Toldot: A Guide to How To Do Thanksgiving The Wrong Way...
Generally, when we read the Bible, we are looking for lessons about how we can live a more fulfilling, meaningful, moral life. But the stories in the book of Genesis tell us just about as much what we SHOULDN’T do. This is especially true when we look at the family dynamics in the early days. It seems that disfunction and conflict was baked right into the covenant.
Parashat Toldot opens with Rebekah, another barren woman, petitioning God through her husband, Isaac, until she is blessed to conceive. While she is pregnant, she experiences sharp pains, and asks God why this is happening. God says, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23) It is no surprise, then, when the babies are born that the parents wind up playing favorites. Isaac prefers his older son for reasons of tradition and similar dispositions, while Rebekah remembers God’s words and favors Jacob. Even before the twins are born, the expectations forced upon them set the tone for the narrative we are about to experience.
This contention and conflict comes to a head when Isaac goes to bless his eldest son, only to be tricked by the younger. In the blessing Isaac gives to Jacob under false pretenses, he clearly articulates that the success this brother will experience will be at the expense of and in contrast to his sibling. Once again, the parents set up an unwinnable situation, pitting the brothers against one another and making their success mutually exclusive.
It is a piece of intriguing irony that we are reading a section of Torah about family conflict as we are celebrating Thanksgiving. Across the country, people are gathering in celebration and, in some cases, friction. With the intimacy of family comes the opportunity to cause immense hurt, to be able to have a massive impact on one another both for blessing and for curse. Isaac and Rebekah seem to take every opportunity to pit their boys against each other, to find ways to rile them up and make situations tense. But in our own lives, we instead have the opportunity to figure out how to lift each other up, and to ensure that one person’s success does not need to come at the hand of another person’s failure.
This is now the second time in the history of the Israelites that one brother has received acclaim while the other has been forced into second-class status. Ishmael was condemned to live in Isaac’s shadow, and Isaac perpetuates this “tradition” in the way he manipulates his sons. But how much better off would our nation be if we saw every branch of the family tree as a testament to our overall success, as if everyone is an inheritor of the blessing that was promised to those who came before? God introduces the idea that one must prosper at the expense of another, but there is no reason that we need to continue that tradition to today. So as we gather around our holiday tables, what does it mean to truly celebrate the joy of our siblings? What does it mean to fully invest in their well-being and to be the tailwind driving them forward, rather than the headwind pushing them back?
We try to learn how to be better people, better citizens of the world, better family members from our sacred texts. But this portion reminds us that one of the best ways to do that is to learn how we haven’t done it well in the past, and to commit to making this next generation a little bit better. May that be our reality as we gather in gratitude