Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Toldot: The Hezekuni’s micro reading with macro consequences

In Uncategorized on November 20, 2009 at 10:24 am

The dramatic narrative of Jacob and Esau can’t help but grab the attention of the western reader.  The story is so incredibly layered with subterfuge, betrayal, prophecy, deceit, exile, a father’s blind love, a mother’s devotion, and the dark underbelly of twins.  So much packed into just a few pages–and in Hebrew, it’s even shorter!

It is no wonder that so much stuffed in so little begs for atomistic readings to expand the narrative–even when the gaps are not apparent.  The prose of the Torah and the paucity of Her words demands the close reading that is normally reserved for poetry.

The Hezekuni, Rabbi Hezekiah Ben Manoach, a 13th century French exegete of the Rashi school, examines the beginning verses of the Parsha and like Rashi picks up on the apparent redundant language of  the Parsha’s opening lines.

And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham, Abraham gave birth to Isaac…

If the verse teaches that Abraham is Isaac’s father, why do we need the subsequent verse repeating the relationship? If the narrative is so stingy with language, why waste precious words on the repetition of a fact that we already know?

Many explanations are offered, and the Hezekuni, along with the solutions of others, brings one of his own.  He says:

Did Avraham only sire Isaac? Rather, the verse is teaching that Isaac was the one whom Avraham reared.  As evidenced in the verse (from Proverbs)  “The crown of the elders are grandchildren, and the glory of children are their fathers.”

Already the Hezekuni is foreshadowing a continuing pattern, teaching a fundamental unpleasant truth about fathers, mothers and sons. It takes more than DNA to make someone ones true child. The nurture and embodiment of values is how fathers “give birth” to sons. Avraham gave birth to Isaac because Isaac was reared under Avraham’s watchful eye.  Ishmael was reared without a father.  Elders wear their grandchildren like a crown, only if the crown fits on their head–sons who deny their parents values have no glory. The biological connection may or may not be helpful, but it is certainly not necessary.

It is clear why Sarah rejects Ishmael–he’s not her son, but what of Rivka? Esav was her first born.  When did she choose to write him off, to reject him?  From what we know of mothers, they would not be the first to reject a child, but Rivka had visceral knowledge with Divine confirmation.  She felt something was wrong in her womb, and God warned her:

Two nations are in your womb

Two separate peoples shall issue from your body;

One people shall be mightier than the other,

And the older shall serve the younger.

God had already told her what had to be done. It was up to her, however, to figure out the plan’s implementation. Maternal instincts were thwarted by Divine intervention.

According to the Hezekuni‘s analysis of these verses, he might read the famous story of Solomon where the two women come to him each claiming that a baby was hers.  The King suggests that they split the child and when he sees which mother is happy to give up the child rather than have him die, he decides that she is the real mother.

This was not a poor substitute for a DNA test, but an accurate means of assessing who would be the better parent.  According to the Hezekuni,  it’s nurture that counts. All this from a seemingly redundant elucidation of an already well known fact.

Pretty cool.


  1. Does he have anything to say about 26:13 — the opener for Shlishi aliayah? Was reading that this morning and mused over the pertinence of its lyrical redundance but came up with bupkes…

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