Posted in Dvar Torah, on November 20, 2014

Communication, the human connection, is the key to success – Parshat Toldot – Jonathan Levine

The story of the twins – Jacob and Esau – has been deemed by many the literary prototype describing the struggle between good and evil. Jacob represents the “good”; Esau represents the “evil.” The Sages hinted to this in several places:

The verse describes Rebecca’s pains during pregnancy: “And the children struggled in her womb.”[i] The Sages explain: “when Rebecca would pass by a house of Torah study, Jacob would run and toss about to go out. However, when she would pass by a house of idol worship, Esau would run and toss about to go out.”[ii]

Similarly, on the words in the very next verse “two nations are in your womb,” Rashi elucidates that already while still in the womb the twins were designated for wickedness and righteousness respectively.[iii] The stage is seemingly set up for the clash of the good twin and the evil twin, the hero versus the villain.

Jonathan_LevineHowever, there are many commentators who were not as keen in this explanation. They maintain that both twins had equal potential for success, albeit in different manners. Jacob was much more studious and a “tent-dweller” while Esau was a lad of action and “a man of the field.” Nevertheless, neither of the two exhibited any strong traits of righteousness or wickedness from a young age. The Sages elsewhere (seemingly in argument with the Sages quoted above) explain that the two kids were indistinguishable in the morality of their actions until the age of thirteen![iv]

Nevertheless, by the time the day of Jacob’s blessing arrived, most commentators agree that Esau was evil. Rebecca notices this and helps Jacob trick the blind Isaac into giving the blessing of the firstborn to Jacob in Esau’s place. As we know from the story, Jacob tricks his father and receives the blessing instead of Esau.

Let us now examine the consequences of that decision: Esau becomes very bitter and plans on killing Jacob. Jacob flees to Haran and lives there for many, many years. There he is tricked by Laban, yet eventually marries both of his daughters.   There is a theory that Laban’s trickery against Jacob was a form of divine retribution given to Jacob for tricking his own father.[v] At any rate, we clearly see that this event had vastly negative consequences on Jacob for the remainder of his life.

Many readers of this story are puzzled as to how Isaac could have been so oblivious to Esau’s wickedness, but in truth there are many answers to that question. The verse itself hints to us that Jacob loved Esau because he used to trick him.[vi] The Abrabanel explains that Isaac was blinded by affection, and was thus unable to see the flaws in his beloved son. The Sages put forth their theory (in a rather odd, anthropomorphic Midrash) that Isaac’s experience almost getting sacrificed by his father blurred his ability to perceive the reality around him.[vii]

The more puzzling question, in my opinion, is about Rebecca. She was fully aware of Esau’s evil; she was not fooled for a second by his ploys. Rebecca had heard the prophecy that “two separate nations would emerge from her womb, and the older would serve the younger.”[viii] Why did she not tell Isaac about all of this? Why did she resort to helping her son trick his father, her husband? Could she not have explained to Isaac that really Esau did not deserve the blessing?

The Netziv brings a fascinating explanation of this question. I would like to take a minute to give a brief introduction of the Netziv. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin was the head of one of the most prosperous Yeshivot in all of Europe, the Yeshiva of Volozhin. He used to give a lesson on the Parsha to the students of the Yeshiva after morning prayers. In this lesson he would explain the narratives told in the text of the Torah through a comprehensive analysis of the psychology and the “behind the scenes” of the interpersonal relationships between the Torah’s characters.

The Netziv writes that Rebecca and Isaac had very poor communication skills. The very first moment Rebecca saw Isaac “meditating in the field, “she “covered herself with a veil.”[ix] Rebecca never felt intimate with Isaac, and she was never able to confide in him. While Sarah and Abraham are documented in many conversations, Isaac and Rebecca are never recorded in explicit dialogue. When they prayed for a child, they prayed “opposite one another” – not together. [x]

The result of this is obvious: at critical moments they failed to communicate with one another. Rebecca never told Isaac about Esau’s wickedness and she never told him about the prophecy. When she overheard Isaac’s plan to bless Esau, she was forced to trick Isaac into the giving the blessing to Jacob instead.

The failure of communication between Isaac and Rebecca, between husband and wife, had awful consequences. Isaac felt betrayed. Esau was enraged and planned to commit fratricide. Rebecca was forced to banish her beloved son away from home, effectively cutting off ties with him for most of his future.

Communication is a fundamental quality of civilized humanity, quite possibly the main distinction between animals and humans (animals speak in code while humans speak in language). Any team, group, or family is built around and cannot succeed without it. We all have the duty to help establish a culture in which honest, open, and respectful communication is at the forefront of all our interpersonal relationships. “Without communication, tragedy is waiting in the wings.”[xi]

Shabbat Shalom!


Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast.  He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.

[i] Genesis 25:22

[ii] Yalkut Shemoni quoted by Rashi (ibid)

[iii] Rashi to 25:23

[iv] Bereishit Rabbah quoted by Rashi Genesis 25:27

[v] See Midrash Tanchuma VaYetze 11

[vi] See Ramban to Genesis 25:28

[vii] See HaMidrash V’HaMa’aseh on Bereishit Rabba to Genesis 27:1

[viii] Genesis 25:23

[ix] Genesis 24:65

[x] Genesis 25:21

[xi] Jonathan Sacks “On Leadership”