Parashat Toldot demonstrates the risks of parental favoritism

Rabbi Dale Schreiber

By Rabbi Dale Schreibe

Our portion begins with eleh toldot, these are the generations of Isaac. The word toldot has a number of meanings. One is generations. Other equally compelling renderings are — these are the consequences or outcomes. The portion is the mid-point of Genesis and the words — eleh toldot — occur 10 times in Genesis, creating a narrative bridge between Adam and Isaac and his two sons, one who is overturned and one who becomes the patriarch Israel.  

It is never a good idea to play favorites as a parent, and my personal challenge with Toldot is always about the favoritism Isaac and Rebecca express with regard to their fraternal twin sons, their only offspring after years of infertility. The text tells us that Isaac prefers the bold, aggressive, testosterone driven Esau and his mother, Rebecca, prefers the reflective, quiet Jacob. Eleh toldot — these are the consequences.

What does it feel like, I wonder, to grow up knowing your mother loves your brother best or that you have failed to measure up to your father’s esteem. How might our Jewish tradition better value both sons in this amazing story? How might both sons be seen as heroes in time, worthy of esteem because of their differences? 

Perhaps Esau’s characteristic hardiness infused Isaac with a sense of being cared for. Perhaps he is in awe of his self-made, outward-bound boy. What, I wonder, is the hidden motivation in Rebecca’s favoritism? Is Esau, even as an infant, too reminiscent of her forceful brother Laban, who by description bears some resemblance to him? What resentments rise when Esau’s demanding little boy ways make salient her memories of Laban’s demanding, overwhelming ways. When Esau wrestles Jacob to the ground because he is bigger and more ferocious in his play, is it Rebecca who champions the underdog to protect Jacob in ways that she was not protected? 

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The traditional viewpoint sees Esau as careless of his birthright. A first-born in the ancient world was privileged for leadership, power, and a double portion of family wealth. Judaism vilifies Esau as the enemy within and without. He represents those who would see ancient Israel diminished or destroyed. His name became synonymous with Rome and all of its imperial conflicts affecting the Jewish nation. The Rome that Esau represented is long gone. The story of these brothers is still with us. 

I see the dynamic between Esau and Jacob through a mother’s eyes. I see an Esau who could possibly forgo his double portion because he was confident and secure in his self-sufficiency. I see a family member who could relinquish a birthright precisely because his brother needed it more. While Esau’s relationship to his birthright was equivocal, there is no ambiguity regarding his feelings about Jacob’s stealing Isaac’s final blessing. 

In a heartbreaking scene, Esau returns for his blessing and is told by his father, his champion about Jacob’s guile. The coveted blessing had been given to the younger twin. Esau cries bitterly, Bless me too, Father. Did you not reserve a blessing for me? Isaac says, I have given him everything; what can I bless you with? A suffering Esau asks again, Have you only one blessing, Avi-my father? 

Fairness in family matters is having what you need, not necessarily what you want. Esau didn’t need the birthright, but he was emotionally undone in losing his father’s blessing. Isaac does find a blessing for Esau, and in time, the brother’s reconcile and go their separate ways. Each has a lineage that begins as our portion does, eleh toldot, these are the generations of Esau and Jacob, brothers who were formed in the shelter of each other’s heartbeat; who were complements in style, who were both imperfect in their nobility.

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (z”l), known as the Baal Shem Tov was once asked by a despairing father what to do about his son’s behavior. The Besht responded, When your children seriously disappoint you, love them even more. May parents everywhere grow insightful hearts to better cultivate the gifts that each child brings, grow a wellspring of blessings, and grow a patience to love them even more.