From Birthright to Blessing
By the time we arrive at Parashat Toldot and come upon two brothers vying for the mantle of family leadership, we can already predict with some confidence that it is the younger brother who will prevail.
For one thing, we were listening in when that fate was made nearly explicit at the opening of the parsahah, as God told Rebbeca that “two peoples” were growing in her womb, but that “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).1 Isaac will remain unaware of this message, but we have taken note of it.
But even without eavesdropping on this prophecy, if we have been reading Genesis carefully so far, we know: in this book, when brothers are in competition, the firstborn never wins. We have already seen Abel’s offering chosen by God over his older brother Cain’s. Then we witnessed Ishmael cast out of Abraham’s family so that, as Sarah says, “the son of that slave-woman will not inherit with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10). On that precedent alone, we might well suspect that the fix is in for elder brother Esau.
There are also some clues in the Torah’s language that support this hypothesis. If we trace the use of the word for firstborn, bekhor (root: ב.כ.ר), from the beginning of the book, we notice a pattern of failure. The first usage comes early on in Genesis, fittingly, in the story of Cain and Abel. A quick read-through might miss it, because the term is used to describe not Cain’s status as the firstborn, but instead the “choicest” (בכרות, literally, “the first-issue”) of Abel’s flock (Genesis 4:4). There is just a subtle hint there in the midst of the first sibling rivalry, a nod to the word which will become so pivotal to all subsequent such rivalries. But already it is Abel, the younger child, who has a hold of the “firstborn.” Cain cuts Abel’s ascent short with violence (as Esau will one day threaten to do to Jacob), but in the end, Cain remains cursed—“more cursed than the ground” (Genesis 4:11).
The next two usages of the term “bekhor” will continue to create ominous associations: the firstborn of the accursed Canaan (9:15), and the firstborn of Abraham’s brother Nahor, Uz (Genesis 22:21)—whose name will appear again in the setting for the Job story (Job 1:1). Cain, Canaan, Job—all doomed figures. So by the time Ishamel is finally called “Abraham’s firstborn,” (Genesis 25:13) just a few verses before Parashat Toldot begins—but long after having been supplanted by Isaac as the primary inheritor—we are coming to understand that the firstborn child is not the most likely to succeed.
With all of this in mind, when we come to the first recorded dialogue between the twin brothers and find it centered around a negotiation over the bekhorah (בכרה), the birthright of the firstborn, we can guess how things will end. Note how strongly the word is emphasized throughout the scene, recurring once in each of four successive verses: Jacob seeks to purchase the birthright (מכרה כיום את בכרתך, 25:31) from Esau for a pot of stew. It seems like a bad deal for Esau, but he is amenable, saying, “למה זה לי בכרה - what use is a birthright to me?” (25:32). So Jacob has Esau swear on it, “וימכר את בכרתו - and he sold his birthright” (25:33). When we are finally are told, “ויבז עשו את הבכרה - Esau spurned the birthright,” (25:34), the logic clicks right into place for us. The pattern continues. The firstborn is out. Jacob will surely inherit the covenant.
This time, however, there is a twist; this rivalry is not quite over. The sale of the birthright turns out to be just a prelude to the main event of this parashah, which begins in chapter 27: Jacob deceiving his aging and nearly blind father by dressing up as Esau, in order to take from him a blessing meant for Esau.
We had been told that Isaac favored Esau over Jacob: “Isaac loved Esau, for he was a hunter” (Genesis 25:28). Now Isaac is calling upon the skill he admired, asking Esau to “hunt me something and make it into food I love, so that I can bless you before I die” (Genesis 27:7). But Rebecca—perhaps with the message from God in mind—launches into a plan to send Jacob in first with food, dressed as Esau, in order to fool Isaac into blessing Jacob instead.
This climactic drama, then, is a struggle not for birthright (בכרה), but for blessing (ברכה)_and it is the root for blessing, ב.ר.כ, that will serve as the key word in this narrative, appearing no fewer than 23 times in the course of chapter 27. Yet the other root, ב.כ.ר, has not been forgotten; in fact, the chapter has begun to weave the two together, as we see in the pivotal moment when Jacob carries out his deception with one word in order to secure the other, saying, “I am Esau, your firstborn (בכרך), and I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat what I have caught, so that you may bless me (תברכני)!” (Genesis 27:19).
As the significance of “birthright” and “blessing” in these successive Esau and Jacob narratives becomes difficult to distinguish, perhaps we will notice that the Hebrew words for the two concepts (בכרה and ברכה) are themselves almost identical: anagrams with the same outer letters, but with the inner letters flipped. The composition of these two words, then, parallels the twin siblings themselves: formed from the same genetic material, similar enough for one to pose as the other—but not quite identical.
Just as we are beginning to catch on to the narrative device of interweaving these two fraternal-twin words, we are unexpectedly joined by a character in the story itself, who also seems to pick up on the Torah’s signals. Esau, of all people, when he realizes that he has lost the blessing meant for him, suddenly makes the connection between the two scenes and their two key words:
וַיֹּאמֶר הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם אֶת בְּכֹרָתִי לָקָח וְהִנֵּה עַתָּה לָקַח בִּרְכָתִי וַיֹּאמַר הֲלֹא אָצַלְתָּ לִּי בְּרָכָה:
And he said: “That is why he was called Jacob, for he has grabbed this away from me two times—he took my birthright (bekhori), and see, now he has taken my blessing (birkhati)...”
It is as if Esau—mostly clueless up to this point—has suddenly stepped slightly outside the narrative, and is able to look back at his own story with the eyes of a reader, to see all kinds of linguistic clues and (in case we had missed them) to draw the connections for us.2
The Zohar picks up on Esau’s moment of awakening and, in a finely nuanced reading, reads another layer of meaning into his exclamation:
"וַיַּעַקְבֵנִי זֶה פַּעֲמָיִם". זֶה. מַהוּ זֶה, וַיַּעַקְבֵנִי פַּעֲמָיִם מִבָּעֵי לֵיהּ. אֶלָּא, מִלָּה חַד הֲוֵי תְּרֵי זִמְנֵי, בְּכוֹרָתִי, אַהֲדַר לֵיהּ זִמְנָא אָחֳרָא בִּרְכָתִי, זֶה הוּא תְּרֵי זִמְנִין.
“He has grabbed away this (zeh) from me two times”—Why say zeh, “this”? It should have just said, “he has grabbed away from me two times?” But it is really one word that has been used twice. It was “my birthright” and then it came back again as “my blessing”—this one thing used in two ways.
The two key words we have been considering, “בכרה - bekhorah” and “ברכה - berakhah,” are actually, in this reading, one word with slight changes in form. The Zohar’s mystical orientation allows for words themselves to be animated, to reconstitute themselves and reappear. But this is also a symbolic way of saying that the two scenes and and two concepts we have been considering are all manifestations of one underlying concern.
We have been trying to figure out who will inherit this covenant. We took notice as the Torah slowly undermined the institution of the firstborn’s birthright as a formal claim. In Parashat Toldot, we come to better understand what is being inherited. Inheritance in this covenant is not a claim to property or title. It is the passing on of a blessing that God gave to Abraham in their first encounter: “והיה ברכה - you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). That is why our parashah closes with Isaac calling upon God to give Jacob “ברכת אברהם - the Blessing of Abraham” (Genesis 28:4).
The roles of birthright and blessing have been difficult to disentangle in this narrative, but learning to distinguish between them provides us with deeper insight into the nature of the covenant we have inherited. This is not a legacy meant to secure wealth and power, but to bestow divine favor. God’s blessing is not automatically acquired through birth order or social status, but has the potential to cut through traditional hierarchies to favor the younger child, the underdog, the unlikely hero. As Genesis moves us from birthright to blessing, the change in the order of letters reminds us that the family order—and the world order—can always be overturned.
1 It should be noted that the precise meaning of Rebecca’s prophecy is not entirely clear. The medieval commentator and expert Hebrew grammarian, R. David Kimhi (“the Radak,” 1160-1235), notes two potential ambiguities in this phrase alone: 1. The Hebrew phrasing, ורב יעבד צעיר, without the preposition את, could be read to mean “the older shall serve the younger,” or, “the older, the younger shall serve.” He concedes that the first reading is more natural, and perhaps the one that fits the historical record better—but ultimately he leaves the matter unresolved. 2. The word רב means “great” or “greater”—but not necessarily, “greater in years” or “older.” Here the Radak is confident that opposite the word “צעיר - younger,” the word רב must mean the opposite, “older.” Given Esau’s eventual loss of the “בכורה - birthright,” however, it is interesting that the Torah does not use here a more common word for “older,” בכיר. It is as if Esau is already marked as destined to lose his firstborn status.
2 Remarkably, Esau highlights this bekhorah/berakhah wordplay at just the moment that he also seems to become conscious of the deeper meaning of Jacob’s name: the one who grabs [at Esau’s] heel (ekev). “That is why he was called Jacob (ya’akov), for he has grabbed this away from me (ya’akveini) two times.” We, the readers, know that derivation from the birth scene. But it is unusual for a character in the Torah to explicitly call back to the meaning of another character’s name as an explanation for their behavior.