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Tol'dot for Tweens: Sibling Rivalry

  • Tol'dot for Tweens: Sibling Rivalry

    Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19−28:9

The adult life of Isaac is chronicled in Parashat Toldot. He marries Rebekah, and after 20 childless years they become parents to twin boys, Esau and Jacob. The brothers are quite different from one another and are at odds with each other well into adulthood. Rebekah favors Jacob, whereas Isaac seems aligned with Esau. Rebekah and Jacob conspire to deceive Isaac into giving the blessing due his firstborn son. The sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob reaches a feverish pitch, a recurring theme in Genesis with surprising, if enduring relevance.

This week's selection, from the first aliyah, highlights the differences between the two brothers:

"And Esau said, 'Here I am going to die; what good is the birthright to me?' But Jacob said, 'Confirm it to me by oath here and now.' So he swore it to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob." (25:32-33)

As we all know, two people can be raised in the same family are often radically different. Sometimes, they have different interests and hobbies. The Torah tells us, When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a homespun man, keeping to the tents (25:27). The midrash suggests that two siblings can have completely different perspectives on life, different manners and different governing values. "Rabbi Pinchas said in Rabbi Levi's name: They were like a myrtle and a wild rosebush growing side by side; when they reached maturity, one yielded its fragrance and the other its thorns. So for thirteen years, both went to school and came home from school. After this age, one went to the house of study (Jacob) and the other to idolatrous shrines (Esau)." (B'reishit Rabbah 63:10)

The Jewish people consider Jacob their forefather, but the story in this weeks' parashah portrays his acquisition of the birthright through trickery (albeit divinely sanctioned). Modern Biblical scholarship recognizes this as a literary device; the Torah uses the strategy of the younger or weaker rising to the top to convey that this history is influenced by God (if it went according to people's rules, it would follow the expected story line of the oldest, richest or strongest becoming the leader). Why was it necessary for the Torah to flout cultural convention? Why did Jacob merit the inheritance? Esau comes in from the hunt faint with hunger, and short-sightedly barters away his birthright in exchange for a bowl of stew. While Esau is ruled by his impulse, Jacob is more introspective and aware of consequences.

"Jacob had learned that answers to questions came slowly and through hard work. Esau wanted immediate and easy answers." (Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times Vol. 1, 65)

Jacob acts with a concern towards the future, willing to give up a little today in order to gain much tomorrow. Ostensibly, Jacob understood the value of the birthright and seized the opportunity presented to him. "Did the end justify the means?" is a question that echoes through Jewish memory.

Although Esau is Isaac's favored son, God tells Rebekah when she is pregnant that God will favor Jacob. The impulsive son loses out to the one who is introspective. The Torah would have us believe that human actors are behaving in accordance with divine providence. It is God's will, not Rebekah's or Jacob's that is exercised in the drama that unfolds in Genesis. Through Jacob, God teaches the virtue of mastering one's impulses.Who is mighty? One who controls one's natural urges (Pirkei Avot 4:1).

A Jewish leader must be concerned not only with his or her personal well-being, but also with the future of the Jewish people. The consequences of some decisions transcend the individual and rise to the level of the communal, national or even global domain. As challenging to societal norms as it may have been in ancient Israel or as difficult for our modern moral sensibilities as it may be, the preference for Jacob over Esau demonstrates the principle that instead of applying customs mindlessly we ought to be mindful of situations that may override custom. Apparently, Jacob was the best person to be the third generational link in the people that would eventually become the Jews. Again we read in Torah an ancient story with contemporary meaning.

To Talk About

  1. Esau had a hard time controlling his impulses. Is it easy or hard for you to wait when you want something? What makes it easier some times and harder other times?
  2. Jacob offered to give Esau food in exchange for his birthright. Do you think this was a fair trade for Jacob to suggest? Do you think Esau should have said no? When do you decide that a price is too big to pay for something you want?
  3. Think of a choice you made on impulse. What were the consequences? Would you have acted differently if you had considered the repercussions of your actions?

Further Learning

The traditional blessing parents say when a child reaches the age of bar or bat mitzvah comes from the midrash cited above. It concludes, A man is responsible for his son until the age of thirteen; thereafter he must say, "Blessed is the One who has now freed me from the responsibility of this child." What is the midrash telling us about the influence of parents and families on children? What does the midrash say about the limits of parents' responsibility for their children's behavior?

1/01/2006
Reference Materials: 

Tol'dot, Genesis 25:19–28:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 173–189; Revised Edition, pp. 172–189;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 133–156