Toldot: Family Systems at Work
One of the most damaging notions when thinking about our Torah is to assume the perfection of the characters described. It is not an uncommon practice. In fact, it was the mission of most of the biblical commentators to harmonize the individuals in question, to polish their personalities and attribute every action, no matter how ill intended, to an act of selfless devotion and deep piety. But if we are to gloss over the details of biblical character development, if we smooth out their rough patches, we miss some of the most important lessons that Torah has to teach us about ourselves and about our paths to morality.
This week, we get a kind of clinic into the worst-case scenario for almost every kind of interpersonal relationship. In Parashat Toldot, we begin with the classic biblical image of a barren woman, who’s inability to conceive is counteracted by the petition of either the woman, or, in this case, her husband. After Rebekah finally becomes pregnant, she experiences immense discomfort. There appears to be a wrestling match going on inside of her. Her twins, Esau and Jacob, were engaged in conflict even before birth, leading God to offer a prophecy: “Two nations are inside of you, two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23) Spoken to Rebekah, this kind of announcement would have huge ramifications for the future of the family, especially as it relates to the covenant that has been at the center of the narrative for the past several weeks. But, despite the weight of the information she has acquired, it appears as though she does not share this information with her husband. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his commentary on this section, remarks, “The result was, at a series of critical moments, a failure of communication. It seems likely that Rebecca never informed Isaac of the oracle she had before the twins, Esau and Jacob, were born, in which God told her ‘the elder will serve the younger.’ That apparently is one reason she loved Jacob rather than Esua, knowing that he was the one chosen by God. If Isaac knew this, why did he favor Esau? He probably did not know, because Rebecca had not told him.” (Lessons in Leadership, pg. 27-28) Not only are we left with the uncomfortable notion of one parent having a favorite child, but we are also confronted by the idea that two parents show opposing preferential treatment, based on their own flaws in communication. This is a kind of hereditary blind spot, a failure in the family that perpetuates its own sense of conflict between loved ones.
If it weren’t enough that the parents played favorites, then the boys grow up to instigate troubles of their own. They are described straight away as polar opposites, Esau a cunning hunter, Jacob a homebody. Whether their destinies were pre-ordained or a self-fulfilling prophecy, we will never know. But it is through their differences, and the preferences demonstrated by their parents, that they come to resent one another, that Jacob sees his brother as a tool for acquiring power, rather than as a cherished loved one. Jacob uses his skills for cooking and his brother’s short-sightedness to barter away Esau’s birthright, and in so doing, sows seeds of animosity that will continue throughout their story together.
In reading this story, we see conflict and in-fighting everywhere. Rebekah doesn’t tell Isaac about God’s prophecy, leading to conflict in their love of their sons. Jacob and Esau demonstrate oppositional traits in their behaviors, leading one to assert dominance over the other. Later on, Isaac attempts to bless one son more than the other, leading Jacob to disguise himself and steal the birthright from his brother, only deepening their sense of contention and strife. What lesson are we supposed to learn from the “perfect” patriarchs who can’t seem to keep their own families in order?
Robert Alter, in his commentary on this section, offers the following interpretation:
“According to the convention of biblical narrative, there can be only two interlocutors in a dialogue (as in Aeschylean tragedy), though one of them may be a collective presence...Within the limits of this convention, the writer has woven an artful chain. The story, [of Jacob stealing the birthright] preponderantly in dialogue, is made up of seven interlocking scenes: Isaac-Esau, Rebekah-Jacob, Jacob-Isaac, Isaac-Esau, Rebekah-Jacob, Rebekah-Isaac, Isaac-Jacob...Husband and wife are kept apart until the penultimate scene; there is no dialogue at all between the two brothers...Although one must always guard against the excesses of numerological exegesis, it is surely not accidental that there are just seven scenes, and that the key word “blessing” (berakhah) is repeated seven times.” (Alter Torah Commentary, pg. 93)
The construction Alter describes is incredibly helpful for understanding the general paradigm for the way characters in the Bible interact. But even more so does it tell us something about the way that these characters in particular prioritize their own communication, and in so doing, create conflict between those not included. Rebekah, at no point, interacts with her son Esau, helping to further drive a wedge between himself and Jacob, her preferred son. Rebekah and Isaac, in their own lack of communication, fail to take their roles as leaders of the family, working together to overcome the challenges that their own patterns of parenting create. If we are looking for a perfect hero to serve as a role model in this story, alas we are left wanting.
The beauty of the stories in Genesis is that they all have something to teach us, even when that lesson is in the form of the negative, cautionary tales about what happens when we fail to live up the the levels of interpersonal compassion and care that are the calling card of our people elsewhere in the Torah. Throughout his story, Jacob is depicted as a man who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. He himself goes on to have a career of trickery, of playing favorites, of making deals to get ahead. All of this is learned from the behaviors of himself and his family in this parashah, and he demonstrates a shocking lack of growth through much of the next several chapters.
Our families are the people with the most power over us. To be connected to a person, especially by birth with no choice in the matter, is an act of radical acceptance, giving them the ability to have sway over your future in ways that we are likely to entrust to precious few. Rabbi Jan Katzew, in his instruction of rabbinical students, often refers to this notion within a marriage, saying, “being open with a partner is a beautiful and dangerous thing, in that it offers another person the easiest, and most powerful ways to hurt you, with the understanding that true love will cause them never to do that.” To be in relationship with others is to be willing to accept the risk of empowering them with your innermost secrets, and in so doing opening up to the potential hurt that might be inflicted, with the reward being profound connection and care.
We, as human beings, have a need to be cared for and loved by our families. It is an innate part of our experience on earth. And yet, we also know the pull toward conflict, toward upset, toward hurt. It is an inevitable byproduct that we will cause friction with one another, we will run into situations that frustrate us and put strain on our willingness to engage further with those we have hurt or those we hurt ourselves. Our patriarchs and matriarchs do not serve as the perfect exemplars for how to beautifully navigate every situation. Far from it. Instead, our ancestors reflect the sheer reality of relationships. They are a mirror into the ways we ourselves struggle, the ways we ourselves are pulled to play favorites, to try to get ahead, to hurt one another, both on purpose and by accident. But in their flaws, we also get the chance to see our reactions. We see the way the unkindness between Jacob and Esau hurts, and our desire for them to be better siblings to one another. We see the lack of communication between husband and wife, and we ourselves reflect to see how we can be better at communicating with our own partners. We see the way the parents shower preferential treatment on one child over the other and we reflect it in two directions, thinking about how we were treated by our parents as well as the way we can better serve our own children.
The Torah is a timeless, enduring text. But it is not perfect, nor are the characters it describes. The characters we find in the book of our people have something to teach us in every chapter, every verse, every letter, and many times those lessons are about what happens when we give in to our lesser impulses. If we are to most beautifully, thoughtfully, and compassionately engage with the words of Torah, it is by our willingness to reflect on what is written, and to allow the words to push us toward our most perfect selves, even if that means moving away form the example set by the families reflected in the text.