The fear of scarcity, the hope of abundance
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TorahParshat Toldot

The fear of scarcity, the hope of abundance

Genesis 25:19 - 28:9

(File photo)
(File photo)

The word toldot can mean “generations,” “history” or even just “story.” All those meanings are relevant here. This parshah continues both the intergenerational story of Abraham’s family and the chronicle of the Jewish people’s spiritual history. It also offers a useful perspective on human development going forward.

Parshat Toldot has many narrative episodes: Rebecca’s troubled pregnancy; the birth of fraternal twins Esau and Jacob; sibling rivalry between the brothers for their father Isaac’s attention and affection; the birthright swindle between Jacob and Esau; a famine that forces Isaac’s family to migrate for survival; a tense struggle between Isaac and the Philistine ruler Avimelech over wells and water rights; and Rebecca and Jacob’s trickery to make Isaac give Jacob the blessing meant for Esau.

It is striking how much all the episodes in Toldot are linked by a central thread: the fear that there isn’t enough — the assumption of scarcity. Rebecca fears she won’t have enough strength to survive her painful (life-threatening?) pregnancy. Esau is so afraid he’ll die from lack of food that he’s willing to give Jacob his birthright as a firstborn son. The root of Jacob’s name means not only “heel” of the foot, but also “supplanter,” “(negative) consequence,” “insidious” and “deceitful.” Jacob grabs Esau’s heel at birth and later schemes to supplant him. During the famine, Isaac fears starvation and so he risks moving his family into dangerous Philistine territory to find food. There he must contend with King Avimelech’s fear that there won’t be enough water for both their groups. Rebecca convinces Jacob that he won’t have enough resources to survive unless he resorts to deceiving Isaac over the blessings. Finally, although blessings are meant to be life-affirming, Isaac’s blessings to his sons, marred by deception, result only in fear and anger: The blessings give Jacob a promise of Divine favor, but they instill in Esau a hatred so deep that he swears to kill Jacob. The parshah ends as Jacob flees in fear for his life.

Toldot teaches that the fear of scarcity generates many evils: self-centered, “me-first” attitudes in individuals; rivalrous, destructive behavior within families; and resentment and enmity between groups of people — the “haves” and the “have-nots.” In our own time, with human-caused climate change, this primal fear has begun to dominate life worldwide. Water scarcity in many places is causing crop failure, deforestation, desertification and the increased likelihood of dangerous fires. Elsewhere, severe storms and rising seas reduce the amount of livable land and drinkable water. The fear of food and water shortages prompts selfish, deceitful behavior among nations, while the reality of famine is causing huge global migrations of people hoping — like Isaac — to find livable conditions for their families.

Parshat Toldot offers this warning not only to Jews, but to all humanity: It is an illusion to think there are no negative consequences from showering the blessing of abundance on some while withholding it from others. If we do not want to relive Toldot on a worldwide scale, humans must create a new narrative. What can we do to change the fear of scarcity into the hope of abundance? What stories do we want the next generations — our children and grandchildren — to tell about us?
Shabbat Shalom. PJC

Rabbi Doris J. Dyen is the spiritual leader of the Makom HaLev kehilla. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.

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