Minutes of Torah
This week’s Parashat Toldot is filled with an array of challenges familiar to many of us in navigating own family experiences: parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, emotional manipulation, deception, and poor communication. Food for thought as you look around your Thanksgiving table next week.
In a nutshell, the portion relates the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob to Rebecca and Isaac, Esau selling his first-born birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew, and Rebecca and Jacob apparently tricking Isaac into extending the first-born blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, whom Isaac favors. When Esau discovers that Jacob has received the blessing reserved for him, he plots to kill Jacob after their father Isaac dies. And when Rebecca learns of Esau’s deadly plan, she sends Jacob off to her brother Laban back in her native land of Haran, a self-imposed exile that will last 20 years.
An underlying assumption of the parashah seems to be the perception of parental love as finite and limited among siblings. Siblings of each generation — Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers — experience anxiety over their ranking in parental esteem, and envy towards siblings who they perceive as preferred.
This theme is powerfully evident throughout parashat Toldot, with the rabbis attempting to justify Jacob receiving the first-born blessing instead of Esau.
Yet a subtle counter-narrative in the text challenges the assumption of love as finite and of sibling relationships as a zero-sum game. For instance, God’s question to Cain (“Where is Abel your brother?”) implies a Divine desire for sibling responsibility, and perhaps for equality as well.
Parashat Toldot adds a new dimension by presenting us with the case of fraternal twins: siblings who are literally in a deeply close relationship with each other from conception, and for whom birth order — being only a matter of minutes, not years — is rendered almost irrelevant. Despite their differences, perhaps of all siblings these two might understand themselves as complementary to each other and as inherently equal in stature.
Esau himself explicitly challenges the assumption of scarcity in parental love and blessing. When he returns from hunting in the field and brings game back to his father Isaac expecting to receive the first-born birthright blessing, he discovers that Jacob has acquired it instead by deception. The anguished Esau blurts out the question that reveals his understanding of the potential for unlimited love as between siblings:
“Esau said to his father: ‘Have you only one blessing, my father? Bless me also, my father!’”
Esau’s question reveals his insight that blessing is not a scarce resource. There should be no limitation in the capacity of parents to bless all of their children; rather, there should be abundant parental love for all, a blessing reserved for each child, with no need for contentiousness or duplicity in seizing that which belongs to another.
We might apply this teaching even beyond the familial setting. We should understand that we do not live in a “zero-sum” world. There is more than enough for everybody without employing our thoughts that a gain by another necessarily means a loss for us.
It will take two decades of distance for Jacob and Esau to share the same space again and embrace as they had in Rebecca’s womb. There is no timetable for reconciliation with those from whom we have been estranged, because of thoughts that they took our proverbial “birthright.”
There is enough for all, such that we do not need to be jealous of what another sibling, friend or stranger has, and think that it detracts from ours. Rather, as we prepare to sit around the Thanksgiving table next week, know that everyone in your life adds to your life, and does not detract from it.
And give thanks for that blessing.