Rebekah’s pregnancy was far from perfect, but then again parenthood isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to change us, challenge us, and create our future. This too is Torah.
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?
What happens when something is in short supply? Economists suggest that demand increases. And in today’s consumer culture, lessons of supply and demand are endless. From sports tickets to the latest iProduct to even Passover food on the grocery store shelves, the lesson of buying early is one quickly learned. And then of course we have to ask ourselves what does our “scarcity” mean next to the short supply of food and resources we see in so many other parts of the world?
This week we will read parshat Toldot, which illuminates the intricacies of the relationships between Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau. The parshah begins with the birth of the twins, Esau and Jacob. Right off the bat, we learn that Isaac and Rebekah had difficulty conceiving, and when the children in her womb argued, she wondered “If this is so, why do I exist?” From the outset, we know there will be trouble, quarrelling, questioning. At their birth they are named based on their characteristics: Esau emerged red, and covered in hair, while Jacob emerged holding onto the heel of his brother. The description of the birth of these twins is important because according to theTorah, the first born child receives a special blessing. In this case the first born, Esau, is supposed to receive the blessing from his father, a blessing for him to be the master over his brothers, and to be the blessed one.
The scarcity we see in parshat Toldot is the scarcity of blessings. Rebekah knows that Esau is supposed to receive the blessing of the first born, and in her mother’s intuition sees that Jacob would be better suited for this role. Jacob spends his time trying to “win” the blessing from his brother, Esau. Isaac also can’t imagine a world in which two children receive blessings, so he is stuck when Esau comes to him for his blessing after the blessing of the first born is already given away. He responds that there is no other blessing left to give. And not one of the three of them considers that there might be more than one blessing to go around. The blessing is seen as a limited resource.
It is actually Esau, who is not always portrayed in the best light, who seems to have the best perspective on the situation. While Esau may have been careless in trading his birthright so quickly, he seems to recognize that blessings are one of the few things that can come in abundance. When he hears that Jacob has received the blessing of the first born, Esau begs for another blessing. Esau believes that there must be more than one blessing to be given out.
Perhaps it’s Esau who teaches us the lesson here. Blessing is what we make of it, so how can it be scarce? We may not necessarily have the best of everything, or get exactly what we want, but each of us has blessings to give and blessings to receive. We have a choice in how we view our world. Parshat Toldot imparts that from generation to generation the world might be bumpy and challenging, but there are always blessings, we just have to open our eyes to see them.
ללמוד To Learn ללמד To Teach: the Talmud teaches that we should strive to say 100 blessings every day. Even in the roughest of moments there is room for blessing. Instead of focusing on the negative, focus on the positive, what can be learned or taken away from every situation.
לשמור To Keep: לעשות To Do: Thanksgiving is a great time to focus on our blessings. Check outhttp://freedomsfeast.us/index.html for some creative and meaningful ways to get the most out of the thanksgiving experience.