There are three main stories in Parshat Toldot, amidst other details. The first main story is the twins’ birth and how their mother, Rivka (Rebecca), finds out that the younger son will succeed their older child. Then years later, Esav sells his birthright for bread and a bowl of lentils.
The second main piece begins with a famine in Canaan. Because of the famine, Yitzchak (Isaac) must leave his home. G-d specifically tells Yitchak not to move to Egypt, promising him the blessing of Avraham if he stays in Canaan. Yitzchak moves to Grar, in southern Canaan, near modern day Beersheva. When he gets to Grar, he tells Avimelech, the king of the Plishtim (Philistines), that Rivka is his sister, out of fear that he will be killed so that one of the Plishtim can marry her. But Avimelech eventually finds out that Yitzchak and Rivka are in fact, married. Despite their fears, Avimelech doesn’t harm Yitzchak and Rivka, but eventually expels Yitzchak from Grar out of jealousy because he is too successful.
During the dry season, Yitzchak camps in the Grar River and again digs the wells that his father built, which the Plishtim covered up. Yitzchak and the Plishtim then fight over the wells until, finally, Yitzchak finds an undisputed well. Hashem (G-d) then talks to Yitzchak, telling him not to be scared as G-d will be with him.
The last main piece of the parsha is a return to the story of the brothers. Yitzchak, now old and blind, asks Esav to hunt and get food so he can nourish his body, in order to offer Esav the birthright blessing. Rivka overhears Yitzchak asking Esav for the food, and, using animal skin, disguises Yaakov, her favorite, as Esav, her husband’s favorite. Yaakov, disguised as Esav, gives Yitzchak the meat stew and bread and then receives the blessing. Esav then arrives only to find out his blessing was usurped, which angers him greatly.
Rivka hears about Esav’s anger and tells Yaakov to flee. But in order to hide Esav’s anger from Yitzchak, she suggests to Yitzchak that Yaakov should go to Padan Aram, her hometown, to marry one of the daughters of her brother. Yitzchak tells Yaakov to go to Padan Aram and find a wife, and then gives him the blessing of Avraham.
Toldot is filled with many stories and jumps in time. It seems a little odd that Rivka and Yitzchak would have sons and then go wandering off in the desert. The text states that Avimelech, after he finds out that Yitzchak and Rivka are not actually siblings, proclaims to his people: “Do not touch this man [Yitchak] or his wife [Rivka].” But Avimelech does not say anything about his children. It would also be awkward and harder to lie and say your wife is your sister if you had two children. So where are Yaakov and Esav? They are not born yet. But in the text, before the stories of the wandering in the desert and the Avimelech incident, was the story of Esav and Yaakov’s birth.
It is not unheard of for the Torah to skip around chronologcally, but there is always a purpose for the skipping. Rabbi Menachem Liebtag, a notable contemporary Torah commentator, finds that something else is more important than staying in chronological order. Sometimes, the out-of-order sequence is a chiastic structure can be found to emphasize a central point. A chiastic structure is a literary structure with mirror parallels. Think of it as a pattern, AB C BA.
In what way does Toldot have mirror parallels around a central point?
The twins’ birth at the beginning of the parshah parallels Yaakov’s leaving at the end of the parshah. The twins’ birth represents the wonderful hope for the Jewish future. Their struggle in the womb foreshadows the twins’ struggle for Yitzchak’s blessing; Yaakov’s leaving represents the outcome of the struggle and the perilous start of that future as he is going to Padan Aram hopefully to find a wife, build a family and leave his own legacy.
The birthright, which is the second story of the parsha, parallels with the blessing, which is the next to last story of the parshah. The birthright comes about simply by accident of Esav’s being first-born, not through favor or ability. Yaakov tries to come out first; after all, the Torah tells that he was holding on to Esav’s heel when he came out. Having lost this first race with his brother, Yaakov tries harder. He relies upon deceit, taking advantage of Esav’s hunger to buy the birthright for some lentil soup.
These two sets of parallels, the birthright/blessing stories and the birth/departure stories, are based around the central story of the parshah that has no parallel, Yitzchak’s dwelling with the Plishtim (the Philistines), and it implies that this story is the central point of the parsha, for a few reasons.
The first reason is because it has so many blessings from G-d in it. In the Torah, the greatest gift is a blessing from G-d. First, G-d talks to Yitzchak, telling him not to go to Egypt and promising what He will do if Yitzchak didn’t go to Egypt. G-d told Yitzchak that his descendants will be numerous and that they would rule over the other nations. Then G-d blesses Yitzchak with the blessing of Avraham. Yitzchak gets a second blessing from G-d after he digs the well that wasn’t disputed, Rechovot. G-d tells Yitzchak that He is with Yitzchak, and therefore Yitzchak shouldn’t be afraid.
This leads to the second point: Yitzchak embarks on many of the same adventures as his father, but forgets Avraham’s true mission. Yitzchak digs his father’s wells, receives his father’s blessings, and even lies to Avimelech about his wife, just as Avraham did. But while he repeats many incidents from his father’s life, he forgot what he was meant to do.
Avraham knew that he couldn’t live forever, and therefore he knew he had to give one of his sons the blessing of leading the Jews. Avraham, however, had trouble figuring out which son to honor, Ishmael or Yitzchak. Yitzchak had no trouble whatsoever figuring out which son to honor, but he picked Esav, the wrong son, the one who was incapable of leading the Jewish people.
Yitzchak’s failure to live up to his father’s legacy shows itself in the blessing Yitzchak gives Yaakov, thinking he is Esav. Rather than blessing him as a man capable of leading a holy people, his blessing mentions material success, not holiness. Yitzchak blessed Yaakov with “the dew of the heavens, corn, and wine.” He said, “Your brother and the other nations will serve you. Blessed be your friends, cursed be your enemies.” This is an earthly blessing, not a heavenly one.
Dwelling among the Plishtim is central to the parashah because of what it teaches us about Yitzchak. He is not the perfect patriarch. Instead, we see him having immense material success but little time for G-d. When G-d blesses him the first time, he listens; the second time, he builds an altar to G-d. But he never has conversations with G-d, the way that his father Abraham did.
At the end of the parashah, however, Yitzchak becomes the man that G-d knew he could be. After realizing that he has blessed Yaakov, not Esav, he comes to a profound realization: he was right to bless Yaakov, that Yaakov is the one. He then gives Yaakov an even higher blessing, the blessing of Avraham. This is a special blessing. After all, after the Binding of Yitzchak, Yitzchak does not return with Avraham, perhaps out of anger toward his father. Transmitting this blessing was a particularly hard thing to do, but he knew he had to do it.