This week’s Torah portion highlights some of the darkest stories of one of the most complicated, dysfunctional families in all of Scripture.
Rebecca becomes pregnant and the twins, Jacob and Esau, wrestle in their mother’s womb, a struggle that continues throughout their lives. They are as different as night and day. Their parents only make the situation worse: Rebecca favors Jacob; Isaac favors Esau. Jacob, perhaps jealous of his father’s favoritism or of Esau’s physical prowess, manipulates Esau, in a moment of extreme hunger, into giving up his birthright as firstborn. Together, Jacob and Rebecca trick Isaacinto giving Jacob the blessing intended for his brother.
One of the saddest moments in the bible is when Esau discovers the deception. The text is heart wrenching: “Esau burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father!'”
The conversation is important, because people in the bible rarely show their emotions. Esau tells his father both how he feels, and what he needs. Jacob does his best to comply, although he cannot completely satisfy his son.
Who has ever met a perfect family? And if there is indeed a family that seems perfect, it’s a safe bet that, behind closed doors, it’s a different story. But this biblical story gives us a hint of how we can begin to improve family relations. We can ask for what we need and want.
What Esau wants is simple; he wants his father’s blessing. In other words, he wants to be told that he is loved. We can express our desire for affirmation and love in the form that fills our needs. And we can also learn ways of meeting our own needs and desires so that when our families are not able to meet those needs and desires, we can still find ways to feel whole and loved and validated. Esau doesn’t get the blessing he wants but he does receive a blessing from his father before Isaac dies. And based on what we learn later in Torah when the brothers meet again, Esau finds ways as he ages to cope with the anger he feels toward Jacob.
Many of us have complicated family relationships. As we move towards Thanksgiving, let’s remember that a Norman Rockwell family is not reality. When we strive for an unrealistic ideal, we are bound to be disappointed, even despairing and bitter as was Esau in Parsha Toldot. How we work to understand our needs and then chose to see things goes a long way to how we find blessings. Shabbat Shalom.
This is a slightly edited version of the weekly d’var Torah that my dear friend, Jennifer Singer, Spiritual Leader of Kol HaNeshama in Sarasota, Florida, sent to her congregants. Just before Jennifer and I met in 2010 (at the 6th Davenen Leadership Training Institute (DLTI) at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut), our two congregations joined the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF, now Jewish Reconstructionist Communities) together in June of 2009. I continue to study, learn, and grow with Jennifer who will become Rabbi Jennifer Singer, B”H, in January, 2017. Some “family members” we select!
Artwork: Abel Pann; Laya Crust; Norman Rockwell