The Bible's Flawed Characters Teach Us

It is acceptable to favor one child over another? Indeed as the Torah elevates Jacob above Essau, do we have the right to question the Bible and the actions of its central characters?


One of the most sacred features of Judaism relates to its ability to question the Torah, our Biblical characters and even God.

There are various examples where we are actually told to disregard the Torah.

For example, Deuteronomy 21:20 tells us that a son “who is stubborn and rebellious, who will not obey, and is a glutton and a drunkard” should be taken to the gates of the community and stoned to death.

Yet our rabbis tell us “don’t do that.” They set up so many Talmudic exemptions and exceptions, that it is unlikely in our entire history that, in spite of the occasional frustration of their parents, any rebellious youngster has ever been stoned to death.  

 As well, while the Torah tells us that it is permissible under certain circumstances to have more than one wife, the great Rabbi Gershom outlawed this practice one thousand years ago.

In one Torah scene, The Daughters of Zelophehad challenge the Law of Moses complaining that it is unfair that under no circumstances can women inherit land. Moses presents the case to God and the law is changed.

Time and time again, the Torah provides us with opportunity to identify potential flaws or inconsistencies, and make corrections. Even God is included in this scrutiny.  

Which leads us to this week’s Torah portion, named Toldot (generations).

The Torah tells the story of twins, Jacob and Essau who enter the world in conflict. Jacob is the home body who remains close to this mother.  

Meanwhile, Essau is described as a mountain man. He is a hunter. His body is covered in red hair. He is unruly and gruff.

In ancient tradition, a father’s empire and senior standing would pass to his oldest son. Yet, the Torah, takes the stand Jacob with a stronger sense of values, should be the forefather of future Jewish generations.

In truth, both boys had something to contribute.

Yet in this week’s famous Torah story, a starving Essau comes home after a hard day in the forest and sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew.

And soon after, their aging father Isaac is tricked into bestowing his first born blessing on Jacob who dons animal skins to impersonate Essau.

When Essau realizes he has been tricked out of his birthright, his blood boils, but there is also a tear in his eye as he pleads with Isaac, “Dad, don't you have a blessing for me too?”

Over time, classic Judaism has concocted many stories, legends and interpretations why Rebecca and Jacob saw fit to trick both Essau and Isaac. Is this what Judaism is founded on?

Yet as we learn in the Torah, Judaism possesses a bias to turn the status quo upside down. The younger and weaker almost always prevails over the older and stronger. In some ways, it’s a summary of Jewish history.

Jacob is eventually given a new name, Israel, and from there the Jewish nation is born.

But what about Essau? What did he do that was so wrong?

Indeed, in life, we can’t all be elite students like Jacob. Someone has to fix our potholes, pick up the trash, restore our power, and even hunt our dinner

Moreover, does any parent have the right to favor one child over the other?

I would argue, in spite of what classic Judaism teaches us, that a world full of Yeshiva students is no world at all. Yet, a society built on Essau’s force, is a cold and fragile one at best.

The beauty of this week’s Torah portion is not contained in the positive behavior of its major characters, but rather in the debate that the actions that our ancestors inspire.

Parents should never favor one child over another. As well, respect should be given to all forms of work, no matter how manual, basic and physically demanding it may be.

The character flaws and the moral ethical discussion of this Parashah is what provides the Torah with its glory and eternal appeal.

Just like you and I, characters in the Torah are flawed. They sometimes cut corners. They try to impose what they believe to be right.

Yet in spite of this our Torah is a blessing. Our role models do not walk on clouds. Rather they are regular human beings, like you and me, and sometimes they teach us more through their errors that they do by being perfect.

A wise rabbi once shared with me why he believes the Torah is based on truth.

“It’s because its characters have flaws and lapses of judgment,” he sighed. “Welcome to life.”

And that is why the Torah endures.

It is not perfect, and it sends a deep message to Jews from generation to generation that neither are we.

But in the end, we learn, we rise and we survive.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv (with all goodness)

Rabbi Irwin Huberman



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