Thoughts on parashat Toldot. 

The Torah is not a collection of ethical role models given us to simply follow. While the stories of the entire Hebrew Bible contain a lot of role models very few qualify as ethical ones. What we find there are often political and leadership role models – like Moses, Joshua, Kings – David, Hezekiah or Josiah etc. Thus, Jewish ethics is not the ethics of role models, like it is the case of Christianity. Jewish ethics is the ethics of the law, to use a philosophical term – it’s deontological – it’s an ethical theory that uses rules, not human role models, to distinguish right from wrong. 

Because of that there are tensions in the Torah and in the Hebrew Bible, tensions between the ethical, the political and the socio-cultural strata – the laws and customs of the ancient world. We encounter tensions of that kind in this week’s parasha as we witness the very origins of the Jewish nationhood. After the death of Sara and Abraham our tribe has new leaders – it is Icchak and Rivkah. Abraham, in the story from the previous parasha, made already first practical steps to establish our permanent presence in Eretz Israel – he purchased the Machpelah cave that would serve as the burial site for him, Sarah, as well as his children and grandchildren – Icchak, Rivkah, Yakov, and Leia will also be buried there. From the start Abraham was looking to buy a burial location that would be for all time.     

In our parasha for this week we are witnessing not only the birth of the Jewish nation but the birth of the nation of Edomites as well. The birth takes place in this small, nomadic tribe. They had their relatives wandering with them, they had their servants, their livestock, their belongings and some financial means in gold and silver. But they were not capable of overpowering any other tribe, let alone waging a full-fledged war, or even establishing a permanent settlement somewhere in the Land of Canaan. That’s why they were wandering from place to place and being completely dependent on the cycles of nature, were experiencing years of bounty and years of famine. The fact that we see yet again the story of a wife being presented as a sister to the ruler of a different tribe is proof that not a lot had changed since the previous generation. The wife of the head of the tribe has to be given, again, as the concubine of some provincial, self-proclaimed king? I believe that the Torah brings almost the same story again and again for a reason – to show us how vulnerable and dependent on others was the Israelite tribe at its very beginnings. 

In this whole context the law of the land – the law of birthright – is being overturned in order to choose a better leader, a better father for the Israelites that had not been born yet. What would have happened if Esau received the birthright and became the leader, the father of the Jewish people? With his temper and belligerence we would have probably become yet another militant tribe that would do nothing more than battling other tribes in order to survive. Especially at this point, of weakness and lack of resources, the choice of Esau might have been suicidal. Esau later succeeds in building his own, militant tribe; we read in chapter 33 that he brought 400 men with him to meet with Jacob. But that was not a vision of Israel, of the future Jewish nation. The Divine vision was to build something far beyond that, the whole nation, the whole new culture that would bring universal values to the world. Therefore, we needed a better, smarter and more wise leader to establish our nation. 

God made Esau the father of another nation – Edomites. The relationship between the Israelite tribes and Edomites was complicated, there have been at least several conflicts between them but there were times of peace and reconciliation as well, not only through the Jewish dominance, as it was during the times of David and Shlomo, but also through mutual coexistence. And while we had our sworn enemies among other Middle Eastern tribes – Amalekites, for example –  Edomites have never been among them; they were among those tribes we were capable of having peaceful relationships with.(1)  

Similarly today, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East is complex – it has always been! The Abraham accords showed that peace is possible. There are peoples in the Middle East with whom we can absolutely have peace – and we should care for these relationships and alliances. We also have people who are our eternal, sworn enemies – exactly as it was in the Biblical times. What it means for the State of Israel seems quite obvious – their leadership should act wisely having all that in mind, and I’m sure they have it. But it also means something for us, in our microcosm of our diaspora – we should know, we should be aware who is our friend, with whom we can strengthen our partnerships and we should be aware who is our sworn enemy, with whom we should avoid direct conflicts. 

At the same time it’s yet another proof that the situation is not, and has never been, black and white. Even though we may see it as evident that the whole world is extremely polarized in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s never simply ‘us against them’. One of the worst mistakes we can currently make is to see enemies or to see antisemitism everywhere. Therefore, we should not be petty and scream ‘antisemitism’ whenever we see the slightest manifestation of something that might be close to prejudice against us or lack of care regarding the fate of our brothers and sisters living in Israel. A large piece of the general population, including its public figures, had literally no chance to be properly educated and they had no knowledge to have informed opinion on this matter. They may err and repeat nonsense so we have to be forgiving towards them. Their opinions and leanings may be a result of an error, not an expression of deliberate malice or hatred.

We should also not scream ‘antisemitism!’ whenever someone criticizes a Jewish individual, a Jewish organization or the Israeli government. We should apply the same standards whether this person or organization is known to represent the political right or political left. I’m talking about it because I have seen a lot of double-standards in this matter. I have already seen people, on both sides, trying to blame other Jews for what happened or to politically capitalize on the catastrophe of Oct 7th and ensuing events. We all have different views and that’s great, we should be able to express them but to try to score political points on this is highly inappropriate in my opinion. 

I know that the reaction of the world to the mass murder of our people was a huge disappointment for many of us but I believe that calm, rational response with a little bit of a poker face towards that might be helpful. Overly emotional, let alone resentful responses, may actually make things worse for us. If we are hypersensitive regarding antisemitism and see it everywhere we may lose some relationships with the non-Jewish world, we may desensitize the general human population and we may look like weak, resentful, hysterical people. It can all only reinforce negative emotions towards us, Jews. 

It’s difficult to find this balance, I am struggling with it almost every time I read or watch the news but we need to find this balance for the sake of our own psychological wellness and the wellness of our community.

Therefore, we should be slow in judgment and we should be willing to give our non-Jewish friends the benefit of the doubt. We shouldn’t automatically presume that someone is antisemitic because he or she had said or done something that might theoretically indicate their unfriendly attitude towards us. We should not apply the term ‘antisemitic’ lightly and we should not label people this way if we don’t have a direct proof of their words or actions that would make it justified.  If we indeed have proof that someone is antisemitic we shouldn’t hesitate to take an action. But we shouldn’t deem people antisemitic basing only on ‘circumstantial evidence’ or speculation. Instead, we should be restrained and show kindness to them. 

We should show the descendants of Esau as much kindness as we can. 

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Mirski 



(1) As a relevant footnote to this whole reflection – the Edomites did not cease to exist. Our sages associated Esau and Edom with Romans and the Roman empire. Some of the rabbis later applied these terms to the entire Christian/Western World.

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