Sibling rivalry, parental favoritism, trickery, a stolen blessing and a death threat make for a pretty dysfunctional family — or a Biblical reality TV show.
It’s also the synopsis of “Toldot” — this week’s Torah portion.
In Toldot, which means “generations,” the new generation of Abraham’s family comes to life as Isaac and Rebecca welcome the birth of twin boys: Esau and Jacob (Esav and Ya’akov in Hebrew). Even as fetuses in the womb, the twins fight and, as they emerge, Jacob is born clutching Esau’s heel as if he is trying to beat his brother to the birthing canal finishing line.
Esau grows to be a skillful hunter, a true outdoorsman. Jacob is described as “ish tahm,” a quiet, perhaps studious, man who sits at his tent and raises cattle. (Gen. 25:27)
“Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob” (Gen. 25: 28), the Torah tells us.
Indeed, the fuel for dysfunction in family dynamics.
When Esau, after a day of hunting, comes home famished and tired, he sees Jacob cooking a pot of stew. After Esau asks Jacob for a bowl of his stew, Jacob only agrees in exchange for Esau bequeathing upon him his birthright — the blessing their father, Isaac, will pass on after his death. Esau agrees to the harsh terms, grumbling about having no need for his father’s blessing when he’s about to die of hunger and fatigue if he doesn’t get something to eat immediately. It’s an impulsive and in-the-moment transaction that will have impact later in their lives. It will have repercussions for the family and beyond.
As the elderly, blind Isaac lies upon his deathbed, a deception hatched by Rebecca and Jacob leads, indeed, to Jacob receiving the cherished blessing of the elder son. Esau is both bereft and furious, threatening to kill his younger sibling. Jacob runs away and it takes 22 years and a lot of soul-searching (literally, on Jacob’s part) for the brothers to reconcile.
It’s an extreme example, but it’s the sort of drama that might resonate with families whose seemingly unbreachable chasms can divide them forever — especially at this time of year. We have them in our family; I would guess you might have them in yours.
And that brings me to Thanksgiving.
This year, we’re traveling to Chicago (our hometown) to have Thanksgiving with the family we left behind last year when we moved to Pittsburgh. There are very big political divisions in the family.
Some of them concern the American political scene; some concern the frightening situation in Israel and Gaza.
Yet, we will meet; we will eat turkey and pumpkin pie, watch football and, perhaps, even heatedly discuss the political scene. But mostly, hopefully, we will be “just family.”
My sister, at whose house we’ll gather, begins the feast by asking each of us to express one thing for which we are grateful. After the eyerolling by some, everyone has something to say.
It sets a tone, if not for reconciliation (unlikely as Jacob and Esau would reconcile after a couple hours and a full stomach), then for a civility and at least a pretense of good cheer. So, hopefully, no storming out or slamming of doors.
When Jacob and Esau eventually reconcile (in the parasha a couple of weeksfrom now), Esau falls onto Jacob’s neck and kisses him (although some commentators translate the act as biting, not kissing). And although you might be inclined to bite your disaffected relations (metaphorically with a sarcastic barb), I’m guessing you won’t. Instead you’ll embrace (or bump fists or elbows), not wholeheartedly, but in the interest of keeping peace, maintaining civility and enjoying the moment.
Wishing all of Pittsburgh, our adopted city, a happy, meaningful Thanksgiving from our family to yours. PJC
Hazzan Barbara Barnett is a Jewish educator and cantor living in Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.