It strikes me that the Torah plays favorites a great deal. There are ways in which I understand this: I have several cats, and there is no question that one of them shines for her sweetness and wit, another for his general easy-going nature, a third for his charming habit of massaging one’s back if you lie down. This being said, if I had to choose just one, I think it would be really difficult.
I imagine this is the case for most families when thinking about multiple children — though I only have one, so she is my most favorite, always! I can’t imagine that it was vastly different in ancient times, though I do imagine that the gender of a child may have played a role in the view held by the parents of that individual.
The Torah, however, gives us the situation of sons: oftentimes two, sometimes many, where one is favored over the others. Why do we keep coming back to this theme? Does there always have to be a better and a worse child?
I do understand on a certain level the need to feel special as a people, in which we know we are descended from the favored son of a favored son.
In truth, everyone is special. I wonder if this is reflected in the beginning of this parshah, where, finally pregnant, Rebecca is having a hard time of it. The discomfort is almost unbearable. According to a midrash, she would go to other women and ask them: Did you ever suffer like this in your pregnancies? When they replied in the negative, she then wondered about why she had gotten pregnant in the first place — was it worth this pain? (Remember that this is not the pain of birth — that she appears to handle with aplomb.)
Thus, she says, “If so, why do I exist?” (Bereishit Rabbah 63:6) — as in, why go through this all? When she asks God, she is told of the conflict between her two children, a set up for her relationship to them in the future: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”
So in some sense, Rebecca is responding to the Divine revelation — she is helping to fulfill the prophecy by helping Jacob. Many of the matriarchs are barren for a while. It is about the creation of something special — a child from a woman decreed childless.
There is another interesting theme in the midrash here, that of Rebecca’s womb itself. One source says that actually, she had no womb, and that “when God heard Isaac’s prayer, God shaped a womb for her” (Bereishit Rabbah 63:5).
At the other end of the pregnancy, we learn two things: that Jacob was born circumcised (another thing that makes him special, Bereishit Rabbah 63:7) and that Esau actually destroys her womb so as to prevent any more children from emerging, and presumably challenging his birthright further (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Zakhor 3:1).
A womb provide by the Divine would indeed be a miraculous one, and the destruction of it by the elder son could be another reason for Rebecca’s favoritism. Note that in many cultures, circumcision is a mark of sexual maturity, the promise of procreation. Looking at her infant sons, she may have seen God’s promise in Jacob, and loved him for it, as a way of fulfilling the prophecy without the difficulty of another pregnancy.
Perhaps in the end, she too wished for no more strife — that she accepted the end of her child-bearing as a tikkun, so that no further discontent be brought into the world through her. Thus she may have been grateful to Esau, while still eager to nurture the blessings that came through Jacob.
If this is true, maybe Rebecca wasn’t playing favorites after all — she was merely being guided by the Divine.
I hope Rebecca went to her deathbed knowing the joy of parenting both of her children, and the pleasure of holding grandchildren on her knee, telling stories of their father’s boyhood.
Rabbi Elisheva Salamo is the spiritual leader of Keddem Congregation in Palo Alto.