Parshat Toldot

Torah Reading for Week of November 15-21, 2020
“Chasing Family Harmony One Generation at a Time”
By Rabbi Mindie Snyder, ’15
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
The best way to break down barriers between people or communities is through simple, unforced acts of kindness. One act can undo years of estrangement.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z”l
In the best of all possible worlds, two people who love and respect one another make a commitment to always be there for each other and raise children who are loved, seen, heard, valued and appreciated. In this ideal family system, all thrive in a beautifully constructed moral paradigm, all the days of their lives. Harmony reigns. Peace is the normal state of things.
After God created light and began to fashion universal order, separating the waters of the heavens from the waters of the earth, the human part of Creation was not so good. Relationships became difficult and complicated, particularly within the family. Initially, when God separated the waters from the heavens and the waters from the earth (Gen.1:6-13) that division reflected a new, well-crafted order. In contrast, when Rebekah was informed by God that two (distinctly different) peoples were in her womb, the seeds of conflict were brewing (Gen. 25: 23-27). Here, the act of separation would be the locus of a painful mess.
The first expression of love in Torah was when Isaac “loved” Rebekah (Gen. 24:67).   That appeared to be easier and much more straight-forward than how love was expressed within their growing family. The unifying field of love became divided and the cultural mores of the day were challenged. It came to pass, that Isaac would favor the first born twin, Esau and Rebekah would favor the second born twin, Jacob. When Isaac was aged, infirm and vulnerable, Rebekah and her co-conspirator, Jacob, would create the circumstances wherein Esau’s birthright and ultimate blessing from his father were strategically sabotaged.
This narrative featuring Isaac, Rebecca, Esau and Jacob introduces aspects of elder abuse, economic abuse and psychological abuse. Although rabbis and sages have rationalized that Jacob was the more appropriate one of the twins to carry forward the tradition established by his grandfather, Abraham, distressing family dynamics are present in the story and questions arise. Did things really transpire how they were pre-ordained? The actual meaning behind Torah’s poetry in Gen. 25:23 has been disputed: “The elder shall serve the younger, or the younger shall serve the elder ” have been understood differently. Was Esau robbed? How did parental preferences damage trust between family members? What were the long-term consequences of conditional love affecting the characters in this story?
Torah’s tales of conflict between brothers and sisters, beginning with Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:8-10), occur with some frequency. They remind us that we are our brothers‘   and sisters’ keepers. With Esau and Jacob, age and maturity ultimately allow the arc of their relationship to change for the better. Following Jacob’s famous night of wrestling and the subsequent acquisition of his new name, Israel (God-Wrestler), well-established fences between them were mended (Gen. 33:10 ). Dissolving parental differences and historic boundary busts, Esau’s anger abated and Jacob was able to see the face of God in his brother; reinforcing that healing can manifest within the most hopeless of cases.
To this day, domestic violence takes many forms and continues to challenge the health and wellbeing of individuals, relationships, families. Manipulation, deception, devaluation, neglect are characteristics of this societal ill, as much as physical, sexual and economic forms of abuse. Although we are currently living through the harsh realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence patterns continue to infect relationships the world over. In fact, the pandemic increases the severity of the problem due to isolation and economic stressors. In a “normal” year, the CDC has identified domestic violence, in some form, among 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men. Domestic violence incidents are currently trending upwards between 20% and 30%. Unlike COVID-19, there will be no preventative vaccine for violence among family members,   or within the context of relationships, in our lifetime. Therefore, the responsibility for living healthy lives, with attention to selfless love, remains solidly with each of us.
This Shabbat, while we pray that our children grow to be like the harmonious siblings, Ephraim and Manasseh, may we find ways to help ourselves and others heal from the wounds and disenfranchisement of uncaring, indifferent, abusive people. May we embody lovingkindness (chesed), a primary value of the Jewish tradition and know that peace and reconciliation, in various forms, are indeed possible.
Kein y’hi ratzon!
Shabbat Shalom!