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Troubled Family, Great Destiny

Torah Talk on Toldot 5780

The story of the twins, Jacob and Esau, begins in utero. Rivals from before birth, wrestling in their mother Rebecca’s womb, the red-haired outdoorsman Esau and his grasping, domestically inclined younger brother Jacob spend our portion of Toldot vying for their father’s and mother’s love and attention. Each is partly successful, and each partly fails. That sibling rivalry shaped the course of our people’s early history, but it also can teach us something about ourselves.

First, a word about words: Toldot is rich in real-life details told in spectacularly perfect writing. Rebecca, pregnant with the two boys wrestling inside her, tells God, “If it’s like this, why am I alive?” prefiguring the words every pregnant mom thinks (or says!) at some point. Esau is hairy and rough at birth, Jacob is smooth, born holding fast to Esau’s heel. Esau, famished from a long hunt, trades his birthright for a bowl of stew and then “ate, drank, stood up, left, and disdained,” the series of active verbs delineating his turbulent, thoughtless character. Jacob, smooth-faced and smooth-talking lawyer that he is, audibly calculates the coming consequences of each action.

Now, on to that little rivalry. The familial tension in Toldot is palpable throughout. In fact, there is tzoris enough to go around for everyone in this small family: Isaac, the father and link between more important patriarchs, finds trouble everywhere but avoids it by simply moving on. Each time he finds more success, and then more trouble, and moves again. Rebecca sees the wayward ways of her eldest boy, Esau, and chooses to manipulate the situation to give the inheritance to Jacob, remaking the birth order retroactively.

But the great struggle is between Jacob and Esau. I’m reminded of the 1960’s TV stars “The Smothers Brothers” old line: Mom liked you best. Mom certainly liked Jacob best, while dad liked Esau best. That kind of favoritism cannot end well, and in the short term it doesn’t. At the end of our portion Esau has been doubly defrauded, while Jacob is forced to flee the consequences of his own duplicity, running from the only home he has known without so much as a blanket.

In a sense, the conflicted family damages all of its members. Each is wounded, none left really whole. It is a drama similar to so many of our own lives.

And yet, in a couple of more Torah portions, we will see that each member of this now shattered nuclear family has played, or will play, a central role in furthering God’s design for our world. In spite of their mistakes and their injuries, each helps, ultimately, to carry out pivotal elements that further God’s mission, and that will create the great people of Israel.

In challenging times, and in conflicted families, it is often hard to see that ultimately there is a divine plan, or a place for each participant within it. But Toldot—which means generations, by the way—teaches us that in spite of what we might perceive in our own, small field of vision, God is at work in this world, and we may very well be furthering a greater plan.

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