November 9th, 2018
1 Kislev 5779
This week we read Par’shat Toldot, the tale of the birth of Jacob and Esau; twin brothers who, from their very first moments, engage in a battle for chosenness and blessing.
We learn in the opening words of the parsha that even in the womb the twins struggled with one another. They are so active that their mother Rebekah, suffering in pain at the tumult in her belly, calls out to the Eternal One in desperation: “im ken, lama ze anochi” - “If this is so, why do I even exist?!” When the twins are born, they come out one after the other. Esau, the first born emerges with a ruddy complexion and his little brother Jacob, comes out holding his brothers heel. From his first moments on Earth, Jacob is in pursuit of his brother’s place in the world, striving to over take him, desperate to catch up. The sibling rivalry begins from their very first breaths and thus, the legacy of competition and conflict is established; a legacy that would follow them into adulthood and throughout their lives.
The sibling rivalry begins from their very first breaths and thus, the legacy of competition and conflict is established; a legacy that would follow them into adulthood and throughout their lives.
We learn a few verses later that Esau grows up to be an “ish sadeh”, a man of the field, a skillful hunter, and a brawny outdoorsman. His brother Jacob is described as “ish tam yoshev ohalim”, a mild mannered man who dwelled inside the tents. The twins could not be more different in their personalities and interests but even so, differences do not always yield such disdain among siblings. In fact, many siblings with very different personalities seem to complement one another, fitting into the family system as pieces of a puzzle; different in shape yet adding up to a beautiful whole. But not this family.
The story unfolds in the ensuing verses. Esau returns from the field rendered weak with hunger. In his desperation, he promises his brother his birthright saying, “What good is a birthright to me if I die of starvation?!” Jacob makes his brother swear to him that he will fulfill this promise and in those days, a verbal oath was valid and binding. So Jacob, weaker in body but stronger in wit, catches his brother in a moment of desperation and effectively manipulates him out of the blessing of the firstborn, his rightful inheritance. Later, their mother Rebekah furthers the deception by helping Jacob concoct a plot to trick their dying father into bestowing the blessing on Jacob after which, Esau becomes enraged and threatens to kill his brother for the transgression.
Our texts and commentary vilify Esau to no end. He is described as the father of a nation that becomes our enemy. He is condemned for marrying a woman from a Canaanite tribe and he is repeatedly spoken about by our sages with contempt. I however, have always felt a bit bad for Esau. From day one, he is set up to fail. His strengths are used against him, he is deceived by those closest to him and then he is shunned by his family. Esau, in my opinion, is getting a really raw deal and we owe him a little more credit!
Esau, in my opinion, is getting a really raw deal and we owe him a little more credit!
In fact, our Torah is replete with stories of family dysfunction. From generation to generation, we learn of parents having a favorite child, hurting their other children and the resulting sibling drama. Even Jacob himself is guilty of this in the family he establishes. We learn from the story of Joseph and his dream coat, that Jacob favors Joseph above his other 11 sons and this family dynamic leads the brothers to concoct a plot to rid themselves of their brother, Joseph. The Talmud in fact, directly condemns Jacob’s actions, ascribing his favoritism as the direct cause of the brothers' hatred for Joseph. Some sages even go so far as to suggest that had Jacob’s favoritism not led them to end up in Egypt, perhaps the entire legacy of Israelite slavery in Egypt could have been altogether avoided.
In a New York Times article from 2016, Dr. Perry Klass addresses this idea of parental favoritism. Quoting Dr. Barbara Howard, a developmental behavioral pediatrician Klass writes, “It’s impossible not to have favorites, and we do know that the perception of favoritism is one of the biggest factors in sibling rivalry,” she said. “Often the child is trying to get the attention of the parent who is rejecting them — the more you push a kid away, the more he will come at you,” she said. “So if you see a kid coming at a parent, being aggressive or being clingy or needy or overly attention-seeking, often the parent doesn’t like the kid that much, or the kid perceives it.”
Dr. Klass further explains that “evolutionary psychologists think of parental investment in their offspring as the division of a finite pool of resources, rather than, perhaps, an infinity of love... Birth order can matter here, she said, with middle children perhaps less likely to be favorites, compared with first children, who monopolize their parents, for that first period, and last children, who represent a final chance to invest.”
So this left me wondering? If we know that parental favoritism is such a dangerous thing, how are we to make heads or tails of this unpleasant trend on the part of our Biblical Ancestors? Shouldn’t they have known better? And further still, at this time in our history, God was still intervening in human relationships and an active participate in the biblical drama. Couldn’t God have done something about this mess?
We are often reminded of Esau’s furious reaction upon discovering that his blessing had indeed been given away. He is condemned for this and essentially excommunicated from the ancestry of the Jewish people while his brother Jacob goes on to wrestle with the angel, take on the name of Israel and become the namesake and patriarch of the entire Jewish future. Not to mention that blessings in those days were matters of great importance. Not only did they ensure the inheritance to which each child was entitled but the blessing of the first born was noted as a reflection of a special relationship with God. The first born was therefore, connected to and chosen by the Divine in a way that their siblings were not. Therefore, Jacob robbed Esau not only of his physical inheritance but his spiritual one as well. Based on this analysis, it is easy to understand Esau’s reaction to Jacob’s deception. Esau is deceived by his twin brother, rejected by his own mother, passed over (albeit mistakenly) by his father, and deprived of his relationship with the God, the Divine parent with whom he had been promised a sacred bond. Putting myself in Esau’s shoes, I’d be pretty miffed too!
Esau is deceived by his twin brother, rejected by his own mother, passed over (albeit mistakenly) by his father, and deprived of his relationship with the God, the Divine parent with whom he had been promised a sacred bond. Putting myself in Esau’s shoes, I’d be pretty miffed too!
Our Chassidic sages suggests that there are two kinds of love a parent has for their child. There is natural love which is born simply out of the biological relationship of parent to child. Before a baby is even born, I’m told, parents feel a deep sense of love for their child. This love is not reflective of their personality or their deeds. This type of love is pure and unconditional. This type of love hopefully inspires a reciprocal feeling in the child towards the parent. The biological relationship, the sages say, sets us up for an inherently loving & mutual relationship whether or not the individuals actually get along on a practical level.
On the other hand, “there is also generated love which is aroused when the parent sees the child going in the right path, acting righteously and living wisely.” In the book of Proverbs 23:15 we read, “my child if you are wise of heart, my heart too will rejoice.” Parents take great pleasure in their child’s successes. They incite joy on the part of the parent and make the love swell and increase.
Perhaps then, the Torah is demonstrating the difference in these two types of parental love. Biblical parents may love all their children equally but play favorites due to the sense of joy and validation they experience as they watch their children succeed in ways that mirror their successes or desires. We read in the parsha that Isaac favored Esau because he brought in game for the family to eat. Esau’s prowess as a hunter impressed his father, helped to sustain their household, and therefore, made him the favored son. His mother Rebekah however, is said to have favored Jacob yet no explanation is given as to why. The fact that any reason for her feelings toward Jacob is omitted leaves us questioning if perhaps this favoritism were divinely ordained. Perhaps God needed Rebekah to be an instrument of the Divine and enact God’s plan? Perhaps she had no good reason for favoring Jacob but God needed her to intervene and help bring about the result that we all know will follow.
I am always inspired by the end of the story. It's not part of this parsha but many chapters later when the brothers reunite, Jacob is terrified that his brother Esau will follow through on his promise of retribution. He falls on his face, humbling himself before his brother. And yet, in the absence of their parents, with the benefit of perspective and time, which we all know can be healing balm, Esau embraces his brother, and forgives him. Jacob tries to give his brother a gift, a peace offering to make up for all that was lost between them. But Esau refuses him. He says, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what is yours.” But Jacob insists saying, “No, please, do me the kindness of accepting my gift. Seeing your face is like seeing God’s face, since you’ve accepted me so warmly,” (Genesis 33:9-10). In the end, the familial rifts are repaired and the brothers are able to find peace.
Over the last year as we have sought to integrate the values of Positive Psychology into our congregational vocabulary, we have studied the impact of recognizing individual strengths. Each Saturday morning we have our b’nai mitzvah families identify the 5 qualities that they think make their child unique and strong in this world. We remind them that greatness is not determined by what gifts and talents we have, but rather by what we do with those gifts and the ways in which we enact our values in the world. Perhaps if Jacob and Esau could have been recognized by their parents for their unique abilities and strengths, if Isaac and Rebekah had been able to celebrate the individuality of their children rather than emphasize their own sense of self through their favoritism of one child or the other, perhaps the story would have unfolded differently.
Perhaps if Jacob and Esau could have been recognized by their parents for their unique abilities and strengths, if Isaac and Rebekah had been able to celebrate the individuality of their children rather than emphasize their own sense of self through their favoritism of one child or the other, perhaps the story would have unfolded differently.
Whatever the explanation, the reality is that despite the example set by our biblical foreparents, Judaism demands that we treat all children equally. This is not just because it is good practical advice, but rather a directive straight from our Torah. Adage after adage reminds that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. Each human being brings a unique gift to the world. We are told that to take a life is to destroy an entire world. Each of us contains universes and each of us in our own way, are essential pieces of the fabric of humanity. So on this Shabbat Tol’dot, I pray that we are all able to hold onto the healing power of forgiveness, of time, and trust that the pieces of our world that feel broken, with enough time and perspective, have the power to heal and become whole once again.
Klass, M.D. Perri. “When Parents Have a Favorite Child.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Apr. 2016, well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/04/when-parents-have-a-favorite-child/.
Green, Arthur, et al. Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from Around the Maggid's Table. Vol. 1, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2013.``