The Torah portion Toldot (Gen. 25:19 – 28:9) illustrates the struggles of nations and individuals. We are simultaneously the inheritors of this mess and the participants – all of them – in the heart-breaking. So, I want to look at the sad state we’re in and see if we can find a way through by considering different aspects of the story.
Opening and Closing Angst
Rebecca’s story in this portion is bookended by two moments of terrible angst, both involving her children as individuals and as nations. She cries, “If so, why am I?” and learns that she carries two warring nations in her womb (Gen. 25:22ff).
— not unlike our situation right now, as U.S. citizens, I think.
Toward the end of the portion we are told that Jacob headed off “to Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel the Aramean, brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.” (Gen. 27:45)
Her stated hope – that Jacob will remain with Laban just long enough for Esau’s wrath to cool – is not realized in her lifetime. Later, Isaac’s death is reported, but hers is not. So this is the last image in the Torah that we have of Rebecca: an individual who somehow birthed two nations, and then worked to manipulate their fates, now holding out hope for reconciliation between them, as one seethes and the other inherits, and she watches them part.
At no point in this portion do we see the extreme hospitality and generosity she exhibited at the well where she gave Eleazar a drink and watered his camels. We don’t see it from her, it’s not present in Isaac’s wranglings over the wells, and it’s antithesis appears when Jacob refuses to share food with his hungry brother without forcing Esau into a permanent abdication of rights.
Lentil Disaster and Beyond
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove points out in a 2011 drash:
Jacob and Esau could not share a bowl of lentil soup without provocation, never mind a Thanksgiving dinner. Unlike modern psychology, the Torah does not find the primary shaper of human identity between parent and child, but rather between siblings. — “Brother, Can You Spare a Blessing?“
And the state of the siblings in this portion is a deep and painful mess.
In addition to the lentil disaster, there is the deception over the blessing and Esau’s threat to kill Jacob because of it.
We learn from a 19th Century midrash that Rebecca convinced Jacob to flee, saying:
Whichever of you will be slain I shall be bereaved in one day, since one will be no more, slain, and the murderer of his brother will be detested by me as an enemy and stranger, and will be, in my eyes, as non-existing. I will thus be bereaved of both of them.
– Em Lemikra: A commentary on Pentateuch (R. Elijah Benamozegh; 1823-1900)
found in Neshama Leibowitz Studies in Genesis: “Mother of Jacob and Esau”
An important midrashic thought to remind us that any murder destroys at least two lives. And I think it suggest that, like Rebecca, we are partially responsible for creating – or allowing – conditions that can lead to murder and we might consider our responsibility to help create better conditions that could prevent murders.
And then, even when murder is avoided, we still have to cope with Esau’s cry.
A Sibling’s Cry
As their story unfolds, we learn – from at least disparate two threads of commentary – that a single cry from Esau had repercussions for Jacob for centuries and into the current day.
After Isaac gave the blessing to Jacob, Esau “cried with a loud and bitter cry” (27:34): וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד
Breishit Rabbah points to a similar expression in the Esther story after Mordechai learns of the edict against the Jews (4:1):
Jacob made Esau break out into a cry but once, and where was he punished for it? In Shushan the capital, as it says: “And he cried with a loud and bitter cry.” (וַיִּזְעַק זְעָקָה גְדוֹלָה וּמָרָה*)
*“cry” is spelled differently in the two verses, but Nechama Leibowitz calls the phrases identical, and clearly Breishit Rabbah saw a link.
In this midrash, the twins shift from individual brothers to nations, as retribution for tears of Esau, the man, comes – in God’s own time – to Jacob, the nation of Israel. As Leibowitz explains it: “The Almighty, who takes note of our tears, also takes note of those shed by the wicked Esau. They also are noted and cry out for retribution.” (Note: The “wicked” is Leibowitz’s adjective, one common in traditional interpretations.)
The Zohar also tells us that the tears of Esau do not exist solely within this portion’s narrative: Instead, it is taught that the Messiah will not come until Esau’s tears have stopped flowing. (Zohar II, Shemot 12b; more below)
It seems that both Esau and Jacob are understood as their national selves in the Zohar’s understanding. In both commentaries, however, Esau’s tears blur into a much something larger than one man’s injury.
Sibling Tears Today
As it happens, my older sister, Martha, and I had a chance over the summer to discuss the state of the nation and of our extended family. Martha reminded me that our dad – whose 40th yahrzeit passed in August – used to say that peace, in any kind of communal or national sense, was impossible until brothers learned to get along. And, he said, the bible taught how unlikely that was. Still, we were led to believe, as I recall, that the fate of the world rested on our small shoulders whenever any of the four of us had a minor spat.
While I doubt that our dad knew Breishit Rabbah or the Zohar, he managed to convey a similar sense, on the one hand, of the magnitude and persistence of interpersonal injuries and, on the other hand, of our power to affect change on a communal or national level by improving relationships with those closest to us.
At a recent program on racial justice, held at Adas Israel, an activist and teacher, black woman and a Jew, Yavilah McCoy stressed the importance of being what she calls “proximate” to the people with whom we are struggling for justice – in both senses, that is, those we oppose and those we join in common struggle. Proximity is the only way people learn and change, she said.
McCoy gave an example that stuck with me: If your aunty badmouths your mom, you don’t write to the New York Times about it; you talk to aunty and mom. And that, she said, is how injuries are resolved.
So, that’s what I’d like to discuss:
- What are our possibilities for resolving very old and very painful circumstances between brother individuals and brother nations?
- When are we Rebecca? When Esau? And when Jacob?
- And when are we Isaac, who seems so damaged and confused himself that he lets everyone else do the emotional work?
One last note: Centuries of commentary appear to speak of the persistence of Esau’s tears without claiming that he should have received the blessing or even that anyone in the story should have behaved differently.
Postscript on brothers, etc.
The portion drifts constantly from the personal to the national, beginning with the opening verse –
וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַבְרָהָם: אַבְרָהָם, הוֹלִיד אֶת-יִצְחָק.
“This is the line” – or: “these are the offspring” – “of Isaac son of Abraham – Abraham begot Isaac” (24:19).
There are several traditional explanations for starting the line of Isaac with “Abraham begot Isaac.” One idea that caught my attention is from the 13th Century teacher, Chizkuni: The odd phrasing emphasizes that Abraham not only sired Isaac but raised him, and he did so after his name and destiny were changed to Abraham, “father of multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5).
The stress on “multitude of nations” is particularly important to consider at this point, poised between the lineage of Ishmael – which includes twelve princes by their nations (25:16) – and that of Isaac, which will include Esau and Jacob, who are both brothers and nations.
In the Midrash it is written: “Messiah, son of David, will not come until the tears of Esau have ceased to flow.” The children of Israel, who are God’s children, pray for mercy day and night; and shall they weep in vain so long as the children of Esau shed tears? But “the tears of Esau” – that does not mean the tears which the people of the earth weep and you do not weep; they are the tears that all human being weep when the ask something for themselves, and pray for it. And truly: Messiah, son of David, will not come until such tears have ceased to flow, until you weep because the Divine Presence is exiled, and because you year for its return.
— Martin Buber. The Way of Man/Ten Rungs, p. 199
NY: Citadel Press, 2006 (Ten Rungs, originally published Schocken 1947)
See also “Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Redemption” by Rabbi Toba Spitzer on Kol Nidre 5762 (shortly after 9/11/2001):
Maybe this is what we can learn out of the depths of the tragedy we have witnessed. That redemption will come when all tears have ceased, when all sources of suffering have been repaired. Our redemption is somehow linked to the fate of even those whom we consider our enemies. Their tears and ours are ultimately not so different.
The human spirit is so large when we allow it to be; the incredible outpouring of bravery and love and money in these past two weeks is testament to that. Let’s not squander this opportunity to make the most of what we’ve learned about ourselves, the good and the bad. Let’s name the sins that need to be named, let’s confess them together, and then let’s come together to begin to imagine a better way. Let’s dry Esau’s tears, and our own, and begin to figure out what it will take to make redemption real.
(Zohar II, Shemot 12b)