Friendships among siblings can be close and long-lasting. Many times, however, they are difficult to achieve or sustain. This week's parashah provides insight into the latter. Focusing on the relationship between Isaac and Rebekah's twin sons, Parashat Tol'dot elucidates why it is so difficult if not impossible for Esau and Jacob to become friends. According to the text, their birth is God's gift to Rebekah, who was childless for the first 20 years of her marriage (Genesis 25:20-21, 25:26). Yet even in utero, Esau and Jacob do not get along with one another. Pressing against one another, they cause Rebekah so much physical pain that she consults an oracle through whom the divine speaks to her (see Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport, The Passions of the Matriarchs [Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2004], pp. 138-139, citing Rashi and Nachmanides on the excessive pain from which Rebekah suffered).
God tells Rebekah that she is to give birth to twins who will be at odds with one another in life just as they are in the womb. They will become the fathers of two nations, the descendants of the older son serving the descendants of the younger (Genesis 25:23). When she gives birth, they name the first son to emerge Esau and the second, Jacob. According to midrashic tradition, Rebekah, like the other matriarchs, is a prophet (B'reishit Rabbah 67:9), and thus knows that God's words to her mean that Jacob, not Esau, has been chosen as inheritor of the divine covenant. Perhaps this is why "Rebekah favored Jacob" (Genesis 25:28). Isaac, on the other hand, not knowing of God's intent, favors Esau, whose hunting and other outdoor skills he greatly admires (Genesis 25:27). Isaac plans to bestow God's blessing on his oldest son, Esau; Rebekah, in league with her favorite son, Jacob, tricks her husband into giving the blessing to Jacob instead. The result doesn't just have larger social and political consequences, it has familial consequences as well.
The complex baggage that Esau and Jacob bring to their relationship cannot be ignored. Esau grows up knowing that Rebekah favors Jacob while Jacob knows that Isaac has come to favor Esau. Rebekah undoubtedly shares more in common with the sensitive, domestic Jacob than she does with Esau, while Isaac takes special pride in the outdoor skills Esau possesses. Perhaps Rebekah feels closest to Jacob because he's her youngest and is with her more often, while Isaac favors their eldest upon whom he plans to bestow God's blessing. Or, as the Rabbis suggest, perhaps it is Rebekah's prophetic insight that Jacob, not Esau, is to inherit the covenant that leads her to favor the son who has been chosen by God. Yet ultimately, why Rebekah favors Jacob and her husband favors Esau is relatively unimportant. Many parents feel a certain admiration or affinity toward one of their children that emotionally makes that child their favorite. Yet having a favorite child isn't the same as playing favorites.
Rabbinic interpreters and modern scholars have attempted to justify Rebekah's and Isaac's actions. B'reishit Rabbah, for example, suggests that Esau was drawn to idolatry (63:6, 63:10), promiscuous (63:10), and both a rapist and a murderer! (63:12). It describes Jacob as pious (63:6ff), while, as Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah taught, Isaac's "eyes were dim from seeing" Esau's wicked deeds (B'reishit Rabbah 65:10, a midrash on Genesis 27:1). The early medieval Rabbinic association of Esau with the brutal Romans, which began with a Rabbinic exegesis of Genesis 27:40 (when Isaac says to Esau: "By your sword shall you live"), was developed further in the 11th century by Rashi, who described Rome and Christianity, the heir of the Roman Empire, as embodiments of the wicked and hateful Esau (for a fuller discussion, see G.D. Cohen, "Esau as Symbol in Early Medieval Thought," Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. Alexander Altmann, [Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press, 1967], pp. 19-48). According to author Leon Kass, when the "prudent" Rebekah devises a plan to help Jacob deceive Isaac, "she acts with tact, delicacy, and affection" for her husband, by insuring that, in blessing Jacob, he carries out the will of God (Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis [NY, NY: Free Press, 2003], pp. 389, 391).
To me, Rebekah's dressing Jacob in his brother's clothes, wrapping goat skins around his smooth hands and neck so that he would feel hairy like Esau, and cooking the kind of meal she had overheard Isaac ask Esau to bring him was neither tactful nor delicate. Nor do I think that tricking Isaac into giving the blessing to Jacob was an affectionate gesture. Maybe she knew that Isaac wouldn't listen to her if she tried to convince him that God wanted Jacob, not Esau, to receive the blessing. Yet even if Rebekah's actions were justified and Isaac's preference for Esau understandable, it still doesn't excuse those words and acts that destroy any chance of the brothers' becoming friends. Rebekah lovingly addresses Jacob, but not Esau, as "son" (Genesis 27, verses 8, 13, and 43) while when Isaac says "my son" (Genesis 27, verses 1 and 37) he is speaking to Esau. Not being a prophet, Esau justifiably sees Rebekah's helping Jacob attain God's blessing as cruel and subsequently vows to kill his brother (Genesis 27:41), while Jacob may have been hurt that his father was so easily tricked into thinking that he was Esau. Jacob is then sent to Paddan-aram to marry a relative of Rebekah's, while Esau, having already married two Hittite women, leaves to find his uncle Ishmael and marries his daughter. According to Parashat Vayishlach, Esau and Jacob don't see one another for many years, and when they do, their reunion is awkward and short-lived (Genesis 33:1-17). Given the parental favoritism that worked against their forming a close relationship from the beginning, it is not surprising that the brothers go their separate ways.
Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT; Professor of Religious Studies; and director of the university's Bennett Center for Judaic Studies . She is a long-time member of Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY.