(This was my first “Torah Sparks” blog, posted on November 17, 2009.)
After that, his brother emerged, and his hand was holding onto the heel of Esau, so he called his name Jacob. And Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. (Genesis/Bereishit 25:26)
ochezet ba-akeiv = holding onto the heel
Isaac names his second son Jacob (Ya-akov in Hebrew), as a pun on the word for heel (akeiv in Hebrew). Jacob was born holding onto the heel of his twin brother Esau, who comes out of Rebecca’s womb first. Clearly this heel-holding is important. But what does it mean?
The traditional Jewish interpretation is that Jacob is trying to pull Esau back; even in the womb Jacob knows that he, not Esau, should receive the inheritance and the blessing that belong to the firstborn. Since he fails to switch places with Esau at birth, the adult Jacob resorts to trickery to get the rights of the firstborn.
But what if Jacob is hanging onto Esau because he cannot bear to be separated from his twin? Esau has always been with him, since they were conceived. Rebecca noticed the agitation in her belly as the brothers struggled–wrestled–or perhaps danced–inside her. Then suddenly Esau was gone. How could Jacob stand the sudden loss?
The birth process separates the twins, and also separates them into two halves of one person, dividing the traits of a human being between them. Esau is physical, hairy like an animal, focused on eating, taking wives, and killing. Jacob is intellectual, a smooth-skinned smooth-talker, focused on cooking up the future and getting words of blessing.
That’s why neither Jacob nor Esau can be whole until he learns some of his brother’s characteristics. In next week’s Torah portion, Jacob becomes interested in taking a wife and acquires physical strength when he sees Rachel and rolls the big stone off the well (Genesis 29:10). And in the following portion, Esau learns to think well enough to become a leader of a tribe (Genesis 32:7). But neither twin can be at peace until they finally meet again, in old age, and kiss and weep together (Genesis 33:4).
(I wrote a Torah monologue on another aspect of the Torah portion Toledot: Isaac’s struggle to give the blessing to the right son.)