We spend a great deal of time defining ourselves based on our preferences. I can’t count the number of times a student has asked me my favorite color, my favorite song, my favorite food. By the way: purple, REM’s “Losing My Religion,” and anything my Uncle Larry, a chef makes. We use it as a tool to get to know one another, it helps inform our birthday gift shopping, and when I have you over for Shabbos dinner, I know not to put almonds in the green beans. But having a favorite often means choosing one thing over another, closing our minds to another possibility.
Our parshah this week, Parshat Toldot, tells the story of favoritism. We start with the birth of Isaac and Rebekah’s twins, Esau and Jacob. Immediately we are cued in to their physical traits and the way their parents view them. In utero, Rebekah feels the children fighting, so much so that she wonders why she’s bringing them into the world in the first place. When they’re born, we learn that Esau arrives first, red and hairy. Then Jacob comes out holding onto Esau’s heel, but no other physical description is given, leaving us to speculate that Jacob has a favorable appearance.
And as quickly as we learn of their birth, we learn which parent favors which child. The text teaches that Esau was a skilled hunter, an outdoorsman, while Jacob was mild-mannered and preferred to be in the camp. Isaac favored Esau because he hunted and brought home game; Rebekah favored Jacob, although no reason is given for her preference. Each parent had their “favorite” child, but they seemed to overlook the bigger picture.
Yes, Esau was a hunter and brought home the meat, but without Jacob’s ability to prepare and cook the stew, the meat would be useless. Similarly, Jacob could have been Wolfgang Puck, but without Esau’s contributions there wouldn’t be much substance to his creations. This favoritism left the brothers’ relationship inherently flawed and volatile.
The most famous part of this saga is the “selling of the birthright” from Esau to Jacob. When the time comes for the birthright to be given, Jacob (with the help of his mother) enters into his father’s presence dressed as Esau to receive the blessing. This begs the question: Doesn’t Isaac know that this isn’t his favorite son, Esau? Shouldn’t Isaac be able to tell the difference between their voices, their look, their presence?
We find the answer in the text itself. As Isaac prepares to give the blessing, we are told that his “eyes were dim.” Perhaps this means that he physically could not see, or perhaps it reveals to us that Isaac allowed himself only to see the physical body of Esau but knew that it was Jacob who came for the blessing. Midrash commentary suggests that Isaac so favored Esau that he was blinded to Esau’s negative characteristics. His “favoritism” from the outset cut off any possibility of him finding another path.
Isaac asks the son “Who are you my son?” Maybe it’s this moment, at the end of Isaac’s life, when he realizes his misgivings in choosing a favorite. He’s asking Jacob: Who are you? What sort of person are you? Are you a kind person? Isaac brings Jacob close in a moment of fatherly love not expressed before in our narrative. He has a tender moment and bestows a blessing for a great future upon Jacob.
Parshat Toldot sheds light on the consequences of favoritism. Isaac is so blinded by his preference that he doesn’t take the time to get to know his other son. So often we bend towards our preferences and shut ourselves off from an opportunity to learn from another source. Toldot is the Hebrew word for offspring, and in our texts it’s used to denote a connection from the past to the present and into the future. In the Torah we see Isaac learn from his mistake as he blesses “the other son.” We learn that while our favorite color might be purple, pink has merit too, and while we might prefer dogs to cats, it’s the greater love of animals that matters. Parshat Toldot cries out to us to revisit our world, to see each person as an equal. When the story is told about ourselves – when we read “And these are the offspring of me,” will the story be one of favoritism and regret or full of life and discovery?
THIS TOO IS TORAH: There are few instances in life when we really feel what it would be like to be someone else, like Jacob does when Isaac blesses him. Have you ever read a letter that was intended for someone else? Or spent time looking through someone’s old photos or videos? We often talk about seeing things through someone else’s eyes or walking a mile in someone’s shoes. What kind of perspective does that bring?