The original Jewish family was filled with complex individuals that often modeled the behavior we should strive to emulate, and sometimes didn’t. Rebecca understood that better than most.
Table for Five: Toldot
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples will issue from your body, and one people will become mightier than the other people, and the elder will serve the younger. Gen. 25:23
Judy Gruen, Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”
Siblings are often so astonishingly different from one another that it’s hard to fathom they share the same parents. Even in utero, Rivka felt her twins’ oppositional natures: Yaakov squirmed for release when his mother passed a house of Torah study, and Eisav squirmed for release when she passed a place of idol worship. Rivka’s burdens began not only in carrying these twins but in the self-sacrifice of not revealing the truth of their opposing cosmic natures to her husband.
Why keep the secret? Perhaps she feared that Yitzhak might fault her for having an Eisav, as she came from a family of corrupt men. Perhaps she wanted to spare Yitzhak worry about something beyond his control, and to protect Eisav from prejudice by his father. Rivka’s secret knowledge later led her to force Yaakov into duplicity, masquerading as Eisav to get their father’s deathbed blessing of the spiritual covenant. Eisav received the blessing for wealth and power. The brothers’ life trajectories continued to diverge until it was an insurmountable chasm.
Rivka and Yitzhak each loved the son most unlike them: Yitzhak loved Eisav “because game was in his mouth, but Rivka loved Yaakov.” Commentators note that Yitzhak, more soulful than physical, better understood Eisav’s true potential and his need for love, while Rivka, seeing dreadful family traits, needed to disengage. Eisav spurned many of his parents’ values but demonstrated the highest level of kivud av—honoring his father. Like all individuals, he was complex and not easily labeled.
Shaindy Jacobson, Director, Rosh Chodesh Society (JLI)
This is the quintessential story of confrontation. Esau and Jacob are “two nations” that can seemingly never co-exist in peace. They represent two mighty forces in each of our own lives, and in the world at large. Esau symbolizes the corporeal body, the material world, whose coarse elements need to be vanquished. Jacob symbolizes the soul, the pure, spiritual world. Initially, “in your womb”, these two worlds do not co-exist. Matter and spirit are at war with each other. But they need each other: they are twins!
How providential that this Torah passage is read during these turbulent times. We are taught, “v’chai ba’hem – and you shall live with these words” –by finding their current personal relevance.
The message today is crystal clear: we must focus our lives on making peace between body and soul, matter and spirit, G-d and the universe. The only way to accomplish this, without compromising either, is to spiritualize the material. The soul must guide the body and in unison, they will successfully navigate and fulfill their purpose in this world.
If each and every one of us carried this lesson within, we as a family, as a people, as a nation, and as a world would, indeed, witness the evaporation of the confrontation and the dawning of a wondrous new world order.
As William Ewart Gladstone so wisely said, “We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Multi-Faith Chaplain, Kaiser Panorama City
We can assert that Bereshit (Genesis) is a tale of one dysfunctional family. Let’s review: Cain slaughters his brother, Noah’s son views his father’s nakedness, Lot is defiled by his daughters, Sarai is portrayed by Avram as his sister, Yitzhak and Ishmael feud; all in all, Bereshit suggests that the human family descended from pretty troubled people.
That dysfunctionality is again on display; Esav and Yaakov haven’t departed the shelter of Rivka’s womb and they’re already fighting. The Torah’s word of choice for Rivka’s pregnant belly is beten however it is notable that the Hebrew term for womb is rehem, which is also the root of the word rahamim, and that translates as compassion. Ironic indeed, because these fraternal twins destined for conflict, are formed, cradled and nurtured by loving compassion. Even the very prophecy of the text is unable to outclass the ultimate love between twins. The Torah foretells a fate of one brother over the other in unjust servitude, but faced with the prospect of war, the brothers will disrupt that prophecy and embrace instead.
America is a nation founded upon ideals of brotherly love, launched from a veritable womb of religious oppression. Our tale as a republic has been fraught, often with archetypal duels of sibling against sibling. So let us pray that the expectant rivalries before us be reconciled through figurative and (when it is safe) literal hugs. We are children of a God who knows our base nature yet enables us to fulfill a higher potential.
David Brandes, Screenwriter and producer
A war is raging in Rebekah’s womb. The pain is so unbearably intense, it consumes her. She wishes she hadn’t been born, says Ramban. At her wit’s end, Rebekah rushes to the nearby Yeshiva to get some reassurance. God tells her not to fear. She is carrying twins and the pain will subside. Then, curiously, Hashem goes on to explain, in considerable detail, that the twins are locked in a historic struggle for dominance – which will linger long after they are born. Why does Hashem have to spell it all out in such detail?
In the first place, God is identifying Jacob as the child worthy of carrying the code of his father and of Abraham. Secondly, Hashem is informing Rebekah to be aware that the usual rights of the first born will not apply in this case… But to what end? My take is that if Rebekah was not alerted in this way she may never have been able to nurture Jacob to be ready to fulfil his destiny. Hashem shows that He has full confidence in her. All God needs to do is give her the alert and she will help Jacob grow and be ready. And finally, Hashem is preparing Rebekah to step in and take control when Jacob hesitates to deceive his father and take the blessing of the first born… The troubling thought in all of this is why didn’t God help Rebekah change Esau’s destructive ways?
Lori Shapiro, Rabbi/Open Temple
Nachmanides proves to be an early feminist in his explanation of God’s words “two nations are in your womb.” The emphasis rests not on a geopolitical statement, but rather the inference that Rebecca should not be afraid, “it was because she was pregnant with twins that there was this agitation in her womb, for she was experiencing the normal way of women who are expecting twins.”
Ramban’s insights into women carrying twins expresses a rare glimpse into the knowledge the mipharshim had of women’s bodies. Carrying twins is an extraordinary and unique act – a kal v’homer from our time to the Biblical era. Traditionally, the rabbis emphasize Rebecca’s wild womb as an antecedent to the rivalry of what is to come, as if the fate of these two unborn children was predestined in utero. However, Ramban makes clear that the fetuses’ future as progenitors of two nations was not relevant to Rebecca’s pain; rather, it was the physical demand of carrying and birthing two children at the same time.
Once again, the presence of the female body chastens a strident geo-political conflict and reminds us of the vulnerability, heroism and act of Godliness that all mothers endure when bearing a child. May this insight chasten our own quickness to judge what is foreign to us, and may we all apprehend the mystery of creation before (and within) us.
With thanks to Judy Gruen, Shaindy Jacobson, Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, David Brandes, and Lori Shapiro.
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