From the moment of their conception, the twins, Jacob and Esau, struggled for survival and identity. Twins share many things — womb space, crib space, food, clothing, parents’ attention. But most twins are really very different from one another.
This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, begins with twins struggling in Rebekah’s womb. She turns to God with an existential cry: “Im ken lamah zeh anochi,” “If this is so, why do I exist?” (Gen. 25:22) With all the kicking going on as I await the birth of twins, I can certainly relate! My husband and I are hoping, though, that we will fare differently from our biblical ancestors.
When the moment of birth is at hand, the portion goes on to describe the differences between Esau and Jacob. Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors, while Jacob was a mild man, who preferred to stay at home in the tent.
We know how the story unfolds. This portion is the ultimate tale of parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, and family upheaval. The text goes on to describe how Isaac favored Esau and how Rebekah favored Jacob and encouraged him to usurp Esau’s birthright and blessing.
The Torah opens the door to many questions. Why did each parent favor one child over the other? What was so different about each twin and more importantly, what was so different about how Isaac and Rebekah each showed their love for their children?
The Chassidic commentary of the Sefat Emet sheds light on what we would call today, different “parenting styles.” Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger commented on Genesis 25:29, “Isaac loved Esau for he relished his venison, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” The rabbi goes on to say, “The Torah gives a reason for Isaac’s love, it was not a true love, for it depended upon a particular thing [the venison]. If that thing were to disappear, so would the love. But Rebekah loved Jacob without any reason, and her love lasted forever. She even came to love him more. This means that her love did not depend upon any particular thing.”
Putting aside for a moment the obvious flaw of parental favoritism, the commentary teaches a powerful lesson about unconditional love. If we were to follow Rebekah’s model, then the Torah would be instructing us to love our children without qualifications and reservations, not as a means to an end, but joyfully and unconditionally.
It is interesting to note that while parents must love their children, children are not obligated to love their parents, only to honor them. As author and psychologist, Wendy Mogel, observes in her book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” “There are passages in the Torah requiring us to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbors. Yet nowhere does God decree that children must
love their parents! The fifth commandment — ‘Honor your father and your mother’ — is about behavior, not feelings.”
Just as God understood that it is difficult for people to feel gratitude instead of envy, God also recognized that children are not naturally inclined to treat their parents with respect, so God commanded it.”
Honor is as important as love. Sadly, Jacob showed a lack of honor toward his father when he stole Isaac’s blessing for Esau.
Yet, as it is with every family, forgiveness is essential. Although this Torah portion ends with pain and separation, later in the Torah Jacob struggles with his conscience and actions, Esau forgives him, and the brothers embrace by the Jabbok river.
In our American tradition, this is the week when families come together to give thanks. It is a time to show love, honor, and gratitude. When I ask children what they are thankful for, most often they reply, “family.” Like Jacob and Esau, we might be sharing close quarters with our families this week. But, we too, might become reconciled with children, siblings, parents, and grandparents. May we all be fortunate enough to find ways to show love toward our neighbor and to receive love and honor in return.
Rabbi Karen S. Citrin is the associate rabbi at Reform Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.