For a parashah ostensibly about Isaac, very little of his life gets discussed. He gets one chapter to himself where he seems to relive much of his father’s experiences. The rest of Toldot concerns his two sons, Jacob and Esau.
The story of Jacob buying Esau’s birthright for a bowl of soup is well known. Even as we feel uncomfortable that Jacob would seize on his brother’s hunger as an opportunity to take over as first born, we also marvel that Esau would cast aside a legacy in a fit of intense appetite. Who deserves our sympathy more? The younger brother who felt forced to exploit his elder because a few minutes had made him his superior? Or the elder who was devoted to the hunt, his father and a slave to his desires?
In the end, Jacob goes so far as to deceive his ailing father and cheat his brother out of his blessing in addition to his birthright. It matters little that his mother set it up for him or even that it was fulfilling God’s prophecy given while the twins were still in the womb. It still seems wrong that Jacob would do what he did. The Torah, not long on explicit commentary on the actions of our ancestors, nevertheless, makes sure that Jacob is eventually punished by being tricked next week.
But the battle between Jacob and Esau is also a battle between nations and eventually civilizations. First between Israel and Edom, the nations that sprang from the two brothers, but later under rabbinic interpretation, Edom becomes a stand in for Rome. With this twist, they make a powerful statement about the two civilizations.
Israel, the descendants of Jacob, is pastoral, intellectual and clever. Rome, the spiritual heirs of Esau, is characterized as martial, acquisitive and impulsive. This was a powerful lesson to the Jews living under roman oppression: Like Jacob, we can better our brothers through our wits and are destined to surpass them. But for us? The Rome that conquered us lies in ruins and we did outlive them. But the spirit of Esau continues to challenge us. The spirit that longs for physical victories and drives us in pursuit of our less noble passions. That spirit of our elder brother continues to challenge us, and must be subdued.