By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky.
Genetics are a wondrous thing. The personalities and characteristics our children inherit from us and from their other parent make us swell with pride and drive us crazy. Usually on the same day. And also every day. When my daughter dissolves into tears over the mistakes she’s made practicing dictée and the math she still has left to do and the French (she claims) she doesn’t understand and then insists that she is going to fail and cannot possibly finish all her homework and will also get in trouble, my initial response is shock and awe. She is a stellar student, well-organized, calm and responsible; her homework is always under control, and even if there are extenuating circumstances, her school doesn’t really do “failure,” and I don’t think her teachers could actually use her name and the word trouble in the same sentence, except to say she could never be its source.
As her mother, I can guess that she is tired, that something happened at school that day, that her enormous sense of responsibility feels overwhelming, that despite her incredible maturity she is still a child having a hard day. But as a former stellar student, well-organized, calm and responsible, I remember that feeling of being overwrought over school work and I ache for her. While I am happy and proud to claim ownership of the “good student” gene, who ever thought “I’m going to fail” was also a gene I could pass on.
As I try to calm her down, reassure her that she won’t fail, that she won’t get into trouble, that maybe she should take a break, go take a shower, that when she’s calm I’ll read her French with her, I know (from experience) that there is nothing I can do, nothing anyone could have ever said to me, to convince her, in that moment, that all she needs to do is her best and it will be ok. As my husband stands on the side watching me struggle to balance my parenting instincts with my overwhelming empathy, he comments, “she’s your daughter.”
This week’s parashah, Toldoth, opens with the verse: “And these are the offspring of Isaac son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac.” If the text is telling us that Isaac is the son of Abraham, why does it also tell us “Abraham begot Isaac.” Isn’t this obvious or redundant? The Rashbam (Rabbi Solomon ben Meir, Rashi’s grandson) explained that this phrase comes to differentiate Isaac from Ishmael who is discussed in the previous parashah as the son of Abraham and the maid Hagar. Rashbam believed the phrase emphasizes that in contrast to Ishmael, Isaac is the son of Abraham and his “real” wife, the true offspring of Abraham the forefather.
Ibn Ezra thought the extra phrase teaches us that Isaac resembled Abraham to such an extent that anyone who saw him would attest that Abraham was his father. Radak built on Ibn Ezra’s comment further and said that Isaac resembled Abraham not only in appearance, but also in behaviours and personality. Isaac was definitely Abraham’s son, in all its various nuances.
The story that follows in this week’s parashah is one to which both adults and children can relate. Isaac’s wife, Rebecca gives birth to twin boys. She favours Jacob, the younger twin, while Isaac favours Esau, the older one. One day, Esau returns from the field starving and agrees to sell Jacob his birthright as the first born, in exchange for the lentil stew Jacob is cooking at that moment, suggesting perhaps the impulsive and shallow nature of Esau’s character.
Despite this, Isaac wants to give Esau a special blessing and sends him out to hunt and prepare a meal and then return for the blessing. Rebecca overhears and instructs Jacob to go to Isaac, pretending to be Esau, and receive the blessing in his brother’s place. Then, to save Jacob from Esau’s vengeful anger, she convinces Isaac to send Jacob to her brother, Laban, in order that he not marry a local woman. Isaac, like his father before him, does not want his son marrying from among the Canaanite women and instructs Jacob to to go his uncle Laban to find a wife, and he bestows upon him “the blessing of Abraham,” that he and his offspring shall inherit the land as God promised Isaac’s father.
The family dynamics one could explore in this story are plentiful and fascinating. Children grab onto the idea of parents having favourite children, of siblings making unfair trades for what rightly belongs to the other sibling, and of tricking their parent into thinking they are their sibling. Adults consider the motivations behind Rebecca’s not-so-subtle manipulations of her husband, leading him to do what she thought best without actually discussing the situation with him. They examine her eavesdropping and reflect on the idea that Rebecca, not Isaac, seems to know better which twin is more worthy of God’s promise.
In the lead-in to the story of Jacob taking Esau’s blessing, Isaac is described as “had become old and his eyes dimmed from seeing.” Some of the commentators felt that the phrase on Isaac’s vision was not only in reference to his age and to explain his inability further on to distinguish between his two sons, but to suggest that Isaac was oblivious to the conflict between Jacob and Esau. According to Abarbanel, his affection for Esau blinded him to his son’s wickedness and compromised his ability to judge reality.
When finally Isaac sends Jacob to his brother-in-law, the text says, “And Isaac sent off Jacob; and he went toward Paddan-aram, to Laban the son of Bethel the Aramean, brother of Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau.” Like the opening verse of the parashah, what is the purpose of the many details of identification, and specifically, why does the text make a point of stating that Rebecca was the mother of both Jacob and Esau after so much focus on her relationship with Jacob? Rashi doesn’t know (which I kind of love). Apparently, this is one of 77 places in Rashi’s commentary to the Bible in which he states, “I do not know what this teaches us.” He makes this comment to demonstrate that he believes the phrase is significant and meant to teach us something – but he himself is not sure what.
When Rebecca encourages Jacob to escape Esau’s revenge by fleeing to her brother, she says, “Until your brother’s anger against you subsides and he forgets what you have done to him; then I will send and bring you from there; why should I be bereaved of both of you on the same day.” Many commentators looked to this verse to understand the phrase, “Rebecca was the mother of both Jacob and Esau.” By helping Jacob to escape she was protecting him from murder. But she was also protecting Esau from becoming a murderer, thus showing us how she had concern for both her sons; she protects them from killing or being killed so that she will not lose both of them at the same time. She was a mother to both of them.
Each of our children reveals to us different aspects of our own personalities, strengths and weaknesses. And those of our chosen spouse. Some of these qualities, whether they come from our own genetic make-up or that of the other parent, are more endearing than others. Often they are most striking when they reflect our insecurities or our pet peeves. Each child, like each of us, has positive and negative characteristics, and different parents are able to tolerate, react, accept, appreciate or empathize with these characteristics differently.
Do we have favourites among our children? I tell my girls I have a favourite eldest daughter, a favourite middle daughter and a favourite youngest daughter. In turn, they roll their eyes. But there is truth in that answer. I like to understand from the parashah that Rebecca favoured Jacob as the heir to God’s promise, but in the larger picture of their family life, Jacob and Esau were both her sons, in all the various ways that can be understood. “Rebecca was the mother of both Jacob and Esau.”
I love each of my daughters (to the moon and back), and I am a mother to each of them. But how I mother them, and how my love manifests for each them is different, because, amazingly, they are each so very different.
And most days, I do not cry that I am going to fail.
Genetics. They’re mind-boggling.
Discussion Questions for the Shabbat Table:
1. Aside from names and relationships, what do you think the Torah is trying to teach us by identifying the different personalities with such specific details in the lineage?
2. Why do you think Rebecca guided Jacob to deceive his father?
3. In what different ways were Isaac’s eyes “dimmed?”
4. How do you think Jacob may have felt listening to his mother, yet deceiving his father and cheating his brother?
5. Do you think parents have favourite children? Why or why not?
6. Do you have favourites among your friends? What does that mean to you?
7. Are you the same kind of friend or sibling to each of your different friends or siblings?