Bereishit & Toledot: Seeing Red

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 for the color “red”: adom, אָדֺם.

Bereishit–blood red

After Cain kills Abel in the first Torah portion of Genesis, Bereishit, God tells Cain:

“What have you done? The voice of the damim of your brother is crying out to me from the adamah!”  (Genesis/Bereishit 4:10)
damim (דֱָמִים) = shed blood. (plural of damדָּם = blood.)
adamah (אֲדָמָה) = 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.

Toledot–red man, red stew

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“Histories”), tells the story of the twins Esau and Jacob, from their conception until they are in their forties and  Jacob flees because Esau is threatening to kill him.

Then her days of pregnancy were completed, and hey! –twins were in her womb.  And the first one went out, admoni all over like a fur robe of hair, and they called his name Eisav.  And after that his brother went out, and … they called his name Jacob.. (Genesis 25:24-26)

admoni (אַדְמוֹנִי) = reddish.

Eisav (עֵשָׂו) = Do it, get it done. (From the verb asahעָשָׂה = do.) “Esau” in English.

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 beast.

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.  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 famished.  And Esau said to Jacob: “Please let me gulp down some of the adom— this adom— because I am famished.”  Therefore his name was called Edom.  (Genesis 25:29-30)

Edom (אֳדוֹם) = a people who later lived in the hill country east of the Jordan river valley, supposedly descended from Esau.  (From the same root as adom = red.)

Jacob takes advantage of his incoherent brother’s request by charging an exorbitant price for the stew.

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?”  Then 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 25:31-34)

The Mess of Pottage, by Wnceslas Holler, 17th c.

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.1

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.2

Thus 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 the Torah portion Vayeitzei) he meets his match in his cold, calculating uncle Lavan—whose name means “white” in Hebrew.  Yet some color finally comes into Jacob’s black-and-white life, as he 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, אָדָם = the human, humankind. (From the same root as adom = red.) Then we will all truly deserve the right of the firstborn to speak with and offer gifts to God.

  1. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 561-562.
  2. Helen Luke, Kaleidoscope, Parabola Books, New York, 1992, p. 225.

4 thoughts on “Bereishit & Toledot: Seeing Red

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