Friday, November 5, 2021/1 Kislev, 5782
Parashat Toldot Genesis 25:19−28:9
Parenting books universally warn against the dangers of favoritism. Unfortunately, Rebecca and Isaac missed the memo. This wasn’t entirely their fault. They lived in an age in which it was customary for the older son to receive the father’s birthright inheritance and blessing. Even though their son Esau was born merely moments before his twin brother Jacob, Esau was expected to receive certain privileges as the firstborn son.
The situation was complicated by a warning God offered to Rebecca during her pregnancy. “Two nations are in your womb,” God said. “Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23) In a world that expected Esau to be mightier, Rebecca was let in on a little secret that Jacob was the more capable of the two boys.
Rebecca responded to this information by showing obvious favoritism towards Jacob. Isaac favored his older son, Esau. The rising family tension was palpable. Jacob convinces Esau to give him the birthright inheritance, but the story reaches its climax as Isaac lies on his deathbed, preparing to offer the blessing to his firstborn son.
Esau expects to receive this blessing. He is Isaac’s favorite and the firstborn child. Rebecca is sure that the blessing is meant for her more capable younger son, Jacob. While Esau is out hunting and preparing a meal for his father, Rebecca helps Jacob cook his father’s meal and dress up like Esau. In disguise, Jacob enters the room, pretends to be Esau, and asks for the firstborn’s blessing. Rebecca is thrilled that her plan was successful; she is convinced that she acted out God’s will. I believe that she missed the point.
I find it hard to believe that this was God’s intent. Did God wish to create so much tension between the brothers that Jacob would have no choice but to flee from Esau’s wrath? God did tell Rebecca that Jacob would one day rule over Esau, but what if these words were not meant to instill favoritism in Rebecca but rather to lessen the bias in Isaac? What if God’s words were meant to push back at a system that favored the firstborn over all other children? Rather than handing one child a higher status, God challenged the parents to see their children for who they were and offer them the blessings and support that was most appropriate to each child?
It is, ironically, Esau who best understood this lesson. When he finds out that Jacob stole his blessing, he cries out to his father, “Do you have but one blessing, my father?” (Genesis 27:38) He cannot understand why one of them could receive their father’s blessings. Isaac cannot offer Esau the blessing he desires, but Isaac does find a blessing for Esau as well. How much agony and pain could have been avoided if only he had considered multiple blessings from the start!
Esau and Jacob are both strong men who grow to lead nations of their own, but it takes many years to overcome the rifts between them and finally find peace.
Today we know not to favor one child over the other, but there is no doubt that favoritism is still alive and well in society. As long as racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, and homophobia exist, we have not fully heeded God’s lesson. We do not need to strip others of their blessings to achieve them for ourselves. There is more than enough love and blessings in this world for every one of us.
Rabbi Cassi Kail