Parshat Toldot –
By Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein –
Eshel Director of Welcoming Shuls Project –
Parents are different. Children are different. Families are different. We may not all like the same things. We may not all have the same professions, the same personalities, the same characteristics, the same aspirations in life, the same … and so the list goes on.
Nonetheless, we are families. As such we are a collection of individuals who somehow form a collective unit, not necessarily always cohesive and not always easy. But we are family. This family unit began when G-d indicated in the very first chapters of Bereshit that an individual is not to be alone and that HaShem understood that each human being needed a partner. Thus G-d ordained that two are better than one, and as we learn much later in Kohelet, chapter Four:
ט טוֹבִים הַשְּׁנַיִם, מִן-הָאֶחָד: אֲשֶׁר יֵשׁ לָהֶם שָׂכָר טוֹב, בַּעֲמָלָם
י כִּי אִם-יִפֹּלוּ, הָאֶחָד יָקִים אֶת-חֲבֵרוֹ; וְאִילוֹ, הָאֶחָד שֶׁיִּפּוֹל, וְאֵין שֵׁנִי, לַהֲקִימוֹ
יא גַּם אִם-יִשְׁכְּבוּ שְׁנַיִם, וְחַם לָהֶם; וּלְאֶחָד, אֵיךְ יֵחָם
יב וְאִם-יִתְקְפוֹ, הָאֶחָד–הַשְּׁנַיִם, יַעַמְדוּ נֶגְדּוֹ; וְהַחוּט, הַמְשֻׁלָּשׁ, לֹא בִמְהֵרָה, יִנָּתֵק
9 Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor.
10 For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, and hath not another to lift him up.
11 Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm alone?
12 And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
So here is the magic of families, of couples, and of partnerships — it was never meant for a human being to travel through this world of challenges, setbacks, wonderful experiences, and joys alone, but to share them with others. Who better to share them with than our families? But, to do so, we have to truly see each other in a genuine, and dare I say, authentic way.
In this week’s Parsha, we share the narrative of a family who could not find its way to live as a cohesive unit. From the beginning, Rivkah is told that there will be discord between her children. Then as they grow up we see that this discord is mirrored in parental favoritism and family conflict.
We read in Chapter 25 of Bereshit:
וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו, כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב
28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob.
There will be this dichotomy of Rivkah-Yaakov and Yitzchak- Esau, opposing teams in this family unit through their adventures. Nechama Leibowitz has us look very carefully at the pronouns that clearly define the teams here. For example, in chapter 27, we note the following:
ה וְרִבְקָה שֹׁמַעַת–בְּדַבֵּר יִצְחָק, אֶל-עֵשָׂו בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּלֶךְ עֵשָׂו הַשָּׂדֶה, לָצוּד צַיִד לְהָבִיא
ו וְרִבְקָה, אָמְרָה, אֶל-יַעֲקֹב בְּנָהּ, לֵאמֹר: הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת-אָבִיךָ, מְדַבֵּר אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ לֵאמֹר
5 And Rebekah heard when Isaac spoke to Esaw his son. And Esau went to the field to hunt for benison, and to bring it.
6 And Rebekah spoke unto Jacob her son, saying, “Behold, I heard your father speak unto Esau your brother, saying:
You know how when our children or siblings or parents are in our good graces, we say “my mom, my sister, etc.” BUT when we are not so happy we identify them (loudly, often!) as YOUR child, YOUR father, etc. This is what Nechama says is going on here. She also warns us that we should never identify these differences as inherently good or bad and hold onto those ideas, for this will only create fractured units in which the group that is supposed to bolster and validate each other will destroy instead. In this scenario, one stops seeing their own child as their child and this is clearly not a desired outcome.
We all must remember that our children, our parents, our siblings, and all those we love will not be the same as each other. Rather, we are to see each as dear… just as Yitzchak loved the fact that he and Esau shared a love of meat, according to some of our interpretive lenses. Further, we are to acknowledge that if we can see past differences that might seem to be challenging for us, we may derive great benefits. Note that Yaakov cooked the stew, which is to say that he had skill sets that were valuable to his father as well. Beyond the perceived trickery and what may seem to be actions we do not totally understand, the notion that we may not always know the entire story must inform how we act towards each other.
Remember that in the very beginning of our Parsha, G-d speaks to Rivkah and explains that her children will be different:
וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-יְהוָה
כג וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר
22 And the children struggled together within her; and she said: ‘If it be so, wherefore do I live?’ And she went to inquire of the LORD.
23 And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.
This is information she has, not Yitzchak. When she is conspiring with Yaakov later, she is acting on this information, no doubt. In other words, her intentions may be honorable, but not understood by all in her family unit. Here we learn that we do not always have the complete picture. This, I believe, is part of G-d’s design. As we learn in so many instances in our texts, only G-d knows all, we as mere mortals do not and cannot by definition.
So back to our families. Do we always understand why we each are the way we are? Is it always easy to embrace differences and ways of life we may not even have chosen for ourselves and our children? Is that the point? Or … is the point that we are to learn from each other, to hold on tight to that multi-threaded cord that ties us together as families and to thank G-d for the totality of blessings that make us each the individuals and the amazing collectives we are? Let us love our children, our siblings, our parents, and all those in our world for the individual human beings G-d made each of us to be in G-d’s ultimate wisdom.