Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Toldot 5783
Many people in this room grew up at CBE and are currently in college, which means that many people in this room were once 5th graders in Yachad, which means that many people in this room participated, once upon a time, in the great trial of Jacob versus Esau. You may recall that 5th graders find themselves preparing for months for an elaborate courtroom scene divided between Jacob and Esau, in which every member of the class is defending or prosecuting one brother or the other. They develop legal briefs. Parents come in to adjudicate. It’s the focal point of the year.
Well here we are this Shabbat in Parashat Toldot, a rare Torah portion occupied almost entirely by this one story. Some of you obviously know it, but for those who might not, here we have a dysfunctional family on display. The parents, Isaac and Rebecca, openly favor one child or the other. The kids Esau and Jacob, twins, as different from one another as can be, battle for dominance in the womb and beyond. Ultimately, Rebecca and Jacob trick blind Isaac into bestowing the family birthright onto younger brother Jacob by disguising him as his older brother. Esau, upon discovering the deception, vows to kill his younger brother, and Jacob flees for his life.
As is familiar to all former Yachad 5th graders, our commentators are very ready with critique of these characters. You have Esau, who in the text itself is pretty innocent, made out to be either stupid or the ultimate villain by the Rabbis, who criticize his passion for hunting as a harbinger and symbol of the violence of ancient Rome and therefore the personification of evil. You have Isaac, whose blindness is read as ineptitude and insensitivity to the others in the family. You have Rebecca, who is often read with a dollop of misogyny, as a conniving and manipulative housewife and mother. And you have Jacob, who the Rabbis want to defend as the father of our people, but is the most overtly unethical in first convincing his starving brother to trade his birthright for a bowl of lentils, and then impersonating his brother to his father, exploiting his father’s disability, and openly lying to his father to get the birthright and blessing that is clearly intended for his brother.
On this particular Shabbat I can’t help but imagine this family around the Thanksgiving table. Here we have the parent who isn’t tuned in to the kids, doesn’t really see them, has a fixed and limited sense of who they are. Here we have the parent who is trying to control the outcome and the path for each kid. Here we have the kid who feels entitled, who thinks everything’s coming to them, they deserve it all. Here we have the competition between siblings —to be seen, to be the best, to be the most loved. Whatever the dynamics of your Thanksgiving table last night — at least you didn’t have Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Esau around it. That’s another thing to be grateful for.
Being in a family is wonderful and also hard, and when we come back from college for Thanksgiving – I bet you every one in this room can identify with this and remember it, even if it was a long time ago — you get plunged back in to whatever those dynamics of your family are. No matter how loving and healthy your family is, there’s always stuff, every family is at least a little bit complicated. Even if you’re changing and growing in all kinds of ways at college, you’re part of a family system and coming home means you regress right back into your place and your role in that system. And parents are also growing and changing all the time, adjusting to living without our kids at home — but when they do come home we find ourselves back in familiar patterns. It can be jarring for everyone.
But there are two things we can learn from our Biblical ancestors in this parsha that might help us. First, while it’s possible to see the characters in this story with a critical eye, it’s also entirely possible to see each one of them with compassion and the benefit of the doubt. Check this out. It all starts with Rebecca, who’s most often blamed, because she comes up with the plan, dresses Jacob up and tells him to lie to his father. But if we just look at the beginning of the parasha, she feels her kids wrestling in her womb when she’s pregnant with them and calls out to Gd trying to understand what is happening and how to be their mother. And Gd tells her that her children are going to be in conflict and her younger child will be the one to prevail. So when it comes time for the birthright to be given to one child, she is just trying to fulfill what Gd has instructed, and she doesn’t seem to have a way to appeal to Isaac directly, perhaps because of her limited role as a woman, or perhaps because of his blindness. Meanwhile Isaac is deeply compromised. The midrash says that when Isaac was tied up by his father Abraham and almost sacrificed at the top of the mountain, angels looked down upon him and wept, and the tears from the angels landed in his eyes and that’s what caused his blindness. From that perspective, he’s not willfully failing to see his family. He is a traumatized person doing his best.
Meanwhile, you could see Esau as a sensitive soul who loves being outside in nature, and who simply wants to please his father with delicious food. You could see him as connected to the earth and the natural world and the body in a way the rest of his family could benefit from. And then there’s Jacob, who’s been given a sense that he’s supposed to prevail, yet he’s not as big or strong as his brother in a world where size and strength are everything, a world that doesn’t value intellectualism or the interior life. So he does what he can — he uses his mind and cooking skills to fulfill his literal Gd-given destiny. Everybody here is trying their best. Everybody here has some unique skill or ability or quality that the others could benefit from, if only they could see it that way.
And the second thing, maybe the most important thing, we can learn from this family and this parasha, is to challenge limiting assumptions. The entire drama of the portion is driven by the assumption that there is only one birthright, that there is only one blessing. But it is not true. Not at all. Rebecca and Jacob get pitted against Isaac and Esau in the battle over the idea that there is scarcity when there is not actually scarcity.
After Jacob steals Esau’s birthright and receives Isaac’s blessing, and Esau comes in to find that the blessing has already been bestowed, he howls in pain and begs his father to bless him too. And Isaac does. There is more than one blessing. That’s always been true and possible. OK, you might say, but the birthright wasn’t just the blessing, it was the inheritance of Isaac’s wealth. If that’s so, it appears that if anyone inherited the wealth it was Esau, because Jacob leaves town and accrues his own wealth. But it’s not clear, and they both end up with more than they need. Jacob becomes the father of the Jewish people, and Esau becomes the father of another large nation, the Edomites. Both have wealth and progeny and blessing. What were they fighting about?
Our world and our families are full of limiting assumptions. About what’s possible and what’s not possible. About who we are and who we can be. About how we are with each other and how we live. Because we were born with these assumptions already operating in our family, or our society, or our human family, we often can’t even see them, we don’t even know they’re there. In that sense, we’re all Isaac, just unable to see what’s right in front of us, and what’s possible. But sometimes, with a little distance or perspective, the fabric itself — of the family, of the society, of the universe — becomes visible, and we realize that the container, the very rules of the game, could be different, could be changed. There is more than one blessing.
We’re in a moment when such clear seeing, such leaps in vision are needed, existentially required. They’re not just needed but they’re going to happen. We’re on the cusp — we’re all about to see things differently. We have to. You, who are between worlds, shuttling in and out of your family systems, between the world of home and the world of college, have opportunity to practice seeing limiting assumptions for what they are. This opportunity, this capacity is to be cultivated. (And communicated gently and kindly to those still operating with the old assumptions.) The combination of compassion for each of the players involved, holding them in the benefit of the doubt, along with questioning limiting assumptions is the exact combination we need in our families, in our society and in our world.
Call up all of our college students for a blessing — there’s enough blessings for all of you!
May you hold your dear families with the compassion and empathy and benefit of the doubt that they deserve. May you hold yourselves with the compassion, empathy, and benefit of the doubt that you deserve. May you feel yourself blessed with ample blessing, knowing and feeling that there’s enough blessing to go around. May you see with crystal clarity the limiting assumptions all around you and question them and challenge them and communicate them with the gentleness and the acuity that best helps others see them too. And then may you blow through those limits, helping us all reimagine what’s possible in our society and our world that so desperately needs reimagining.