The parshah for November 26th is Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9. In it, we have the struggles of Isaac and Rebecca to conceive, the relations between Abimelech and Isaac’s family, the birth of Esau and Jacob, and the loss of Esau’s birthright and his father’s blessing. As we will see, this is a tricky portion from a feminist perspective because of Rebecca, yet, from an ecofeminist perspective, I find the way in which the portion discusses the interconnection between the water, the land, and divinity helpful.
Let me begin with the water and then we will look at Rebecca. Toldot takes place in and around the city of Gerar in Philistine territory, while Abimelech ruled. Isaac and his family travel through the land quite a bit between verses 26:16 and 26:32. Most of this section pertains to them moving and then digging new wells, the covering of wells, and the finding of water. What I find particularly interesting here is the way in which water and peace seem to go together. For example, in 26:20-21, Isaac and his family have constructed a well but it is causing them to have troubles with the locals. Isaac seeks peace and thus leaves. In verse 26:26, Isaac is visited by Abimelech and eventually a formal peace is declared. This is followed in 26:32 by Isaac’s servants finding water in a freshly dug well. In other words, Isaac is willing to uproot his family time and again to cultivate peace; he is not willing to go to war over what in the desert really is a quite limited resource.
In addition, I very much like how water is respected in the parshah. In verse 26:19, the water they find is called living waters. To me, this signifies the acknowledgment of just how important water is to life and the valuing of that resource. In addition, there is a way in which Isaac trusts the land to provide. It is, in fact, only after the land provides water that Isaac understands the deity to have blessed him (26:22). See divinity through the land and water is a truly amazing aspect of Toldot.
Let us move on now to Rebecca. Toldot begins with a forty-year-old Isaac having just married her. They have not just conceived, so Isaac prays to the deity for help. The deity harkens to his prayer, and soon Rebecca is pregnant. However, this is not an easy pregnancy; the fetuses are fighting in the womb. Now, it is Rebecca’s turn to seek out the deity. She inquires as to why this is happening to her. The deity talks directly to her explaining that she is carrying what will become two nations who do not always get along.
I want to highlight here how unique this situation is. It is one of the few times in the Torah in which the deity’s words to a woman are remembered. Rebecca’s pregnancy is given divine support here and this begs the question whether her later actions within Toldot are also divinely supported. At the same time, we have a woman here in a very stereotypical role as a mother. Is this the worth of a woman in the Torah? It really makes one wonder. More on that later.
Soon, Esau is born, followed by Jacob grasping at Esau’s heel. These twins are as different as twins can be, both in appearance and in personality. Esau is hairy and loves hunting and the outdoors, while Jacob is innocent and a lover of being inside. There are two important steps that happen next. First, Jacob, of his own accord, steals Esau’s birthright and then, with the enormous help of Rebecca, deceives Isaac to be given the blessings meant for his brother.
What does Rebecca do? First she overhears Isaac’s plan to give Esau his blessing and then acts quickly to make sure her favorite son, Jacob, favors receives the blessing instead. She tells Jacob to kill two kids from their flocks and just as Isaac is expecting to make delicious food from them. Because Esau is extremely hairy, Rebecca and Jacob tie the skins of the kids onto Jacob’s arms and his neck, so that the nearly-blind Isaac believes him to be Esau. Although questioning his hearing throughout the deception as Jacob still sounds like Jacob, the food and the hairy body is enough to convince Isaac that Jacob is actually Esau. Isaac’s blessing of Jacob means that the divine blessing passed to him from Abraham becomes the legacy of Jacob and not Esau. This is tremendously important as it is the children of Jacob, afterall, who go into Egypt. Their treatment there leads to the Exodus story and the giving of the Torah.
From a feminist perspective, then, here is the tricky part. On the one hand, in this parshah, it is amazing that as a woman, Rebecca speaks directly to the deity and that her actions feature predominately in Toldot. She is an active, independent agent, whose behavior contradicts the man in her life. This behavior, Rebecca’s scheming, is essential for the birth of the Jewish people as it is her favorite son’s family who eventually settle in Egypt, are liberated by the deity, receive the Torah, and enter into the covenant. It is completely plausible that, at the time of Toldot, a woman’s only real power in this world of men was their work behind the scenes for what they desired. At the same time, it must be said that her actions are not necessarily praise-worthy, are they? She clearly favors one son and is willing to deceive her own husband. I’m also not a huge fan of the fact that Rebecca’s only role in Toldot is a mother and a deviant, scheming one at that. However, one cannot deny the fact that, through her own agency, she becomes the mother of the Jewish people.
In the end, Rebecca’s actions are essential to the Jewish story, yet, in Toldot, she has a stereotypical role and accomplishes her wishes through deceit. Yet, we would be wrong to deny her her legacy as our mother. At the same time, Isaac strives for peace, and this peace-making is based on an understanding of the interconnection between land, water, and divinity; we sorely need in our modern world both an emphasis on peace-making and a revaluing of the interconnection between the land, water and holiness. From a(n eco-) feminist perspective, Toldot is a mixed bag.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.