This Thanksgiving week’s Torah portion, Tol’dot, begins with the birth of Jacob and Esau (though not in that order), continues with the tale of jealousy between the brothers, and ends with the deception of Isaac by Jacob. It contains the destructive themes of competition and jealousy between siblings, favoritism by parents, and deception among family members. Such wonderful timing with Thanksgiving this week, as many of us prepare to spend the holiday with our extended families! 🙂
Even before the twins are born, even before God tells Rebecca she is carrying twins who will struggle with each other, Rebecca feels turmoil in her womb. At birth, Esau emerges first, with the second born Jacob holding onto Esau’s heel as if trying to hold him back.
The twins’ personalities are completely opposite: Esau is a skilled woodsman and hunter, a short-tempered extrovert favored by his father for the fresh meat Esau brings home; Jacob is more spiritual and intellectual, an introvert favored by his mother for his wisdom and potential as a future leader.
The jealousy between Jacob and Esau may have started out as normal sibling rivalry, but it was greatly exacerbated by the parental favoritism shown by Isaac for Esau and Rebecca for Jacob. Imagine if instead of showing favoritism and encouraging competition, Isaac and Rebekah had taught the twins that their contrasting personalities could complement each other. Imagine if they had been taught to work together for common goals they may have had, instead of in opposition to one another.
When Isaac is prepared to bestow his blessing, he tells Esau to hunt and prepare a fresh meal for him, after which Esau will receive Isaac’s blessing. Rebecca hears this, and conspires with Jacob to deceive Isaac into bestowing his blessing upon Jacob instead. The deception is successful, and Jacob receives the blessing in place of Esau, but at what cost? The relationship between Esau and Jacob is poisoned beyond repair, and their jealousy of each other turns to hatred.
Given the jealousy and favoritism that pervades this family’s life, this result seems inevitable. But was it truly inevitable?
There didn’t need to be a scarcity, or perceived scarcity, of blessing. Why should the firstborn automatically inherit all power privilege? The twins were taught there was only one blessing available. Imagine if the blessing “stolen” by Jacob from Esau had no limit – what if a blessing was available for either or both sons who wanted one, and Rebekah and Isaac had taught the twins that they would each always be given what they each uniquely needed?
Esau, distraught at discovering Jacob had received the blessing meant for him, indeed cries out: “Do you have but one blessing, Father? Bless me! Me, too, Father!” Isaac initially rejects this notion, then acquiesces and blesses Esau, too, but the damage has been done. Attitude is key, and Jacob made it clear that the first blessing was the only one he felt had any real meaning.
When my sons were young and complaints of unequal treatment would arise, my preferred reply was: “Fair is not equal”. This response usually had the desired effect of shutting down their cries of He got this or He got that. Each child will get what each child needs, was the message, and everyone does not always need the same thing. The parental response to Esau’s question should have been an unequivocal “No, I do NOT have but one blessing! I have endless blessings to give; as many as you need.”
The world is full of dysfunctional families. It is the rare family that doesn’t contain some small amount of dysfunction. As Jeff Foxworthy says:
“If you ever start feeling like you have the goofiest, craziest, most dysfunctional family in the world, all you have to do is go to a state fair. Because five minutes at the fair, you’ll be going, ‘you know, we’re all right. We are dang near royalty.’“
And families can, of course, learn from Isaac and Rebekah’s example as one to not follow. But I would have preferred the story of the twins to be one that set an example for us to emulate in the raising of our own children.
Children must be taught and understand deep in their souls that fair is not equal; that everyone will get what they each need; that blessings are plentiful. This year at our Thanksgiving tables, let us not only count our blessings, but freely and generously bless and love each other.
Wishing you all a meaningful and delicious Thanksgiving.
Ahava is grateful for each and every one of you.