Shabbat Toldot 5773

“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” (Genesis 25:27).

With this famous verse, the descendants of Ya’akov, the Jewish People, have been painted with one brush as docile, bookish, and weak. And it’s our own fault, for the rabbinic PR campaign on Ya’akov’s behalf defines “camp, ” literally ohalim, tents, as meaning Batei Midrash, academies of Torah learning. Even if we ignore the anachronism–what Torah was there to learn?–we see the result of painting such a portrait. The Children of Israel don’t fight with ordinary weapons, or so the stereotype went for centuries. Rather, our spirit is considered to be the source of our might. But in the eyes of others, and even in self-perception, our supposed aversion to weapons was a sign of weakness.

Clearly, the rabbis had an agenda in depicting Ya’akov as one of them, studious and spiritual, certainly in contrast to Big Bad Esav, a.k.a. Rome. But is that what the Torah really means when it compares the twins? Maybe the difference between Esav and Ya’akov is more about vocation than inherent tendencies to violence. Nahum Sarna’s comments are instructive:


“The description of Esau as a hunter and as ‘one who lives by the sword’ reflects a very early stage in the history of Edom, the time when the tribe was still engaged in hunting as an economic necessity…hunting as a way of life was held in low esteem in Israel…Jacob is a quiet man and does not carry weapons…who dwelt in tents, the hallmark of a pastoralist.” (JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, p. 181).

Jews have long had an aversion to hunting game for food, let alone for sport. In what ways does this aversion continue to be a marker of Jewish values today? And what does it teach us about the way today’s well-armed Jews–the Israel Defense Force–utilize their weapons? We’ll talk about this more on Shabbat morning. 

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi David Wise