Sale of the Birthright
How should each of Yaakov and Esav be evaluated for their role in the sale of the birthright?
- Was Yaakov taking advantage of his brother's hunger for his own gain? Was the sale not an example of extortion? Or, is there more going on in the story than a cursory read suggests?
- Was Esav's willingness to sell the birthright a sign of his impetuous nature, indicative of his living only in the moment, or was it a logical decision given the circumstances?
- The way one answers the above is partially dependent on how one understands the birthright. Was Yaakov purchasing a monetary inheritance (Ibn Ezra), a religious status (Rashi), or Avraham's legacy (R. D"Z Hoffmann)? Which position is best supported by the text? How does each affect your understanding of the story as a whole? See Sale of the Birthright – A Fair Deal for elaboration.
Who to Bless?
Given that Hashem ultimately wanted Yaakov to get the blessing, as evidenced by His confirmation thereof, how are we to understand Yitzchak's original plan to bestow it on Esav? See Why Bless Esav?
- Several commentators assume that Yitzchak had actually planned on blessing both his sons, thinking that Yaakov and Esav would share in the leadership of the future nation, with Yaakov taking on a spiritual role and Esav caring for the physical. Rivka disagreed, assuming that such dividing of the material from the spiritual would be catastrophic. Do you agree?
- Others assume that Yitzchak, being aware that Esav was less righteous than his brother, hoped that giving him a blessing would motivate him to improve his ways. Is it fair to reward negative behavior in such a manner? Is this an example of "positive reinforcement" or more like a "bribe"?
Esav and Rome
In the post-Biblical period, Esav has been associated with both Rome and Christianity, and has often been presented as the archetype of Israel's sworn enemy. Where does this association come from? How has it impacted on the exegesis of Bereshit?
- Interestingly, the identification might have influenced different commentators in opposing ways. Midrashic literature, viewing Esav as the progenitor of their contemporary enemy, Rome, often reads Esav in a harsh light, presenting him as wicked as his modern counterpart. Josephus, in contrast, a Roman lackey, was loathe to denigrate his superiors, and thus paints a far more neutral portrait of Esav.
- Which view of Esav emerges from a simple reading of the text, (when not encumbered by knowledge of future history)? See A Portrait of Esav.
- Can you think of other examples where an exegete's evaluation of a character or reading of a story is influenced by their personal life experiences and time period? For one example, see commentators' evaluations of Achashverosh in Achashverosh's Shock and Fury .
For more, see: Parashat Toledot Topics.