Toledot: Seeing Red

November 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Posted in Bereishit, Toledot, Vayishlach | 1 Comment

The book of Genesis/Bereishit explores a series of conflicts between brothers, and one between sisters.  Two of these conflicts feature an especially hot-blooded, emotional brother, and both of these use various permutations of the word adom, “red”.

After Cain kills Abel, God tells Cain:

The voice of the blood of your brother is crying out from the ground!  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:10)
dam = blood
adamah = ground, dirt, earth

Both Hebrew words come from the same root as adam (“human”, also the name of the father of Cain and Abel, whom God makes out of dirt in Chapter 2).  To be human is, among other things, to be red.  Dam, “blood”, is obviously red.  And traditional commentary explains that uncultivated earth (at least in the world described by the Torah) is red clay.

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“histories”), tells the story of the twins Esau and Jacob, from their conception to age 40, when Jacob flees because Esau is threatening to kill him.

And her days o0f pregnancy were completed, and hey!  twins were in her womb.  And the first one went out, red all over like a fur robe of hair, and they called his name Esau.  And after that his b rother went out, and his hand held onto the heel of Esau, so he called his name Jacob … (Genesis 25:24-26)

admoni = reddish

eisav = Esau; do it, get it done

ya-akov = Jacob; he heels, he follows, he is cunning

Even at birth, Esau is red.  (The text is not clear about whether he has ruddy skin and is covered with hair, or whether his fur-like hair is reddish.  Either way, he is born red, like blood, and hairy, like a wild man.)

Since Esau is born a moment before Jacob, he counts as the firstborn son.  In the world of the Torah, when the patriarch of an extended family dies, his firstborn son inherits  a double portion of his father’s possessions, and also becomes the family’s priest or intercessor with God.  Yet in this story, when Esau grows up and becomes a hunter, he does not care about the role of the firstborn.  Jacob, who stays in the tents, cares very much.

Jacob stewed a stew, and Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted.  And Esau said to Jacob:  Please, let me gulp down some of the red– this red– because I am exhausted.

Therefore he called his name Edom.

And Jacob said:  Hand over, as of today, your right as firstborn to me.

And Esau said:  Hey, I am going toward death, so what is this to me, a firstborn right?

And Jacob said:  Swear to me, as of today!  And he swore to him, and he handed over his firstborn right to Jacob.  And as for Jacob, he gave to Esau bread and a stew of lentils.  And he ate and he drank and he got up and he went.  Thus he belittled the right of the firstborn.  (Genesis 25:29-34)

Edom = a people who later lived east of the Jordan valley, supposedly descended from Esau.  (The Hebrew word comes from the same root as adom = red.)

On a literal level, this story amuses me, because I often make stew from red lentils, and it always comes out a golden color.  Other kinds of cooked lentils are dark brown or green-brown—but never red.  Did someone who never cooked write down this story, and get the detail about lentils wrong?  I prefer to assume that Jacob is so clever, he adds an ingredient to his stew that will make even lentils look red enough to attract Esau’s attention.

Esau sees food, and the color red.  He does not notice the lentils.  He cannot even find the word for stew.  The 19th-century commentator Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the color red delights Esau because it reminds him of the blood on an animal when his arrow hits it.

The 20th-century psychologist Helen Luke wrote that red is the color of instinct, impulse, and emotion.  She added that Esau, who is controlled by the color red, is in danger of losing all civilizing tendencies and becoming evil.  Jacob, his opposite, is in danger of repressing or denying all instinct and emotion, and becoming evil.  I conclude that neither the man of blood-red violence nor the bloodless schemer is a good candidate for the spiritual role of the firstborn, the one who speaks with and makes offerings to God.

I think Jacob sees the world as black and white, divided between losers and winners.  Since he sees the firstborn as the winner in the family, he applies his intelligence to acquiring that role.  He suppresses any emotional impulses in order to carry out first his own scheme for taking his brother’s birthright, then his mother’s scheme for stealing his brother’s blessing.  Jacob may not savor his food as much as Esau, but he knows how to plan ahead.

Esau sees only red.  Carried away by one emotion after another during the Torah portion of Toledot, he carries out his impulses and lives for the moment.  In the passage translated above, he gives away his birthright to appease one day’s feelings of hunger and despair.  Later in the Torah portion, he weeps like a child when he finds out Jacob has stolen the blessing their father intended for Esau.  Then he becomes so angry he threatens to kill Jacob as soon as their father dies.

Jacob flees from him, and in a distant town he meets his match in his cold, calculating uncle Lavan—whose name means “white” in Hebrew.  Yet some color also comes into Jacob’s black-and-white life, as he impulsively falls in love with Lavan’s daughter Rachel.  Gradually he succeeds in becoming the leader of his own clan, through a combination of sensitivity to others’ emotions and rational long-term planning.

Meanwhile, Esau leaves home and learns how to be a leader.  When he hears that his twin and nemesis is coming his way (in the Torah portion Vayishlach), he plans ahead by bringing 400 men to meet Jacob on the road.  But he retains his emotional instincts, and when he sees Jacob bow to him, he runs over and embraces his brother.  The two older and wiser men pull off a peaceful reunion.

We all have some of Jacob’s black-and-white rationalism and some of Esau’s red emotionalism.  We can only be whole human beings when those two sides embrace.

Furthermore, in order turn our whole personality toward peace rather than toward evil, we must learn from the evolution of both brothers.  Jacob learns to use his black-and-white intellect to lay plans for the good of everyone, instead of for just his own advantage.  And Esau learns to move beyond seeing red as the blood shed in killing, and see red as the blood of life, shared with other humans.

If we can widen our vision enough, through both our intellects and our emotions, we will recognize that all human beings share the same blood; we are descendants of Adam, the red one.  Then we will all truly deserve the right of the firstborn to speak with God.

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1 Comment »

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  1. Thank you for enriching my Torah study with this wonderful interpretation.


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