These past few weeks, both Rabbi Hirsch and I have felt compelled, and obligated to use our time together to acknowledge the realities outside: the outcome of the election moved many of us to seek community. Some of us came looking for comfort, others came seeking hope and optimism…but almost all of us came because we knew deep down inside, that we were better together than alone. I know that for me, there has been an implicit fear that has motivated me to seek understanding and community in new ways. Fear, as we know, can be a powerful motivator. And as I have found time and again, community, is a powerful antidote to fear.
With that as the backdrop to my thinking, I was drawn to this week’s Torah portion, parashat Toldot, in a new way. The story of Toldot rests on two axes: blessing, and scarcity. How do we act when we feel blessed– satisfied with our portion, sufficiently cared for? And, how do we act when we feel fear– when we feel ignored or cast aside, when there doesn’t seem to be enough for us?
Parashat Toldot is about both of these worldviews: Toldot, meaning descendents is a rich narrative, that with all of its twists and turns, is ultimately, a story about family. It’s a story about how we care for the ones we love, how we fight for, and how we fight with the ones we love- how we protect, and how we care for them. But it’s also a story that warns us of what happens when our moral elasticity leads us to divide rather than unite, to separate and set apart in ways that cause harm and pain to the ones we love.
A quick highlights tour:
Our parashah opens with the words, “Eleh Toldot”: thes are the generations of Isaac– Abrahama’s son. After many childless years, Isaac’s wife, Rebecca conceives, and endures a difficult pregnancy. God tells her there are two nations in her womb, and that the younger brother will prevail over the elder. Esau’s born first and is preferred by Isaac. Jacob, Rebecca’s favorite, comes out clutching Esau’s heel. Esau’s a hunter; Jacob a scholar. The two brothers spend their lives separated by their differences. One day, as the story goes, Esau comes home so hungry, that he sells Jacob his birthright as firstborn for a pot of lentils. Later, Rebecca disguises Jacob as Esau to receive Isaac’s blessing, which rightfully belongs to Esau. Isaac, whose eyes are dimmed by age falls easily for this deception, and blesses his younger son, Jacob. Discovering this, Esau cries out to his father “Halo atzalta li bracha?” Don’t you have a blessing for me?
The family dynamics here are heart-wrenching. There is a scarcity mentality at work, as the brothers battle for primacy amongst their parents, and as their parents, both Isaac and Rebecca, play into that dynamic. In this story of what the generations of Isaac come to be, there is so much implicit fear. Fear of there not being enough: enough stature, enough recognition, enough love— and ultimately, enough blessing.
This is a family in crisis. Perhaps this mentality of scarcity is hardwired into the DNA of the twin boys, after the years that their parents and grandparents spent seeking refuge from famine. Even still, it’s hard not to judge Rebecca for her maneuvering— or Jacob for going along with it, or Esau for being impulsive. Even Isaac who is diminished, and dimmed– disappoints us. But I think our disappointment is not purely because we think they should have done better, or been better: but because know they could have. We know we could have, and we know how easy it is not to: to fall prey to the voices of judgment, fear and cynicism. In the mirror of Toldot, their moral elasticity reflects our own. So we’re asked to extend to them the same grace we give ourselves. Because, on any given day, what might we do for our lentils?
This question feels more resonant than ever. We go out into the world, and encounter much work to be done: we come home, and seek peace, comfort, and to be cared for. It’s hard not to read the story of Esau and Jacob with new eyes as a parent, and imagine what I might say were one of my daughters to ask me if I had only one blessing to give. But here’s where I want to argue with Isaac’s answer in our Torah text. When Esau asks “Halo atzalta li bracha?”, Isaac responds that it is in fact, too late- he has already given his blessing to Jacob. His respond feels not only insufficient, but improbable. Only one blessing? As anyone who has ever been in a relationship of caretaking knows, blessing– or the ability to show love and care for another person is not a limited commodity. Our reserves of compassion, caring, and blessing are always deeper than we imagine. There is simply no other explanation for babies living through things like teething, and sleep regressions. In fact, it’s often in the moments when we feel we can’t possibly give anymore, that we dig a little deeper, and find another well of love and care that we can draw on.
Esau’s question for his father— “don’t you have another blessing for me?” is the question I think we all ask from our loved ones, and from our community. Isn’t there enough to go around?
On this Shabbat, I want to offer you all the gift of simplicity as the answer to this question: Yes. There is more than enough to go around. Our tradition, and our community is a gift: it can sustain us. Shabbat is a reminder of the abundance and overflowing blessings that we have. Where we are busy, Shabbat offers us a chance to slow down. Where we are disconnected, Shabbat invites us to come closer, and to be together. Where our lives are noisy and chaotic, Shabbat offers us melody and silence, harmony, peace, and quiet.