[This is part six in a series of analyses on appearances of the Hebrew word for name, shem, in the weekly Torah portion. Start here.]
Last week’s parashat Chayei Sarah served as a transition parasha and now this week’s parashat Toldot shows the fruit of that transition.
Abraham and his circle have been at the center of the Torah story over the last three parashiot and shem has followed along, signalling prominence and prestige. Where humanity had failed in living up to God’s standard, Abraham succeeded. He was chosen to be God’s messenger on earth and through him his descendants. Abraham’s name and reputation, his shem, had been magnified greatly.
Isaac is next in line. His task is to carry on the Abrahamic legacy of monotheism and ethics, a legacy passed from parent to child. Abraham passed on his primary legacy to Isaac at the exclusion of Ishmael, his eldest son, and he made it a point to separate himself — and Isaac — from his later children before he died.
Now, Isaac will need to deal with the same issue: how to pass on the legacy to his children.
Whereas Abraham dominates the story line over multiple parashiyot, Isaac, by comparison, dominates little.
Abraham is a man of discovery. He is the father of monotheism. He answers God’s summons to pick up and start over, and we learn of his triumphs and difficulties and encounters with God. He is a well rounded character in the Torah. Isaac, less so.
Following Abraham’s death Isaac is now primed to take center stage in the Torah. However, rather than reading of his conquests and travels like we do with Abraham, we begin with Isaac already looking ahead to the next generation:
וַיֶּעְתַּ֨ר יִצְחָ֤ק לַֽ-יי לְנֹ֣כַח אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה הִ֑וא וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יְי וַתַּ֖הַר רִבְקָ֥ה אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃
Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebecca conceived. (Genesis 25:21)
Just like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca were barren until God intervened.
Up until now the legacy of God’s mission, and of humanity, had always been from father to son. 1:1, no two siblings may share. 20 generations until Abraham and one man served as the link in each.
Abraham, though, starts a new chapter in world history. God promises him a great legacy in exchange for being the torchbearer of God’s mission. Abraham becomes the father of many nations. Like any good father Abraham expresses a desire to have Ishmael inherit him, but both God and Sarah clarified that Isaac stands alone, just as it always had been in each generation prior. So Abraham dutifully singles out Isaac to carry on the legacy.
Now it’s Isaac’s turn. He is the next forefather. He must succeed in transmitting the Abrahamic legacy to his children. Who will be the next link in the generational chain?
Rebecca is foretold of this struggle:
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְי לָ֗הּ שְׁנֵ֤י (גיים) [גוֹיִם֙] בְּבִטְנֵ֔ךְ וּשְׁנֵ֣י לְאֻמִּ֔ים מִמֵּעַ֖יִךְ יִפָּרֵ֑דוּ וּלְאֹם֙ מִלְאֹ֣ם יֶֽאֱמָ֔ץ וְרַ֖ב יַעֲבֹ֥ד צָעִֽיר׃
and the LORD answered 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.” (Gen. 25:23)
The sibling rivalry that characterized the previous generations and all of human history starting from Cain and Abel — that same sibling rivalry is destined to play out in the next generation as well.
וַיֵּצֵ֤א הָרִאשׁוֹן֙ אַדְמוֹנִ֔י כֻּלּ֖וֹ כְּאַדֶּ֣רֶת שֵׂעָ֑ר וַיִּקְרְא֥וּ שְׁמ֖וֹ עֵשָֽׂו׃ וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֞ן יָצָ֣א אָחִ֗יו וְיָד֤וֹ אֹחֶ֙זֶת֙ בַּעֲקֵ֣ב עֵשָׂ֔ו וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְיִצְחָ֛ק בֶּן־שִׁשִּׁ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה בְּלֶ֥דֶת אֹתָֽם׃
The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they called his name Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel [Jacob-conjugation] of Esau; so they called his name Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when they were born. (Gen. 25:25–26)
Right on queue, shem appears with both sons. And as we would expect by now, understanding more of shem’s role in the Torah.
Two children born, just as foretold. Twins, in fact. And, also just as foretold, stark differences between them:
וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃ וַיֶּאֱהַ֥ב יִצְחָ֛ק אֶת־עֵשָׂ֖ו כִּי־צַ֣יִד בְּפִ֑יו וְרִבְקָ֖ה אֹהֶ֥בֶת אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃
When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp. Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca favored Jacob. (Gen. 25:27–28)
Rebecca, who was foretold of the struggle, favored Jacob, who is the obvious choice over Esau to carry on the Abrahamic legacy based on the respective description of the children’s personalities. The reader is therefore struck by Isaac’s seeming preference for Esau and the reason given: “because he had a taste for game” is cryptic.
Just like Abraham, Isaac struggles with how best to pass on the legacy: must he choose just one son to carry on after him, as it always had been, or can he succeed with both? Like any father who loves his children Isaac hopes for both.
Esau, though, is not as interested in the legacy, as can be seen in the verses immediately following:
וַיָּ֥זֶד יַעֲקֹ֖ב נָזִ֑יד וַיָּבֹ֥א עֵשָׂ֛ו מִן־הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה וְה֥וּא עָיֵֽף׃ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר עֵשָׂ֜ו אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֗ב הַלְעִיטֵ֤נִי נָא֙ מִן־הָאָדֹ֤ם הָאָדֹם֙ הַזֶּ֔ה כִּ֥י עָיֵ֖ף אָנֹ֑כִי עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמ֖וֹ אֱדֽוֹם׃ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִכְרָ֥ה כַיּ֛וֹם אֶת־בְּכֹרָֽתְךָ֖ לִֽי׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר עֵשָׂ֔ו הִנֵּ֛ה אָנֹכִ֥י הוֹלֵ֖ךְ לָמ֑וּת וְלָמָּה־זֶּ֥ה לִ֖י בְּכֹרָֽה׃ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יַעֲקֹב הִשָּׁ֤בְעָה לִּי֙ כַּיּ֔וֹם וַיִּשָּׁבַ֖ע ל֑וֹ וַיִּמְכֹּ֥ר אֶת־בְּכֹרָת֖וֹ לְיַעֲקֹֽב׃ וְיַעֲקֹ֞ב נָתַ֣ן לְעֵשָׂ֗ו לֶ֚חֶם וּנְזִ֣יד עֲדָשִׁ֔ים וַיֹּ֣אכַל וַיֵּ֔שְׁתְּ וַיָּ֖קׇם וַיֵּלַ֑ךְ וַיִּ֥בֶז עֵשָׂ֖ו אֶת־הַבְּכֹרָֽה׃
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red [Edom-conjugation] stuff to gulp down, for I am famished” — which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright. And Esau said, “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.” (Gen. 25:29–33)
Another name given to Esau is an indication of a magnified reputation and legacy but the reason given doesn’t connote exemplary behavior. Indeed, in the ensuing verses, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob in exchange for the stew.
‘Edom’ foretells a magnified name for Esau — the ancestor of Rome and her legacy on western civilization — but in selling his birthright he demonstrates his disdain for the primary legacy at stake, the Abrahamic legacy.
In the next section of this parasha, chapter 26, Isaac takes center stage for the one and only time in the Torah. His stories echo Abraham’s almost exactly:
- There is a famine and Isaac must uproot himself to survive.
- God promises to bless Isaac and make him a great nation (and mentions the oath He made to Abraham).
- Isaac and Rebecca pretend to be siblings, fearing for Isaac’s safety. Their ruse is discovered and there is a struggle with the local king, after which Isaac emerges unharmed and becomes wealthy.
Each one of these scenarios play out in Abraham’s lifetime as well. Isaac is clearly following in his father’s footsteps, reenacting episodes from the past.
Then their stories converge further:
וְכׇל־הַבְּאֵרֹ֗ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו בִּימֵ֖י אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֑יו סִתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים וַיְמַלְא֖וּם עָפָֽר׃
And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with earth. (Gen. 26:15)
וַיָּ֨שׇׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖י מ֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו׃
Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he named them like the names that his father had called them. (Gen. 26:18)
וַיָּרִ֜יבוּ רֹעֵ֣י גְרָ֗ר עִם־רֹעֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק לֵאמֹ֖ר לָ֣נוּ הַמָּ֑יִם וַיִּקְרָ֤א שֵֽׁם־הַבְּאֵר֙ עֵ֔שֶׂק כִּ֥י הִֽתְעַשְּׂק֖וּ עִמּֽוֹ׃ וַֽיַּחְפְּרוּ֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וַיָּרִ֖יבוּ גַּם־עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמָ֖הּ שִׂטְנָֽה׃ וַיַּעְתֵּ֣ק מִשָּׁ֗ם וַיַּחְפֹּר֙ בְּאֵ֣ר אַחֶ֔רֶת וְלֹ֥א רָב֖וּ עָלֶ֑יהָ וַיִּקְרָ֤א שְׁמָהּ֙ רְחֹב֔וֹת וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־עַתָּ֞ה הִרְחִ֧יב יְי לָ֖נוּ וּפָרִ֥ינוּ בָאָֽרֶץ׃
The herdsmen of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.” He named that well Esek because they contended [Esek-conjugation] with him. And when they dug another well, they disputed over that one also; so he named it Sitnah. He moved from there and dug yet another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “Now at last the LORD has granted us ample space [Rehoboth-conjugation] to increase in the land.” (Gen. 26:20–22)
The Torah is telling us that Isaac is careful to preserve the legacy passed on to him.
But why all the fuss about naming the wells? We know it’s something important given shem’s appearances. As usual, legacy is at stake. Isaac is painstakingly ensuring the continuation of the Abrahamic legacy, down to the names of wells.
Then, following a prophecy and promise of greatness, Isaac calls in God’s Name, just like his father Abraham:
וַיִּ֧בֶן שָׁ֣ם מִזְבֵּ֗חַ וַיִּקְרָא֙ בְּשֵׁ֣ם יְי וַיֶּט־שָׁ֖ם אׇהֳל֑וֹ וַיִּכְרוּ־שָׁ֥ם עַבְדֵי־יִצְחָ֖ק בְּאֵֽר׃
So he built an altar there and invoked the LORD by name. Isaac pitched his tent there and his servants started digging a well. (Gen. 26:25)
Then, Abimelech seals a pact with Isaac, just like Abimelech did previously with Abraham. Following the pact, we read:
וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֗וּא וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ עַבְדֵ֣י יִצְחָ֔ק וַיַּגִּ֣דוּ ל֔וֹ עַל־אֹד֥וֹת הַבְּאֵ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֣ר חָפָ֑רוּ וַיֹּ֥אמְרוּ ל֖וֹ מָצָ֥אנוּ מָֽיִם׃ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֹתָ֖הּ שִׁבְעָ֑ה עַל־כֵּ֤ן שֵׁם־הָעִיר֙ בְּאֵ֣ר שֶׁ֔בַע עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
That same day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug, and said to him, “We have found water!” He named it Shibah, therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba to this day. (Gen. 26:33)
This is actually the second time a place was named Beer-sheba, and it’s a striking mirror image of Abimlech’s previous pact with Abraham which was also made following disputes over wells: “Hence that place was called Beer-sheba for there the two of them swore an oath.”(Gen. 21:31)
These are the last verses featuring Isaac as the Torah’s main character. Over and over again in this chapter — Isaac’s only one where he is central — we saw Isaac and shem following Abraham’s path. That was his task: to carry on the legacy.
Last week’s parashat Chayei Sarah serves as a transitional parasha from Abraham to the next generation, and in this week’s parasha Isaac serves as the transitional forefather, totally focused on carrying on the Abrahamic legacy.
We now turn back to the prospective recipients of that legacy: Esau and Jacob.
Rebecca hears of Isaac preparing to bless Esau and fears the legacy is to be passed to the wrong person. She advises — even commands — Jacob to step in. He does and pretends to be Esau, attempting to fool the now blind Isaac. Isaac suspects foul play, tests for it, but miraculously doesn’t uncover the ruse. Jacob receives the blessing.
Esau, having obeyed Isaac’s preparatory instructions, returns expecting to receive the blessing. He and Isaac realize Jacob tricked them and Esau becomes distraught:
כִּשְׁמֹ֤עַ עֵשָׂו֙ אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֣י אָבִ֔יו וַיִּצְעַ֣ק צְעָקָ֔ה גְּדֹלָ֥ה וּמָרָ֖ה עַד־מְאֹ֑ד וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לְאָבִ֔יו בָּרְכֵ֥נִי גַם־אָ֖נִי אָבִֽי׃ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר בָּ֥א אָחִ֖יךָ בְּמִרְמָ֑ה וַיִּקַּ֖ח בִּרְכָתֶֽךָ׃ וַיֹּ֡אמֶר הֲכִי֩ קָרָ֨א שְׁמ֜וֹ יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַֽיַּעְקְבֵ֙נִי֙ זֶ֣ה פַעֲמַ֔יִם אֶת־בְּכֹרָתִ֣י לָקָ֔ח וְהִנֵּ֥ה עַתָּ֖ה לָקַ֣ח בִּרְכָתִ֑י וַיֹּאמַ֕ר הֲלֹא־אָצַ֥לְתָּ לִּ֖י בְּרָכָֽה׃
When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, “Bless me too, Father!” But he answered, “Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing.” He said, “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me [Jacob-conjugation] these two times? First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” And he added, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (Gen. 27:34–36)
Fascinating shem usage here in that it’s the first time in the Torah a human explicitly speaks shem aloud — until now only God had said shem. But it doesn’t bode well for Jacob, as it’s being used by Esau to illustrate a double entendre of Jacob’s own name — his own shem — indicating deception.
That was shem’s final appearance in this parasha. Following this, Jacob is forced to flee for his life, fearing Esau’s wrath.
Last’s week Chayei Sarah was a transition parasha from Abraham to Isaac, and now parashat Toldot tells of the next transition to Jacob. Isaac serves as the transitional forefather. Isaac is unique in being the first generation born to the Abrahamic legacy. Abraham and Isaac together needed to ensure the legacy is successfully passed from its founder to its first successor.
Isaac plays the part nearly perfectly. He does almost exactly as Abraham does — living out eerily similar scenarios — and shem follows along. If Abraham is the prototypical torchbearer, then Isaac is the prototypical torch receiver.
But receiving the legacy is only half the job — Isaac must also pass it on. Which child — the elder Esau or the younger Jacob — should serve as the generational link?
Rebecca is foretold of that struggle emerging from her womb. Twins, both with shem, both destined for greatness.
We are told of Isaac’s affection for Esau and Rebecca’s for Jacob. Isaac’s seeming blindness to Esau’s shortcomings is natural, just like any father who wants his children to success. Ultimately, Isaac’s struggles with passing on legacy culminate in a deception by Jacob, and orchestrated by Rebecca, to capture it for himself. Jacob’s own name is used to portray him as a deceiver.
Not a smooth transition of legacy nor a pretty ending to the parasha as Jacob runs away from Esau’s anger, fearing for his life.
Isaac has succeeded in passing on his legacy, in passing on shem, but it is left on weak footing as we conclude the parasha.