchased. Yes we may ask if Esau ever truly believed that in the moment of desperation he was truly selling his birthright. We might also ask if Isaac is truly tricked or if he knows exactly whom he is blessing, as he knows that Jacob is the one destined to be the true father of the People of Israel.

What do we gain from all of these interpretive options? First, we gain an appreciation for the complexity of the Torah narrative. In the multiplicity of readings we can more readily see stories that mirror our own lives. Second, and more importantly, we see the slippery nature of narratives, writ large. We are increasingly living under the burden of fragmented reality. Our ideologies guide us to interpret facts, or even pick and choose facts in order to construct narratives that reinforce our beliefs.

Rashomon, Toledot, these are cautionary tales, warning us against building hatred based on the stories we are told, when those stories are told from only one perspective. When stories without nuance fuel resentments, stories without actual relationships with the “other,” those stories become the sources of hatred, violence, terrorism, genocide. Stories alone have great power to inspire for good, but the only way to break through the fog of “Rashomon” is through true human relation, encountering the other firsthand. s

Return to top