The story of the twins, Jacob and Esau, begins in utero. Rivals from before birth, wrestling in their mother Rebecca’s womb, the red-haired outdoorsman Esau and his grasping, domestically inclined younger brother Jacob spend our portion of Toldot vying for their father’s and mother’s love and attention. Each is partly successful, and each partly fails. That sibling rivalry shaped the course of our people’s early history, but it also can teach us something about ourselves.
First, a word about words: Toldot is rich in real-life details told in spectacularly perfect writing. Rebecca, pregnant with the two boys wrestling inside her, tells God, “If it’s like this, why am I alive?” prefiguring the words every pregnant mom thinks (or says!) at some point. Esau is hairy and rough at birth, Jacob is smooth, born holding fast to Esau’s heel. Esau, famished from a long hunt, trades his birthright for a bowl of stew and then “ate, drank, stood up, left, and disdained,” the series of active verbs delineating his turbulent, thoughtless character. Jacob, smooth-faced and smooth-talking lawyer that he is, audibly calculates the coming consequences of each action.