A Simple Kind of Man

This week is, as far as I’m concerned, momentous. The Torah portion under the traditional reading cycle brings us to Parshat Toledot, which marks the Torah’s transition in Genesis to narrating stories of Abraham and Isaac to the stories of Jacob.

That’s not what makes it momentous to me. Rather (and here I let slip my age), twenty-five years ago, I chanted part of this parashah at my bar mitzvah. At the time, I could chant the Hebrew from memory but didn’t understand it; now, I can understand the Hebrew but I don’t remember the tune.

You didn’t come here to stroll down Memory Lane with me, though. Instead, I’ve got a d’rash for you involving the story of Jacob and Esau.

After telling the story of the births of Esau and Jacob, Genesis 25:27 says, “Then the young men grew up; Esau was a man who knew how to hunt–a man of the field–while Jacob was a simple [Heb. tam] man, a tent-dweller.”

The word I’ve translated as simple is, in Hebrew, tam. Tam gets a number of different definitions; simple, but also humble or wholesome. In fact, English translations of Gen. 25:27 often use something like humble, content, or peaceful where I’ve used the word simple. (I suspect many translations follow Rashi’s gloss on tam; he says that tam here means someone who “is not wise in every matter [i.e., an intellectual show-off],” and “is not quick to raise a dispute.”) There’s a significant problem with following Rashi’s approach, or even the approach of translators that use something like “humble” or “peaceful” as a translation.

Jacob’s actions following this description are not humble, peaceful, or anything of the sort.

In verse 29, Jacob, who is described as “boiling a stew” (Heb. vayyazed nazid) sees Esau returning famished from the fields. Esau asks for some of the stew; ever the dutiful, humble brother, Jacob agrees–in exchange for Esau’s rights as Isaac’s firstborn! (Gen. 25:30-31) Esau, being an apparently simple man, says “I’m about to die–what do I care about a birthright?” (Gen. 25:32) Then, Esau trades his birthright for lentil stew.

This story, in combination with the story about Jacob pretending to be Esau in order to deceive Isaac and thereby abscond with the blessing appropriate to Esau as a firstborn, sows discord between the two brothers that in the biblical narrative is perhaps temporarily assuaged.

(As a sidebar: The biblical narrative tells us that discord persists throughout Israel-the-nation’s relationship with the Edomites: Jacob is later renamed Israel, and the story of the lentil stew explains that the red (adom) lentils gave Esau the name Edom. Eventually rabbinic and medieval literature branded various enemies of the Jewish people, including the Romans and later the Christians, with the label of the children of Esau.)

The point? None of this speaks of Jacob’s supposedly peaceable, humble, non-disputatious nature. Jacob is a trickster; he is, as it turns out, quite sharp, but he keeps his rather wicked intelligence hidden from view until an apparently advantageous opportunity arises to make use of it. He’s not a braggart–but he’s not exactly averse to making waves.

This observation takes me down two roads in reading Toledot.


One way to read all of this is to view this narrative as a witty folktale. The plain sense of the description of Jacob is that he is, to quote Lynyrd Skynyrd, “a simple kind of man.” The text immediately afterward establishes something quite different. What are we to make of this?

If we look at the Hebrew text, some interesting things pop out. There is a significant amount of reuse of vocabulary–specifically, there are numerous puns. Not only Edom/adom for Esau. Remember that Jacob is described as boiling a stew–vayyazed nazid. The Hebrew root, z-y-d, means not only to boil, but to seethe, to rebel, to boil over, and to be presumptuous. The z-y-d root is used far more often in biblical Hebrew to convey the sense of boiling over to rebellion, and in its verb form is used in the Tanakh to refer to cooking only, it appears, in this passage. (Nazid (translated here as stew) appears only once more in the entire Bible–in II Kings 4, and it is not used there with the z-y-d verb, but rather with the root b-sh-l, which is the conventionally used verb for cooking or boiling.)

Thus, Jacob is almost literally described as stewing in his own juices–seething a seething thing–rebelling against his second place position. This interpretation is supported as well by the portrayal of Jacob as clinging onto Esau’s heel as the two were born.

What does this do to our understanding of tam–simple, humble, etc.–back in verse 27? I think we have to admit that it up-ends the traditional reading of it. Jacob is really portrayed as anything other than tam. We need to regard the text’s use of tam–simple, humble–as something said in jest. For tam as simple–focused on what is in front of him, humble, not striving–it is Esau who fits that description, and not Jacob. We might, then, characterize the text as winking at us: Jacob is perhaps portrayed as seemingly simple–perhaps unambitious–to those around him (and the text may mean specifically the perception of Isaac), but we know within three verses that the opposite is true.

Jacob as simple? Anything but.

Dig a Little Deeper

We could leave the interpretation there, but we can also push tam further.

You may not know tam from the Torah. Perhaps you’re Torah tam? 😉 But you may know tam from someplace else.

You may know it from Passover.

How is that? Remember the Four Children described in the Haggadah: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who cannot yet ask. The simple child, as we have the text of the Haggadah today, is the tam child.

When discussions of neurological differences and “disability” come up in Judaism, we often run to the text about the Four Children to emphasize that we are obliged to provide Jewish opportunities for all Jews, no matter what their strengths may be. And that’s nice.

But it’s patronizing, too, since what is often meant is that individuals with CP, Down Syndrome, autism, etc., diagnoses, are construed as “simple” or “unable to ask.” That is, we interpret the version of the Four Children in the traditional Haggadah as though it were the Talmud Yerushalmi’s version of the Four Children: the Yerushalmi uses not tam but tipesh–a fool, an imbecile, a stupid person, even an insane person.

Jacob’s story, I think, gives the lie to that approach. Genesis portrays Jacob’s character as tam, simple. And he is anything but: he is wickedly smart, but silent.

So, too, we should keep in mind that those whom we have previously deigned to call tam may only be quiet, or speaking in ways we do not understand. They may very well be as wickedly smart as Jacob’s character in Genesis 25; it is incumbent upon us to figure out how to engage them.

That, I think, is the better interpretation of the Four Children in the Haggadah. Each person may at different times occupy one or more of the categories of children. The point of the passage for us today should be not to categorize the person, but to help guide our communication depending on what face we see before us at the time–remembering that the tam face is only a face, and not what is within. It is only a guide, however; remember that what’s happening underneath may be as complex as anything else you’ve encountered.

See? It’s simple.