Toldot: A House Divided

Love without explanation
Which son had greater potential?

Table for Five: Toldot

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And Isaac loved Esau because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob.

– Gen. 25:28

Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org

It is not uncommon in a family setting for each parent to relate more to one child than to the other children, and for that child to be different for each parent. But when it comes to Yitzchak and Rivkah, one would think they would have been on the same page. After all, we’re talking about Ya’akov and Eisav.

Rejecting Eisav should have been a no-brainer, even if Yitzchak was blind and lived cut off from the world around him. We don’t need to ask why Rivkah favored Ya’akov, but we need to know why Yitzchak loved Eisav so much.

Many commentators address the issue, but Kabbalah provides an important insight. Both Yitzchak and Eisav came from the same spiritual source (Gevurah). Its energy can help a person be righteous like Yitzchak or evil like Eisav. If a person harnesses it for good, as Yitzchak did, they will become righteous. If they let it direct their life, as Eisav did, they will become evil.

Understanding this, it became Yitzchak’s mission to bring Eisav around to his way of living. Rivkah had a different source of spiritual energy, so she could not see Eisav’s potential to be a righteous leader and instead focused on Ya’akov’s development. Yitzchak was right conceptually, but not historically. Instead, God allowed Ya’akov to take the right of the firstborn that had belonged to Eisav, and later the blessings meant to straighten him out. It would be generations before an Eisav-like individual would arise to lead the nation: Dovid HaMelech.

Bracha Goetz, Author of 41 Jewish children’s books

Isaac loved Esau because his game – or his entrapment – was in his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob. The great Torah commentator, Rashi, asserts that Esau entrapped his father, Isaac, with deceiving words, appearing to be more pure than he actually was.

The Maggid of Dubnow explains that perhaps Isaac, but not Rebecca, was deceived because Rebecca came from a family of deceivers, so she was able to see through Esau’s trickery. Isaac, unfamiliar with deception, however, was entrapped by it.

Other Torah commentators, though, express that Isaac was not blind to Esau’s ways. Some explain that Isaac was well aware of Esau’s true essence, and yet he loved him because of the “meat in his mouth.” Isaac perceived that Esau’s wild energy could be directed to greatness. Kabbalistic teachings explain that Esau had the potential to help bring redemption even faster than Jacob could.

The “game” in Esau’s mouth can also be translated as sustenance. There is even a view that Isaac loved Esau so that Isaac would have “sustenance” when he would eventually argue for the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people. Isaac could then say, I judged Esau favorably, even with all his failings. May the Jewish people always be unconditionally loved, even with all our failings too.

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Director of Education, Open Temple

Like ice cream, love comes in many flavors.

This verse contrasts Isaac’s love for Esau and Rachel’s love for Jacob. Isaac’s love for Esau has a reason – “because game was in his mouth.” Rachel’s love for Jacob has no stated explanation. Rabbi Harold Kushner noted that Isaac raised Esau to do many activities that Isaac was unable to do while growing up – “asking Esau to fill in the blank spaces in his own life.”

How often is the way we love based on what we lacked as children. A parent who lacked economic stability in childhood may work extra hard to provide financial stability for her kids. A parent whose own parents fought a lot may avoid any conflict in order to give his children the peaceful home he lacked as a kid. Learning from our own childhood may motivate us to become better parents, but it can backfire too. Someone whose own parents were financially reckless might become excessively frugal. An adult who grew up in a home with much conflict might become overly passive.

Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horowitz of sixteenth century Prague, noted that the problem with love (like Jacob’s) that depends on an external factor is that when that condition disappears, the love ends. Rachel’s love for Jacob didn’t depend on anything, and so was eternal.

This verse challenges us: Can we love our children, our friends, our family, and even our self for who they really are, rather than who we want them to be?

Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaics Faculty

This week my seven-year-old son had homework to tell me 5 + 5 reasons why he loves me. My cutie had no trouble with the math, but he did struggle to come up with a full list of 10 reasons. I didn’t take it personally. Maybe it was too late at night and he was tired. Or, maybe he was actually making a solid point: Do we need to have reasons for loving each other? Or should our love be unconditional? Our verse hints at diverse answers.

At face value, Isaac legitimates his love for Esau because he provides for his father and family with unique talents. This love reminds us to value our children for what they do and how they contribute to others, and to abstain from cynicism in this moment of love.

Recognizing the negative characteristics of Esau, however, we can also turn to other interpretations: Some suggest that Isaac’s special love came from Esau’s need for this love. Isaac didn’t want to embarrass his son, so he pretended not to see his evil deeds, and hoped that Esau would ultimately repent.

And Rebecca shows us another kind of love, for one who has not yet made their mark in the world. Jacob still has a long road ahead of him. Rebecca’s love allows Jacob to continue to grow, learn, and become.

May all our children be surrounded by such loves: Celebrating their special skills; guiding them to the good; and accompanying them on their life journeys.

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Multi-Faith Chaplain, Kaiser Panorama City

I am one of four siblings, with everlasting intimacy, dwelling in this family’s tents. I am peering up from the scroll in Breishit, flaunting tears, sporting a smirk. In Torah, is any one of us a stranger? The hunter, the shepherd, the swindler, and the wounded. I know these people. The tart redolence of their mane eddies, hearty in my beak.

A circular artistry is evoked in Genesis, in our pasuk. A yin yang motif, or Pisces if you will; the head chases the tail. The mouth readies to swallow its kin. Madness, frustration, palpable, with savory expectation. A snack is enlivened to beckon the palate. The match is frozen. Forever in pursuit, brother to brother, mother to father. An eternal quest for dominance, swirling, tracking, trailing, infernal escape. It is our family. Our belief we might seize the tail of our sibling, that we can break him. The fantasy of disciplining him, casting him according to our die! And, if molding him is elusive, in lieu we banish.

Torah’s leitmotif is stubborn. Defeat is illusory, and triumph? Trivial. I close in on my desire, and he outpaces me, mocks me, nips at my heels. A father leaves his own, weds but never growing up. On the brink, nations replace brothers–armaments, food, love, exploitation–bargaining for the favor of parents, and God. And what of the game for approval? It is relentlessly childish. We watch, open and vulnerable, frolicking and hiding; a sacred metaphor transmogrifies into plain reality.

With thanks to Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Bracha Goetz, Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Nili Isenberg and Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes.

Image: Esau and Jacob by Luca Giordano, 1696

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