Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)
By Rabbi Becky Silverstein
When people hear that I am a twin, they tend to immediately ask, “are you identical or fraternal?” Upon seeing us, it is clear that we are fraternal. The next question people ask is “who is older?” And sometimes they will follow up with, “which one is the good twin?” The answers to these questions are linked—I am older because my sister is the bad twin. Just before we were born, my twin “put” her arm around my neck. The doctors took me out first to ensure that I was breathing. Thus, I am both the oldest and the good twin. If this doesn’t make sense to you biologically, that’s okay. Family stories and science don’t always line up.
This week’s Torah portion presents the story of another set of twins who struggle in their mother’s womb, Jacob and Esau. After struggling to conceive, our text teaches that Rebekah carries twins who struggle in her womb. I picture Jacob and Esau in utero attempting to establish connection with each other, to assert dominance, and to do the work needed to establish themselves as individuals – typical twin stuff. The Torah text alludes to a power dynamic already coming into being. Rebekah pleads with Gd to understand the struggle in her womb, and Gd replies, “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 will serve the younger” (Gen 25:23). Jacob and Esau are not given the opportunity to work things out for themselves; even as they struggle in their mother’s womb, their fate is already sealed, and they are given national identities.
The rabbinic tradition presents several commentaries on the struggle between Jacob and Esau. One set of midrashim positions Esau and Jacob in opposition to each other: Jacob as an inhabitant of the synagogue and house of study, Esau as an idol worshipper. One midrash teaches that Jacob would try to leave the womb when Rivka stood in front of places of worship and study, while Esau would do the same in front of places of idol worship. Another comments that at the age of 13, Jacob went to the house of study, while Esau went to worship idols. The rabbis frame Esau’s decision to go worship idols as the source of the traditional blessing recited at a Bar Mitzvah, “Blessed is the one who has freed me from the responsibility of this boy.” Jacob and Esau are destined not only to be two separate nations, but also to provide us with opposite paradigms of what it means to be a good Jew. Jacob is the child we want our children to be; Esau the one we throw our hands up at.
In another midrash, Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish give us two more interpretations of the twins’ struggle in the womb. Rabbi Yochanan understood Jacob and Esaus’s struggle as each running to kill the other. Reish Lakish understood that each set aside the commandments of the other. Both imply that Jacob and Esau are destined to a life of animosity. Yet Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan’s own relationship as study partners serves as evidence of the ways in which conflict and difference can be the source of deep relationship and new understandings. The potential for relationship, however hidden, can not be completely denied.
In our text and tradition, Jacob and Esau are not just characters; they are nations and paradigms. They are set in opposition, with a seed of connection that will forever bind them together.
The story of what happens after their birth does not align smoothly with the understanding of Esau as the archetype for idol worship and Jacob the archetype for ideal Jew. The manipulation and deception that runs through Esau’s selling of his birthright, and Rebekah’s deception of Isaac on behalf of Jacob, muddy the story. Our Torah spotlights the flawed humanity of all involved, particularly the vulnerability of Isaac and the despair of Esau who weeps at his father’s bedside after being told his brother received his father’s blessing.
There are many things that have shaped who I am in this world, none more than my relationship with my twin sister. The connection that we have created, and which began in the womb, has been the platform on which I’ve built much of my life. Within our relationship I have learned how to share, cultivated compassion, and become a better listener. She and I have worked together to organize our family toward certain outcomes, and to support each other in difficult moments. Within our relationship, I have also caused pain and been hurt, and moved towards healing.
We are not all twins, but we do all have close personal relationships. Cultivating compassion, connection, and constructive conflict in our personal relationships allows us to do the same in the world. Embracing the complexity of family relationships can help us embrace the complexity of the world. Learning how to fight for our voice or survival can also occur in family systems. Resisting the desire to stay fixed in our familial roles and habits, to not allow our closest people to become archetypes of themselves, can help us do the same with others.
Esau is not just an idol-worshipper and the father of Edom: he is also Jacob’s twin brother. They are not afforded the opportunity to write their own stories, but we are. For us to become fully ourselves and build the world we want to live in, we need to resist the creation of archetypes and the writing of stories that present a smoothed over version of the complexity and struggle of life.
Rabbi Becky Silverstein, a 2014 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, believes in the power of community, Torah, and silliness in transforming the world. He currently serves, as a Jewish Spiritual Advisor at Northeastern University’s Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service and Program Manager for the Boston Teen Beit Midrash. Prior to joining Northeastern, he served as Director of Education at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in California.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.