Shabbat Toldot: Trust, Despite Everything

In parashat Toldot we read of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob, born to Rebekah and Isaac after years of trying to get pregnant, and much frustration and difficulty. The family that is created when the children are safely born seems to thrive: their parents succeed in helping their boys to find for each a distinct identity. A family of four, well-off and living at a peaceful time – they look as if all is well.
It all falls apart so fast, in a morality play that seems to demonstrate the damage a controlling parent can do to a child – or, perhaps, the way that deception and betrayal can tear even close families apart. At least, they seemed close.
Those who study the human condition, from ancient Rabbis to modern psychologists, remind us that there is much to be learned not from what we experience, but from how we react to our experiences. Faced with a crisis, Rebekah turns to deception; Jacob ignores his misgivings to go along; Isaac, it is suggested, knows what is happening but shrinks from confrontation; and angry Esau, at the short end, snarls and stomps out, threatening murder.
What if someone had simply spoken directly to the crisis? Why was there no trust among this family’s members? Why did everyone assume the worst?
Consider Isaac, neither the creator of his world – Abraham did that – nor really able to control it. Isaac, who was not killed in the Akedah, who survived his parenting and now is to carry forward their vision. Israeli sociologists speak of the “Isaac generation,” that person or generation that comes of age in the shadow of larger-than-life parents. In the early years of the State of Israel, after the heroes of old founded the state, their children had difficulty discerning how they might make their own contribution to the world. The same is true of any of us whose parent is of an outsize fame or reputation; that identity shadows our own, and it may prove difficult to find one’s own sense of identity.
There is an unfortunately significant attribute of the Isaac generation: its vulnerability to disappointment and cynicism. The first generation carries a great and visionary hope, but afterward, the deconstructionist histories are published, and we learn that all those to whom we had looked up and followed are only human – and some, a great deal worse. Sometimes we might find ourselves driven to punish those who disappoint us in ways that seem to reduce them to the kind of shadow some of us may feel we ourselves are.
Most of us have either felt or can easily imagine the enervation of having our early faith in god-like heroes destroyed. It has been suggested that we ourselves – the people of the United States of America – are part of a great Isaac-generation despair that began with the Vietnam War and sharpened with Watergate. Of course, it is also possible to go back much further, to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, which stained United States society and polity from the beginning.
Jewish tradition offers us a radical teaching in the face of all this demoralization: if you feel betrayed by another person, review your own assumptions. Why is it that you are reacting the way you do? What other choices might you have?
Jewish mysticism teaches that while we may not feel that we can always access a sense of faith – in ourselves, in others, in G*d – we can always act out of trust. Our tradition is full of stories of Jews betrayed by life who, bereft of the feeling of G*d’s presence, insist on it. The Piacezsner Rebbi, who led his people in the dark days of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught that even those who feel no faith can reach up to the ladder between heaven and earth and, by sheer force of will, pull themselves toward G*d, and bring G*d’s presence down to them.
Feeling unhappy, betrayed, misunderstood, disappointed? Reach up and pull heaven down into your heart again. All you need is your yetzer hara’s stubbornness, turned toward the lifeline rather than the pit. Then, judge each other, not from a place of demoralization, but from kindness and empathy, and so fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.
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Shabbat Toldot: The Unraveling

This Shabbat we read parashat Toldot. Two boys are born to Rebekah and Isaac. Esau and Jacob are twins, born together – Jacob’s name reflects the fact that he is born holding on to his brother’s heel. Surely they will grow up to be close.

But they grow up very differently. Esau loves the outdoors, and learns to track and hunt. He is most alive when immersed in the natural surroundings of their lives. Jacob, the Torah tells us, is a quiet young man who “dwells in tents”, someone who cooks with his mother. Surely, though, their differences need cause no distance between them.

The Torah’s narration of their early lives emphasizes their differences, though, and it seems inevitable that the conflict will occur, as it does. The blessing of the first born can only be given to one of them, and when Jacob manages to steal it from his brother, older by about two seconds, Esau swears to kill him. And so this family is rent asunder, for Jacob must leave home, and Esau is left bereft not only of blessing but of his companion, his twin.

How does this unraveling occur? How might they have stopped it from happening? And what can we learn from this story, so as not to repeat it?

We in this United States of America have long been taught that we are all brothers and sisters, twins so to speak in the opportunities that lie before us, the glowing horizon that beckons us. Why is it that we end up at odds with those who should be our companions? How is it that we end up stealing blessings from each other? Is there not another way, a way in which we might demand that there is enough blessing for all?

In these days as winter closes in and we withdraw to warm dwellings (and may we not forget to look after those who have no place to get warm!), there is much to keep us contemplative and thoughtful. Soon enough we will be called to act – many of us are already active in one way or another. Now is a good time to not only gather together, as we will soon for Hanukkah, but also to settle into learning what we can.

I recommend this book, The Unwinding, that I am settling down to read. I would be interested in your thoughts about it as we continue to meet, and talk, and pray over the questions of what we are called upon to do, and how we might be reconnected to our twins who grew up in this country of promise with us, and yet are so far away from us that some have even spoken of killing – have even killed – those whom they see as in some way stealing from them.

On this Shabbat, may we find learning, and quiet consideration – no conclusions necessarily ripe to be drawn, but perhaps, just maybe, a memory of once long ago, a touch of a hand upon our heel, a grasp of one with whom we were born and with whom we will find our destiny.