Beautiful name, Ugly deeds (Toldot)

In Parshat Toldot we are introduced to Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov was an איש תם, literally ‘a simple man’, but as Rashi explains (on Bereishit 25:28), this term also refers to Yaakov’s sincerity. As he explains, כלבו כן בפיו, ‘what was in his heart was expressed by his mouth’.

Contrasting this is Esav who was a ציד בפיו. Though the literal meaning of this terms is that Esav was a hunter who had a taste for game, the Midrash (cited by Rashi ibid.) explains that Esav was not only a hunter in the field but also a trapper of people, and that he used his smooth talking to trick and manipulate others. It was this quality of Esav which led Yitzchak to regard his eldest son with such esteem, and it was precisely because of this quality which forced Yaakov to veer into the world of trickery to overcome his older brother.

While numerous examples of Esav’s manipulation are implied in the parsha, one such example relates to the age when Esav married and the women whom he chose to marry. Having previously read that Yitzchak married at age 40, we read that Esav also chose to marry at age 40, and our Rabbis explain that the reason why Esav chose to marry at this age was in order to demonstrate that he was following his father’s footsteps (although, as Rashi explains in his commentary to Bereishit 26:34, this was utterly untrue since Esav had spent much of his youth enticing married women from their husbands).

But beyond using his age to provide a veneer of acceptability of his behaviour, Esav also married two Hittite wives, both of whom idol-worshippers, and then renamed them Yehudit & Bosmat (1) so that his parents would think that his new wives were righteous. This led the Rabbis of the Midrash (Lekach Tov) to state that these two wives of Esav had ‘beautiful names, but ugly deeds’, meaning that their apparently righteous names were not a true reflection of their improper behaviour.

Interestingly, elsewhere in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 71:3), we read that Esav himself is identified as someone with a beautiful name but ugly deeds (because the name Esav refers to someone who does good deeds, while Esav’s deeds were not good). We learn from both these examples that we should not presume the worth of a person merely as a result of the name that they have.

However, as the Midrash continues, there can also be people whose names are ugly and whose deeds are beautiful, with the example given being those who returned to Israel from the Babylon exile to build the Second Temple.

It is clear from numerous sources (see for example Malachi 2:11) that some Jews had intermarried during their time in Babylon. Yet despite their sin, these Jews – in contrast to the majority of the Jewish population – heeded the call by Cyrus to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. As Rabbi Yissachar Teichtel explains, ‘their beauty was the act of Aliyah itself and the fact that they built the Land and the Beit Hamikdash’ (Eim HaBanim Semeicha Ch. 3) which meant that ‘their involvement in this mitzvah tipped the scales so greatly that it could be said of them that their deeds were beautiful.’ We learn from here that we should not denigrate a person’s worth merely as a result of the name that they have, or even of the sins they commit and that sometimes, despite their errors, such people can be regarded as those whose deeds are beautiful.

All too often we make the mistake of establishing bonds with those with beautiful names, only later to find out that their deeds are anything but beautiful. What the Midrash is teaching us is that maybe we should be more open to all types of people, because we may find that they are actually engaged in beautiful deeds.

(1) While Rashi on Bereishit 36:2 indicates that Esav gave Oholibama the name ‘Yehudit’ (thereby implying that she opposed idol worship), it seems that Adah somehow adopted the name ‘Bosmat’ and was not given this name directly by Esav. Nonetheless, the Maskil LeDavid explains that Esav explained her name to mean that she was ‘sweet as spice’ rather than its true meaning which is that she used to burn spices as incense to idols. Thus, while Esav renamed Oholibama, it would be more accurate to say that he gave an alternative meaning to the name Bosmat.


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