Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Tol’dot 5781 Nechemta
Aaron and Sam, I love that you wrote one d’var Torah together. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone do that before, and it was as if your medium was your message. And your message, about the particular closeness of twins, was a great way to approach a question for all human relationships and really all human existence. Most of us are born into the world singly. We spend our months of gestation alone and we emerge into the world alone. Most of us also die alone. Much of what it is to be human is to be at least a little bit alone. No one else is exactly like you, not even if you’re lucky enough to have a twin, not even an identical twin.
But all of us, 100% of humans, spend our existence in relationship. We develop in the womb of our mother. We are born to parents or caregivers. We live at all times in relationship. Some of those relationships may be closer and some may be more distant—none of us singly-born people can know what it is like to have the closeness of a birth-mate. But whether it’s siblings or parents or other loved ones or friends, everyone exists in the context of relationships.
A major theme of the Torah is the question of closeness and distance between people. About oneness or togetherness versus separateness. About similarity and difference. About love and hate, empathy and alienation, loyalty and betrayal. Twins are a concentrated version of all siblings and siblings are a concentrated version of all relationships. Sometimes there is competition, anger, jealousy, violence. Sometimes there is peacemaking, compassion, forgiveness. The Torah is exploring the tension between the longing for closeness and the need for individuation, between the desire for dominance and the desire for nurturance.
When we move from Genesis to Exodus and the rest of the Torah, the focus expands from family to tribe to nation. From the question of how you treat your sister or your brother to the question of how you treat your fellow Israelite, or the stranger, or the foreigner. All of it is about what it’s like to be an individual among other people. About the ethics of relationships, about where our responsibility to one another begins and ends, and the question: how do we live together in peace? Whether that’s with our twin or the other nations of the world.
In fact, this parasha is explicit that this sibling relationship is a stand-in for an international relationship. “Two nations are in your womb,” God tells Rebecca, “two separate peoples shall issue from your body. One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”
The assumption underlying the Jacob-Esau story is that success is dominance. That thriving is winning, and that winning is defeating someone else. The assumption is that in this relationship at least mutual success—the idea that when you do better, I do better, that a rising tide lifts all boats—is impossible. That there is only one blessing, only one birthright, to go around. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. That my gain has to be your loss. I wonder if many of us can relate to the experience of seeing a friend or colleague shine or experience great success and rather than feeling pure joy we feel a little bit diminished, as if our own success or our light is a little dimmer in comparison.
When God says of the two brothers (the two nations), “u’l’om m’l’om ye’ematz,” one will be mightier than the other, Rashi says it means: “when one rises the other will fall.” About the idea that Jacob was born holding onto Esau’s heel, Rashi says that it is, “A sign that this one (Esau) will hardly have time to complete his period of domination before the other (Jacob) would rise up and take his power from him.” Life is a zero sum game. You are either dominant or subservient, success or failure, winner or loser, and winning depends upon other people’s loss. This is representative of a worldview that is so widespread, I would argue that it is usually unconscious for most of us, it is assumed about how the world works. It is a worldview that has most recently, most crassly, and most relentlessly been expressed by our president. It would be impossible to be sentient in the last four years and not to have become aware of this message. That you’re either a winner or a loser. That success is dominance. And this is something of a gift, because if it was already in us in a more subtle form, and now we are aware of it in its ugliness, we can examine it within ourselves with greater consciousness.
The prophet you read today, Malachi, says in Chapter 2, verse 10, “Have we not all one father? Did not one God create us? Why do we break faith with one another profaning our covenant?”
Of course there are some things in the world that are defined by winning or losing— chess, for example, soccer, elections. But our greatest human challenges, the successes that are most important for our survival and well-being, are not like this. The most immediate and obvious example is climate change. You cannot win at reversing climate change by defeating others. You cannot restore the ecosystem through domination. Success requires cooperation and is interdependent. We either all succeed together or we all fail.
There is no better place for us to learn and practice the idea of mutual success, of winning together, than in sibling relationships. Sibling rivalry is natural at some stages of our development, but in time many of us learn to bask in the glow of our sisters’ and brothers’ achievements, to be proud of them, to learn from them, to genuinely derive pleasure from our brothers’ and our sisters’ thriving. This can be true among people, and it can be true among nations.
The assumption in this week’s parasha that there was one birthright, one blessing to be had, that one brother had to dominate the other, was an entirely unnecessary assumption. The brothers could have each become different expressions of the family legacy. In fact, in the end, Isaac did give both sons a blessing. And they did each go off to succeed in different ways, not needing to dominate in order to thrive.
Sam and Aaron, may we follow the example you’ve given us today of your joint, interwoven d’var Torah, and see our success as interwoven with one another’s. May we learn through our closest relationships that we too can mutually succeed. May we learn to lift each other up, may we learn to share our birthright. Our very survival may depend on it.