Th­ese are the gen­er­a­tions


The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - NECHAMA GOLD­MAN BARASH

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.

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

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.

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