There is a tremendous amount of deceit in this week’s parasha, Toldot. The familiar story is that Esau’s birthright is taken out from under him by his brother Jacob, when Esau was most vulnerable, hungry, exhausted. Then, when their father Isaac was old, going blind, ready to die, and ready to give his sons their blessings, Jacob impersonated his brother and stole the blessing of the first born for himself. This was done at the urging of his mother, Rebecca.
There is scarcely a more heartbreaking line in Torah than “And Esau said to his father, ‘Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!’ And Esau wept aloud.”
But I have chosen to focus on another part of the Torah portion, because the issue of deceit and the repercussions of deceit are weighing heavily. Isaac marries Rebecca, and the couple quickly finds out they’re infertile. Isaac prays to God to relieve his wife’s barrenness, and she does become pregnant with twins, who struggle within her. Esau is born first, Jacob “on his heels” (Esau comes from the word for “heel”) The boys couldn’t be more different, and I would imagine the family dynamic gets pretty stressful, especially since each parent has chosen a favorite son.
After the birthright drama, the narrative moves to a famine in the land (cue the doom-music), Isaac meets up with King Abimelech of the Philistines, and more deceit enters the story. Isaac pretends that Rebecca is his sister (like his father did with his mother), and just like his parents’ story, Isaac comes out ahead with his wealth when the deceit is discovered. But then, Abimelech says, “Go away from us, for you have become far too big for us.” (Gen 26:16)
More underscoring, foreshadowing to when Pharaoh says that the Israelites have become too many, they’re a threat (Ex 1:9). To our Genesis verse, the commentator Sforno (16th c, Italy) says Abimelech is worried that would be able to stage a rebellion.
Deceit within a family. Deceit in the face of power. Fear. Fear-mongering. Threatened by an entire group of people? Throw them out.
There is no escaping the relationship of this sentiment to what’s in our headlines today about immigration. These are people to be feared, says the administration. They are a threat. They are an invasion. There are too many of them, and they are headed our way. They are lying, their purpose in coming here is not peaceful, but rather, to “stage a rebellion.”
It doesn’t end well for the people who espouse this thinking in the Torah. Look what happened to Pharaoh, and the other kings that told the Israelites to move along, you’re not wanted here. You’d think we’d have learned. Maybe that’s why the insistence on welcoming the stranger is so strong in Torah.
Let’s take this week’s parasha, this week’s drama about fearing the “other” and put it to good use. The mid-terms may be over, but there is still work to do. Say no to the fear-mongering, say yes to the lawful welcoming of those in need. The tent is wide enough, surely.