These are the generations
WATER FROM THE WELL
As we continue reading in the Book of Genesis, the complexity of family relationships emerges from within stories of moral ambiguity. This week’s Torah portion, Toldot, continues this pattern with stories of deception between parent and child, brother and brother and husband and wife.
Certain things are unique to our portion. We have the predictable barrenness of Rebekah, but Isaac singularly prays to God in the presence of his wife to end her barrenness. He does not take a second spouse or concubine. We have been told that he loves his wife, and in this week’s portion, King Abimelech, who thinks the beautiful Rebekah is Isaac’s sister, looks out his window and sees Isaac being intimate with Rebekah, causing her laughter. Despite these differences, the birth of the twins ruptures marital harmony, with each parent choosing a child to favor, thus causing enmity between the brothers and leading to tragic events that divide the family forever. Jacob, who is forced to flee at the end of the portion, will only return after Rebekah is dead.
The story of Esau and Jacob’s birth is a story of contrasts. Two sons nurtured in the same womb born of the same father and mother, and yet two different identities, two different destinies unfolding in front of our eyes. Even a cursory reading reveals a story in which there are no heroic gestures.
Nonetheless, as with many of the stories in Genesis, the midrashic interpretation chooses to simplify the complexity of the story by turning Esau and Jacob into the personification of good versus evil. It seeks to valorize Jacob and demonize Esau, who by the time of midrash is traditionally associated with Rome and its bloody, hateful history with the Jewish people.
This interpretation has become deeply embedded in the way many people read the text, in part because Rashi, the well-known medieval commentator, excerpts part of it into his commentary. The midrash however, has far more layers and nuance than he presents.
“‘And the children struggled within her.’ R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish: R. Yohanan said: It means this one pressed to kill that one and that one pressed to kill this one. Reish Lakish said: this one disregarded the commands of that one and that one disregarded the commands of this one.”
In the first part of the midrash, the struggle is mutual. Both are trying to annihilate the other. Both disregard the identity of the other. The sibling rivalry of twins struggling to differentiate implicates both of them.
The midrash then continues in a more familiar tone:
“‘And the children struggled within her.’ When she would stand in front of houses of worship and houses of study, Jacob would toss about to go out. Thus it is written: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you’ (Jeremiah 1:5). When Rebekah would pass by houses of idol worship, Esau would run and agitate to go out. Thus it is written: From the womb are the wicked estranged” (Psalms 58:4).
This narrative re-frames Jacob in the form of a pious Torah scholar, interested only in prayer and Torah study. Esau becomes a wicked idolater. Neither character portrayal is upheld by the text. Rather, the interpretation is using wide brush strokes to reinforce the character of our ancestor Jacob, a father of the nation of Israel. While that is legitimate as far as interpretation goes, it is important to recognize there are multiple ways in which this story can be read that stay closer to the text.
Let us look more deeply at the tremendous angst Rebekah feels during her pregnancy, leading her to ask, “If so, why is it that I am?” She is suffering and questions her very existence, perhaps a foreshadowing of the tragic future that her sons will share as they strive towards their individual destinies.
To bring a more modern reading to the story, existential angst as we raise children who make different choices than our own, often leading to rupture, estrangement and alienation, leads many parents to question the truths of their own existence. Rebekah is already asking those questions ahead of the reality that lies ahead for her as parent.
I would like to conclude with a midrash in Genesis Raba on the verse: “And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham begat Isaac.”
The midrash opens with a quote from Proverbs on the relationship between children and parents. “Children’s children are the crown of elders and the glory of children are their fathers” (Proverbs 17:6). Fathers are the crown of children and children are the crown of fathers.
The midrash goes on to say that Abraham is saved from Nimrod’s furnace (an earlier midrashic narrative) only because God foresaw the birth of Jacob. Abraham’s own righteousness and faith were not enough until God saw a future generation with whom He could build a nation. What this midrash ignores is that Jacob is born together with Esau, also a descendant of Abraham.
We are accustomed to the idea that children and grandchildren bring glory to parents who, when they see the fruits of their labors embodied by progeny who follow in their way, know no greater joy. Children too, take pride in parents who have nurtured, loved and directed them.
However, throughout Genesis we have children who do not follow in their parents’ footsteps and parents who do not provide their children with nurturing and love.
While Esau and Ishmael do not reflect the future narrative of the children of Jacob, they become great leaders in their own right, birthing princes and nations while claiming their heritage as the descendants of Abraham. Their destiny is intertwined with ours. They, too, remain part of our story, as do all of our children and grandchildren, regardless of the choices they make. These, too, are our generations. ■
Existential angst as we raise children who make different choices than our own – often leading to rupture, estrangement and alienation – leads many parents to question the truth of their own existence
The writer teaches contemporary halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.
BIRTH OF Esau and Jacob as an example of twins’ fate against the arguments of astrology, by François Maitre, 1475-1480, detail from miniature at the Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, The Hague.