The principle story of Parashat Toldot centers on the birth of Isaac’s two sons, Jacob and Esau. Their birth serves to convey G-d’s fidelity to the promises he made to Abraham to provide him future descendants to inherit the land of Canaan. Yet the lives and decisions of both Jacob and Esau also cause to consider the age-old question of free will and predestination- that is whether man possesses the ability to initiate and determine his own future and destiny through his own choices. These are classic contradictions within theistically oriented religion and appear early in Jewish thought.[1] Biblical monotheism, tended to subordinate the entire natural world to the sovereign power of Hashem.

It was often driven to attribute even the human psychological sphere to the all-determining divine action.[2] As a consequence the struggle to understand the concept of predestination and to what extent man exercised control over his decisions and future aroused considerable debate Judaism in a variety of traditional halachic, theological, and philosophical writings. We begin with a review of determinism and freedom in Jewish thought and then consider the backdrop of the story of Jacob and Esau.

Determinism and Freedom in Judaism

The greatest stories in Jewish history have always centered on individuals who made life-changing decisions. Individuals, who because of their, loyalty and trust in an invisible G-d, often defied the human expectations of both their societies and of their families, even at great personal loss. Noah, Abraham, Moses, but to name a few, represent some of these great figures. As a consequence, Judaism has placed a great emphasis on the ability of the individual to freely choose, of his own accord, to serve G-d and to determine his path in life. The revelation of Torah and Sinai and the later rededication of the covenant in land of Moab reinforce this, when G-d through His servant Moses, offered the Israelite people the choice to enter into covenant with Him.[3]

But this concept of free choice also presents troubling issues of great concern. Various passages throughout the Tanakh appear to contradict the notion of free will and consequently raise the following question. How does the concept of free will interact with the idea of Divine prerogative and ultimate authority? The book of Proverbs provides several examples regarding these complicated issues:

We can make our plans, but the final outcome is in G-d’s hands.[4]

In chapter 21, the book of Proverbs continues by noting:

Just as water is turned into irrigation ditches, so the L-rd directs the king’s thoughts. He turns them wherever He wants to. [5]

With just these few verses we already encounter the dilemma that has caused considerable consternation in theological discussions. We need only remember the story of Pharaoh in the book of Exodus that recounts how G-d hardened Pharoah’s heart with the purpose of revealing His power in the land of Egypt.[6] Such an action raises concerns over how G-d could justly punish Pharaoh for decisions he was no longer responsible for; something for us to consider regarding Esau’s fate. Indeed, the Scripture makes no attempt to harmonize the moral freedom of the individual with G-d’s effective action in all things but remaining content to affirm both.[7]


The rabbis of the Mishnaic period recognized this struggle. They understood the complexity of believing in a Divine Being to whom they credited total sovereignty and yet afforded his creatures with the ability to make and choose their own decisions. Amidst this seeming contradiction, the Sayings of the Fathers highlights the manner in which the Sages sought to wrestle with this problem. The following saying of Rabbi Akiba informs us that:

All things are foreseen, but freedom of choice is given[8].

Nevertheless this statement does not adequately address complicated issues of what may appear to be Divine bias or arbitrary choice. Medieval Jewish theologians were also perplexed by this reality, which might imply limitations on either divine knowledge or G-d’s justice. If man was not free, due to either G-d’s foreknowledge or omnipotence, or nature’s laws which might influence man’s behavior, how could man be expected to live in accordance with G-d’s statutes?

Maimonides, the great philosopher and halachist, of the medieval period addressed the complex concepts of determinism and freedom. In his Mishneh Torah he wrote:

“Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn towards the good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wished to turn towards the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so. If one wishes to turn towards the veil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so…man, of himself and by the exercise of his own intelligence and reason, knows what is good and evil, and there is none that can prevent him from doing that which is good….If G-d had decreed that a person should be either righteous or wicked…by what right or justice could G-d punish the wicked or reward the righteous?” [9]

It would appear therefore, that the Rambam understood man as ultimately responsible for his behavior and accountable to G-d for his lifestyle and destiny. The debate however, was not so simple even for the Rambam who wrote in his, philosophical work, Guide of the Perplexed:

"There are, moreover, many people who have received from their first natural disposition a complexion of temperament with which perfection is in no way compatible. Such is the case of one whose heart is naturally exceedingly hot; for he cannot refrain from anger, even if he subject his soul to very stringent training.[10]

With these ideas in mind, we now turn our attention to the story of Jacob and Esau. Parashat Toldot provides us with an example to review the concepts of free will and determinism in a unique setting. The degree to which people are considered to be in control of their faculties and behavior is central to assigning moral responsibility and both Esau’s and Jacob’s choices provide ample subject matter to reflect upon these ideas. In the end will we to agree with Hillel who states?

Our deeds fashion our destiny. Heaven and Hell are in our own hands.[11]

Or will we accept alternative views on these issues that essentially render independent human decisions of little consequence in light of G-d’s directing hand? Parashat Toldot conveys an important idea regarding the overarching plan of G-d coupled with all too human attempts to bring about what man considers or interprets to be the will of the Divine.

Children of Promise: Isaac and Ishmael

Abraham’s destiny to inherit the land of Canaan seemed but a fantasy until the birth of his son Ishmael. Sarah had been barren and in an attempt to secure an heir, Abraham at Sarah’s request had taken Hagar, his Egyptian servant, as his wife. Yet G-d ultimately chose Sarah to bear the child of the covenant- a son that would inherit the divine relationship and future inheritance that G-d had earlier initiated with Abraham. Nevertheless, Abraham loved his son Ishmael but it was Isaac who was destined to bear responsibility for the covenant. We see here a clear example of the Divine plan in conflict with man’s free-will choices. Abraham desired to fulfill what he understood to be G-d’s plan by consorting with Hagar. But for whatever reason, G-d arbitrarily decided that Sarah, not Hagar, would give birth to the chosen son, a decision not based on merit since Sarah did not believe she would become pregnant.

The fact that Hagar gave birth to Ishmael and later exerted her position as a wife quite forcefully caused Sarah to react angrily against her. Sarah demanded that Hagar leave and Abraham was seemingly pressed into a corner to keep peace in his household. Hagar and Ishmael left Abraham’s camp. Along the way, they ran out of water and found themselves wearied from their journey. An angel appears to Hagar and promised that Ishmael was destined to be a great people:

G-d heard the cry of the boy and an angel of G-d called to Hagar from Heaven and said to her,”…Fear not, for G-d had heeded the cry of the boy where he is…I will make a great nation of him.” (Genesis 21: 17-18)

Here, Hagar’s supplication causes G-d to be merciful and as result He bestows grace upon her for her faith in Him. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the seeming rejection of Ishmael by G-d to carry the burden of the covenant and his departure caused Abraham great distress. The Scripture describes that Ishmael’s departure was painful to Abraham for, “it concerned a son of his.” What crossed Abraham ‘s mind is only speculation, but we might wonder if a difficult question did not enter into his mind. Why could both sons not be part of the covenant? Had they not both been circumcised? Was Abraham not a father to both of them? How did G-d choose Isaac over Ishmael? On what merit or reason had G-d not chosen Ishmael? What logic was there to G-d’s decision?

Children of Promise: Jacob and Esau

The story of Jacob and Esau in Parashat Toldot parallels these events. Like Sarah before her, Isaac’s wife Rebecca was found to be barren. Isaac and Rebecca prayed. The Torah tells us, however, that G-d allowed Himself to be entreated by Isaac and Rebecca and granted them two sons. We are forced to ask ourselves how it is that G-d can allow Himself to be entreated. We know according to the Torah, that Isaac was the child of promise and that the covenant would continue through him. If this is the case, we might wonder how G-d’s mind could ever truly be changed on this matter. As some commentators have suggested, perhaps G-d did not always intend for Rebecca to give birth to the next generation.

The birth of Jacob and Esau perhaps engendered a combination of complex feelings in their parents. On the one hand, a sense of hope and joy was secured regarding the continuation of the Abrahamic covenant. The fear of not having offspring to carry on the promised of G-d was now availed. Yet a sense of weariness may have accompanied this in light of the fact that only of Abraham’s two sons had received the blessing. The other son, Ishmael, though emerging into a great nation in his own right was separated from the “household of faith.” Would G-d once again, decide that only one son would inherit responsibility for the covenant?

Returning to Isaac and Ishmael, it does not appear that the Biblical narratives record any further animosity existing between Isaac and Ishmael, at least not beyond what we might expect given the nature of Hagar and Ishmael’s departure. Ishmael grew into his own nation and as the Torah tells us grew to be a

“A wild ass of a man; His hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen ” (Genesis 16:12)

His lack of personality skills, we might say, was equally distributed towards all of his brethren. Whatever Ishmael’s feelings towards Isaac, whether he looked to him amicably or in animosity, the Torah does not portray Ishmael as bent on wickedness. Ishmael’s destiny was different but not necessarily contrary to Isaacs. He was given in response to the cries of his mother and in a certain sense as Hagar’s child of promise. Ishmael, was at G-d’s desire made into a great nation. Nothing that Ishmael had done in life could merit this, since G-d had promised this to Hagar before his birth. Ishmael was destined, at G-d’s direction, to fulfill a destiny that G-d had chosen.

Esau’s Destiny

Esau on the other hand, is viewed in a different light in the whole of sacred scripture, and later Judaism perceived the story of Jacob and Esau as reflecting the struggle between reverence for G-d and a worldview characterized by rejecting righteousness. Esau’s path was not simply different as in the case of Ishmael but characteristic of complete deviation from the truth, or so the commentators hold. So much was Esau seen as antagonistic towards the paths of G-d that the prophet Malachi, the last prophet of Israel wrote:

I have shown you love, said the L-rd. But you ask, “How have You shown us love?” After all-declares the L-rd- Esau is Jacob’s brother; yet I have accepted Jacob and have rejected Esau. I have made his hills desolation, his territory a home for beasts of the desert. If Edom thinks, “though crushed, we can build the ruins again,” thus said the L-rd of Hosts: They may build, but I will tear down. And so they shall be know as the region of wickedness, the people damned forever of the L-rd. Your eyes shall behold it, and you shall declare, “ Great is the L-rd beyond the borders of Israel.

Esau’s Character

What was it that Esau and his descendents did to deserve such treatment from either Israel, its sages, or from G-d?[12] Or do this simply serve as an example in the story of Jacob and Esau to exemplify the Divine prerogative in “unilaterally” blessing and choosing certain people while excluding others from his blessing? Did Esau require a different standard to live up to since he, unlike Ishmael was born of Isaac’s intended bride? Or did G-d “force his hand?” That is, did G-d cause Esau to spurn the birthright, marry foreign women, and lead an ungodly life? Pharaoh is not the only example of “G-dly coercion.” I Samuel 26:19 recounts Saul’s pursuit of David. David questions whether G-d has incited Saul against him.[13]

Ben Sirach went further than the biblical authors in asserting that G-d had predetermined human character from birth and divided humanity into sinners and the godly:

"All men are from the ground, and Adam was created out of earth. In the wealth of his knowledge the L-rd has distinguished them. And made their ways different. Some of them he has blessed and exalted, and some he has made holy and brought near himself. Some of them he has cursed and humbled, and thrown down from their position, Like clay in the hand of the potter- For all his ways are guided by his good pleasure-So men are in the hand of the potter…[14]"

Was Esau’s path or behavior simply reflective of this “truth” or does the Divine Scripture allow for a human alteration of G-d’s plan?

The Emerging Struggle

Isaac’s and Rebecca’s prayers to G-d were answered and shortly after Rebecca became pregnant. Yet the miracle was soon turned to despair as Rebecca experienced a great conflict in her womb. She sought Hashem and He replied:

“Two nations are in you womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier that the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”

What Rebecca thought is unfortunately not recorded and we are forced to speculate on how a mother might very well receive such news. The mystery of the physical struggle was now solved, but in a culture in which the firstborn was held as the expected succeeding leader of the clan, G-d’s oracle must have been perplexing to say the least. It is clear that the prophecy is arbitrary. We need only to remember the first chapters of Genesis where the younger son of Adam and Eve, Abel had sacrificed to the L-rd and found favor with G-d. The sacrifice of his brother Cain was not accepted. Cain did not respond favorably as we know. The Midrash Tanhuma on Genesis has Cain responding in the following manner:

Master of the World, if I have killed [Abel] it is thou who hast created in me the evil yezer. It is Thou who has killed him.[15]

This passage also reveals something more important. Jacob’s claim to be the rightful heir of G-d ‘s promises to Abraham derived solely from G-d’s arbitrary decision, from predestination. His election was disengaged from the manner in which he secured the blessings. Nevertheless the prophecy does not mention that the separation need be contentious nor does it justify Jacob’s methods in obtaining the birthright and the blessing.

The Status of the Firstborn

The firstborn son along with the first fruits of the fields and the male firstlings of the herd were held in great sanctity. In later biblical tradition, they all belonged to G-d. As a consequence, the first born typically ranked only second to the head of the household as was regarded as the agent securing the future lineage of the clan and Isaac’s blessing in chapter 27: 29 appears to confirm this. Furthermore the first born typically received a double portion of the inheritance.

Yet evidence exists to suggest that father’s often did not always follow chronology in assigning their wealth or power. The right of the first-born was also conditional as in the case of Reuben and later in the story of Joseph’s blessing upon Manasseh and Ephraim. [16]

The Selling of the Birth Right

The two brothers emerged with their own distinctive personalities. Jacob is said to have been an ish tam, or as some translators refer to as a mild man. Esau on the other hand was a hunter, a man of the field. So prominent were the skills of Esau that his descendants chose to serve the god Qaus, the god of hunting and warfare.[17]

Some of the rabbis considered Esau’s profession as indicative of a deeper characteristic. In light of the poor views on Esau’s character, they argued that Esau hunted game, often without any need for food. Esau’s drive to hunt was, in the opinion of certain Sages reflective of his lust for violence, a quality inconsistent with the responsibilities of a servant of G-d. Whether Isaac and Rebecca contributed to the character and destinies of their sons by preferring one of over the other engendering strife and jealousy between the two of them. Jacob, Genesis 25:27 relates, stayed in the camp. This coupled with contrast of Esau’s character caused the Sages to view Jacob as the typical talmid haham, a natural successor to his father’s faith. Whatever the case, Jacob and Esau developed distinct approaches to life. The Scripture now turns to the first confrontation between Jacob and Esau. In the story, Esau had just returned from the hunt famished. Jacob was preparing stew. Esau at the point of death, or at least claiming to be, asked for some of the food that Jacob was preparing. Jacob agreed on if Esau would sell him his birthright. Evidence from the ancient Near East indicates that the transfer or sale of a birthright was not something completely foreign. A Nuzi tablet, a Mesopotamian city southwest of modern day Kirkuk, from the period records that a man parted with his future inheritance in return for three sheep that were received immediately from his brother. [18]

The story in Genesis continues with Esau eating his expensive meal and upon finishing it simply walking away. Esau’s casual behavior appears to have been key in later interpreters despising Esau’s behavior even more. Verse 34 of chapter 25 concludes with the statement:” Thus did Esau spurn his birthright.” What this verse seems to imply is that the birthright held little significance for Esau. The descriptions of the accumulation of wealth by Abraham and Isaac always mentioned G-d’s role in blessing them. Physical wealth appeared to be a sign of G-d’s favor and the investure of responsibility for using these resources for G-d’s purposes. But this apparently held little sway for Esau. The rabbis believed that in doing so Esau was rejecting the privilege and responsibility of furthering the Abrahamic covenant.[19]

Esau’s Hittite Wives

The parashah continues with the story of Isaac and Rebecca’s encounter with Abimelech in an episode that closely mirrored that of his father and mother. At the end of this story, Esau’s marriage is recounted and a further reason for Esau’s character to be questioned is found. Esau married Judith, the daughter of Beeri the Hittite. In addition to her, he also married Basemath, the daughter of Elon the Hittite. They proved a source of contention and bitterness for both Isaac and Rebecca.

In marrying these two women, Esau broke three important customs of his family. The first centers on having broken the tradition of allowing his parents to take the lead in establishing a marital relationship for him. The second lies in fact that he married outside of his family clan. Lastly, and most importantly, he married native Canaanite women who brought with them their worship of foreign gods.[20] This is typically seen as one of the principal proofs regarding Esua’s heart. He did not care about the spiritual state of the wives he chose to marry and despised the importance of a united family serving G-d.

Esau’s Association with Rome

The descendents of Esau are noted in other passages of Scripture with unfavorable reviews. During the exodus from Egypt, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom asking for permission to pass through their territory. Instead, the Edomites assembled an army and refused passage.[21] Amazingly, the Torah does not sever Esau’s relationship to Jacob despite the rhetoric recorded in the prophetical writings. The book of Deuteronomy commands the children of Israel not to:

“ [Do not] abhor and Edomite, for he is your kinsmen…” (Deuteronomy 23:8)

Hundreds of years later, David succeeded in conquering the hillsides of Seir and the people of Edom were made into vassals. By the reign of John Hyrcanus, of the Hasmonean dynasty, the Edomites were forcibly converted to Judaism. Ironically, the Edomites were now reunited with their brothers. The conflict emerging in Parashat Toldot between Jacob and Esau nevertheless continued throughout the generations

Jacob received the blessing of his father Isaac and through his own encounter with G-d entered into a covenant that renewed G-d’s promises to Abraham. Esau’s descendants, the Edomites were viewed as the progenitors of Rome, the enemy of Jewish sovereignty.

The process behind the allegorical connection between Esau’s descendants and later Rome is complex, historically speaking. Some scholars have suggested that the connection may derive from the emergence of Herod the Great; the son of Edomite converts to Judaism, who ruled Judea under the auspices of Roman hegemony. Though Herod the Great initiated the grandiose enlargement of the Temple, his unpopularity with the Pharisees and other groups in the late Second Temple period is clear. Other scholars point to a different connection. The Edomites apparently participated in the destruction of Solomon’s Temple along with the invading Chaldean forces. Psalm 137 may offer some evidence for this view:

…Remember Hashem, for the offspring of Edom, the day of Jerusalem- for those who say ‘Destroy! Destroy! To its very foundation ‘…

Obadiah, one of the Minor Prophets also railed against Esau and his descendants. Obadiah expands the role of the Edomites in the destruction of the Temple by stating.

I will make the wise vanish from Edom, understanding from Esau’s mount. Your warriors shall lose heart, O Teman, and not a man of Esau’s mount shall survive the slaughter. For the outrage to your brother Jacob, disgrace shall engulf you, and you shall perish forever. On that day when you stood aloof, when aliens carried off his goods, when foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were as one with them…how could enter the gate of My people on its day of disaster…and lay hands on its wealth…

By the age of the Seleucid period, Edom had replaced Babylon as the nation responsible for having destroyed the Temple as the apocryphal book of I Esdras 45, points out. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple under Titus, the link between Esau and Rome was forever sealed.

Jacob’s Deception

Isaac grew old and he called his son Esau before him. He commanded him to hunt game and prepare it for him so that his soul might bless him. Many commentators have argued that the blessing Isaac intended to grant to Esau did not exclude Jacob’s reception of a blessing. Some argue that Isaac always intended to extend both his son’s blessings, a fact that may be evidenced by the second blessing Isaac eventually gave to Jacob. The blessing that Isaac intended to give to Esau mentioned nothing specific regarding the two components of Abraham’s promise from G-d. No mention was made of future seed or of the land of Canaan as a future inheritance. The blessing only makes mention of strength and prosperity. Perhaps, Isaac concluded that both Esau and Jacob were the natural successors to the covenant and that G-d himself, as in the case of Abraham and Isaac communicate his future intent to the two sons.

The Consequences of Jacob’s Deception

Whatever the ultimate legitimacy of Jacob’s acceptance of the blessing may have been, the act of deception he undertook at his mother’s urging had consequences throughout his later life. He was deceived at the hands of Laban, who though promising Rachel to him gave her sister Leah instead. Laban, in justifying his actions, tells Jacob that it was not their custom to marry the younger before older, a clear reciprocation of his own deception. The Hebrew text offers us another possibility. Laban uses the word “bekhirah” meaning the woman with the birthright, like the birthright Jacob had taken from Esau.

In a similar case, when Jacob fearfully met his brother Esau on his return to the land of Canaan from Laban’s territory, we find another word play of noteworthiness. In chapter 33 of Genesis, after sending his brother Esau great presents to assuage his anger, Jacob pleads with Esau to accept, “his blessing.” Jacobs actions in obtaining the blessing and birthright from his brother Esau, though in accordance with G-d’s plan, nevertheless merited retribution.

Esau’s Behavior and the Divine Imperative

There are only two circumstances in the biblical text from which it is clear that Esau’s behavior fell short of G-dly expectation. Yet Jewish tradition clearly views Esau with a predisposition towards sin and even questions those moments at which he appears to be most sincere. G-d’s decision that Esau “serve” Jacob was arbitrary and it seems that only Esau’s reaction to this state of affairs may have been within his power. What lesson this may serve humanity grappling with the question of free will is difficult to ascertain but it is clear that man’s destiny, from the Jewish perspective, whether “predetermined” or not is viewed as reflective of personal choice. The path of righteousness, or Derech Hashem is ultimately viewed as available to anyone that chooses.


[1] Arthur Hertzberg, Judaism, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), p.240.

[2] Arthur A. Cohen, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, (New York: The Free Press, 1987), p. 270.

[3] I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore, choose life that you may live, you and your descendents. Deuteronomy 17:19.

[4] Proverbs 16:1

[5] Proverbs 21:1

[6] Exodus 10:1 Cross Reference Deuteronomy 2:30 and Joshua 11:20

[7] Arthur A. Cohen, Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, (New York: The Free Press, 1987), p. 270.

[8] Pirkei Avot Chapter 3:19

[9] Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Repentance, Chapter 5.

[10] Guide for the Perplexed 1:34,77.

[11] Pirke Avot II.7

[12] Why did Esau come out first? So that his stench would come out with him. Rabbi Abahu said: This is comparable to a janitor who washes the bathhouse floors before bathing the king’s son. Bereshit Rabbah 63:8

[13] Cross Reference II Samuel 24:1.

[14] Wisdom of Sirach 33:10-15.

[15] Midrash Tanhuma on Genesis 9:6

[16] Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary – Genesis, (Philadelphia: JPS: 1989), 181.

[17] Ibid. 181.

[18] Ibid. 181.

[19] Esau asked Jacob, “What is the nature of this stew?” He answered him, “The elder died today.” Esau responded, “ If the attribute of judgment struck even the elder, there is no justice and no judge.” Bereshit Rabbah 63:11 According to Rav Yosef Dov Ber Soloveichik, Abraham’s death on this day according to the Midrash, caused Esau to rationalize G-d’s injustice. Though Esau recognized his own spiritual state of decadence, he nevertheless acted as if G-d would extend eternal life to Abraham. Rav Yosef Dov Ber Soloveichik, Beis Ha Levi On the Torah,(Southfield: Targum, 1990), p.104.

[20] Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary – Genesis, (Philadelphia: JPS: 1989), 181.

[21] Numbers 20:14b


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