Weekly Parsha

Toledot: From Isaac to Esau

Exploring multiple possibilities of relationships.
Rabbi Avital Hochstein is a faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute and has learned, taught, and done research at the institute for more than 15 years. In 2016, she was among the first recipients of rabbinical ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute / HaMidrasha at Oranim Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis. Avital is currently working on her Ph.D., focusing on Talmud, in the Gender Studies Program at Bar Ilan University. Avital is President of

Toledot: From Isaac to Esau

Yitzhak is a complex figure: at times motivated by interpersonal ties and connected, and at times both an isolated and an isolating personality. I would like to explore the expression of both these aspects of Yitzhak in our parashah.

Parashat Toledot opens with a touching description of Yitzhak and Rivkah:

Bereishit 25:20-21

Yitzhak was 40 when he took as his wife Rivkah, daughter of Betuel the Aramean, from Padan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean. Yitzhak prayed to God for/facing (le-nokhah) his wife because she was barren. God acquiesced to him and his wife Rivkah became pregnant.

Yitzhak himself is not described as longing for a child. What compels him to pray according to the verses is “his wife” and his standing le-nokhah, facing her.

The description of this scene in a midrash in Bereishit Rabbah amplifies what is occurring between Rivkah and Yitzhak in two ways. In the biblical text, only Yitzhak prays, but in the midrash, Rivkah is also described as praying:

Bereishit Rabbah (Theodor-Albeck) 63:5

“Opposite his wife” – This comes to teach that Yitzhak was prostrate (in prayer) in one place and she was prostrate in another.

Second, the midrash supplies the content of the prayer, which focuses not only on the request for a child, but also on the relationship between Yitzhak and Rivkah. And so the midrash elaborates Yitzhak’s prayer:

He said before the Holy Blessed One: “Master of the Universe! Any future children that You will give me should be from this righteous woman,” and she said the same.

Yitzhak’s behavior is quite different from that of his father, Avraham. When Avraham was in a similar set of circumstances and his wife Sarah was barren, he followed his wife’s suggestion that he try to have children with another woman. He abandons, to a certain degree, his wife in favor of his wife’s servant. Yitzhak, on the other hand, is described as standing alongside his wife, with her.

Looking closely at the way that Rivkah is described by the verses provides some background for understanding the unique bond that exists between her and Yitzhak. Rivkah has one salient quality, she is a figure that is bound to other people. “Yitzhak was forty when he took as his wife Rivkah daughter of Betuel the Aramean, from Padan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean.” She isn’t just connected to Yitzhak, her husband who prays for her, but she is generally described by the people to whom she is related, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, and now someone’s wife. She is a relational person who is connected to a number of different people, and these individual bonds don’t impinge on one another – they are all described equivalently. This is the background we are given about Rivkah before we find out about Yitzhak’s praying for her. This description of Rivkah suggests the possibility that maybe it is because she is a connected person, attached in many ways, that Yitzhak himself is motivated to connect to her, and his feeling connected to her enables him to truly see her and her desires.

Yitzhak doesn’t only pray in our parashah, he also bestows blessings. The prayer that Yitzhak offers on behalf of his wife is described in light of connections, but the blessings that he offers to his children, the children that he prayed for, are described in the shadows of disconnect.

When Yitzhak grants the blessings to his children, he is described in a way that makes him seem like an opposite character to Rivkah. He is a figure characterized by distance and disconnect, alone and blind. He either barks at those he loves, “Go out!” or doesn’t invite them in at all. An isolated person who also creates isolation and alienation.

Chapter 27 of Bereishit opens with a description of Yitzhak’s blindness:

Bereishit 27:1-4

And it was when Yitzhak became old, his eyes were too clouded to see. He called to his eldest son, Esav, and said to him, “My son (beni).” And he said, “Here I am (hineini).” [1]

He said: “Behold I am old and I do not know when I will die… prepare the delicacies that I love in order that my soul should bless you before I die.” [2]

Yitzhak’s request from Esav is: “Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game” (v. 3). This verse is surprising. Instead of saying, “Sit alongside me before I die,” Yitzhak, blind and uncertain, says to his son, “Go out!” On its own, the connection to his son Esav does not satisfy Yitzhak: He is in need of beloved foods “in order that [his] soul will bless [him].” The connection to his son Esav is not sufficient to move him to bless. The language of “Go out” that accompanies Yitzhak’s instructions to his son is in stark juxtaposition with the image of Yitzhak praying “facing” his wife.

The chapter continues to describe Rivkah, “Rivkah is listening/ hearing” (v. 5). This is a loaded phrase. Seemingly, Rivkah is listening because Yitzhak didn’t include her in his plans, he didn’t consult with her or tell her who was going to give the blessing to. In some sense, he not only says “Go out” to Esav, but to Rivkah as well. Yitzhak’s blindness is thus characterized by separation and isolation from the people he loves. [3]

This deliberate separation becomes even more stark when seen in the larger context of the use of language in this chapter. This story is characterized by speech which is direct and extensive. Specifically, terms that refer to family bonds, “my father (avi), and “my son (beni),” which appear five times as frequently here than they do anywhere else in Bereishit. [4]

Esav calls, “My father” when bringing the fresh meat that his father requested, and again when he realizes that Ya’akov received the blessing intended for him. This second time, it’s a broken-hearted cry: “He said to his father, ‘Bless me too, my father!’” Esav’s request that he also be blessed, is met with the stark view of his father: “But I have made him master over you: I have given him all his brothers for servants, and sustained him with grain and wine. What, then, can I still do for you, my son?” (v. 37).

Esav has difficulty accepting this reality: “When Esav heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing”; and in a devastated response and a quivering voice presents the most challenging question to his father: “Do you only have one blessing, my father?!” How could it be that a father has two sons, but only one blessing?! “Bless me too, my father!” But Esav has no real recourse, all he can do is cry: “And Esav wept aloud” (vv. 34-8).

Yitzhak is a divided person: So attached to his wife, and so disconnected from his children. Why is it that Yitzhak can’t bless his sons? What is the context for this inability?

In order to understand this, we again have to turn our attention to the language used when Yitzhak and Esav do speak directly to one another. “He called his older son Esav and said to him, “My son (beni).” He answered, “Here I am (hineini).” This exchange is eerily familiar: It is difficult not to hear the distinct echo of the conversation that Yitz hak had with his father Avraham on the way to Mount Moriah during the Akeidah, “Then Yitzhak said to his  father Avraham, ‘My father (avi)!’ And he answered, “Here I am, my son (hineini beni) (22:27).

Maybe what we have in front of us is a variation on the original Akeidah story: Esav has a father who has two children, and who has, according to Yitzhak’s understanding of the divine will, just one blessing. One son will be left behind, sacrificed. Yitzhak is a father who believes that he has to choose between his oldest and youngest sons, and maybe even between his God and his children, a father who is afraid when he is called to respond and protect by means of the saying, “My father.” He is startled at the exact moment when, as a father, he is expected to supply a solution or response, a father who can’t hear his son’s cry for order, for an arrangement that is both complex and connected. Esav cries “My father!” four times and in the end he realizes, just as his father did, that there is no answer beyond silence. He gives up and he cries.

The order that Esav is crying out for is one in which fathers don’t eliminate or sacrifice their children. He wants a world in which a father blesses his children, all of his children, a world that is complex and connected—of people who love each other “facing” each other. Maybe, the connection and unconditional acceptance that Esav wants from Yitzhak is something that he can’t give because Yitzhak never received it from Avraham. Yitzhak inherits his father’s stubborn, distant obedience and acts that way with his son.

Yitzhak is able to love, able to connect, can see the other and notice someone else’s needs, as we see when he stands le-nokhah Rivkah. But when it comes to his sons he is distant and distancing. The echo of the Akeidah suggests that Yitzhak learns about relationships from Rivkah and about disconnect from Avraham. May we learn from Yitzhak about the multiple possibilities of relationship and with open eyes choose between them.


[1] This dialogue between Yitzhak and his son is reminiscent of the short conversation that Yitzhak had with his own father when they were walking to the mountain in preparation for the Akeidah. But note, in the dialogue on the way to the Akeidah, it is the opposite: It is the son who calls to the father, and the father who answers “Hineini” – “Yitzhak said to Avraham his father, “My father”; and he said “Here I am, my son” (Bereishit 22:7-8). We shall return to this other conversation shortly.

[2] One element we will not discuss in this context is the fact that Yitzhak, as he is described by the biblical narrator, is presented like someone who possesses a fairly hierarchical view of the world – there is great and small (“his eldest son, Esav”), blessed and unblessed (“that my soul should bless you”), a master and a slave (as the language of the blessing itself indicates – “Be a master to your brothers and the children of your mother will bow to you”, v. 29). This dichotomous worldview sometimes produces the illusion of certainty, and thus stands in opposition to the manner in which Yitzhak describes himself: “I don’t know the day of my death.” This short format prevents the inclusion of the wide debate about this view and the image of Yitzhak.

[3] Yitzhak is described on the one hand as one who loves Rivkah, and on the other, Esav: “He married Rivkah and she became his wife, and he loved her” (Bereishit 24:67); “Yitzhak loved Esav” (25:28).

[4] The words “my father” and “my son” appear almost twenty times together in speech, and only four times over the rest of Bereishit – when Yitzhak and Avraham speak at the Akeidah and when Yosef is speaking with Ya’akov.


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