Toldot 5777 - 2016, The danger of simple archetypes

Post date: Dec 1, 2016 4:45:47 PM

This week we read parshat Toldot, which records the beginning of our third patriarch’s story. Toldot – meaning “generations” – gives us the next portion of our early lineage. From Abraham and Sarah to Isaac and Rebekah, and now to Jacob, we see our seminal story slowly unfolding.

My childhood rabbi – Rabbi Skopitz, of blessed memory – with advanced degrees in social work and psychology, used to talk about the book of Bereshit (Genesis) as the book of dysfunctional families. He said that everyone could find something to relate to in Bereshit, because every family has some dysfunction that people see and feel and carry with them. Of all parshiot, I think parshat Toldot exemplifies some of the most common, and most scarring, of all dysfunctional dynamics. In parshat Toldot, we encounter jealousy, favoritism, and – my personal favorite – sibling rivalries.

Jacob and Esau are certainly not the first siblings we see – Cain and Abel had no love lost for one another, and Isaac and Ishmael’s relationship was not without its challenges. But here, we have two brothers – twin brothers – who are portrayed as differently as pre-modern biblical language could allow. Without the “gamer/nerd” and “jock/bro” labels at its disposal, the Bible instead describes Jacob as the “quiet man, dwelling in tents” and Esau as the “cunning hunter, man of the field.” The tensions between Jacob and Esau are as palpable, even to modern audiences, as any reality TV show.

The Bible makes excuses nor give any nod to the “I love all my children equally” line that many modern parents employ. Rather, it simply and clearly states that Jacob loved Esau, and Rebekah loved Jacob. Of note, the Bible remains entirely positive in this pasuk (verse) – there is no mention that Rebekah did not love Esau, nor any message that Isaac did not love Jacob. There is just plain, old, straightforward favoritism. Complicating parental favoritism is an ongoing conflict between the brothers themselves. Jacob, clearly desiring the birthright that Esau had, and Esau, portrayed as narrow-minded and consumed by momentary pangs of hunger.

Reading the Bible with young children, they catch on to this dynamic rapidly. Most believe Jacob to be cunning, and Esau gullible. In their own way, they remark on the impulsivity of Esau – his willingness to give up an important part of his future for some temporary relief of discomfort. Many ask why Esau could not “just wait a few minutes and make his own dinner,” a thought which has certainly crossed the mind of anyone hungrily stopping at a drive-through on the way home from work.

The Bible, though, does not see Esau as gullible. In fact, he is described as almost the opposite – not duped, but rather prideful and scorning. The Torah says that Esau yi’vez et ha’b’chorah – he despised his birthright. The word yi’vez has only a few meanings – contempt (springing from pride and wickedness) and to despise. In neither variant of the word is there a sense of stupidity, impulsivity, or lack of intelligence. Rather, the word gives the connotation of clear understanding and intentional rejection. Here, we find the only description of clear, negative emotion. Both parents are described as loving one child, and Jacob is described as jealous and desiring. But Esau has contempt. He shows this again when he later marries two Hittite women who brought morat ru’ach – bitterness of spirit – to Isaac and to Rebekah.

Why is Esau the villain? A simple reading shows that Jacob is no less horrid – refusing his brother a bowl of lentils without promise of a birthright. But it is Esau alone who is described with such negativity. I think in this parsha, the Torah is highlighting our own, innate human tendency to have a “good guy” versus “bad guy” story. People are un-endingly complex, with vast histories of experiences, vulnerabilities, choices, and circumstances. And yet, we are so often incapable of seeing another person as innately “good” or basically “bad.” Once we have settled on one of these categories (which, social psychological research suggests that we do rapidly), our primitive brains give us the exact picture of the person that we think we see. We notice more “bad” things about “bad” people, and we notice more “good” things about “good” people. We dismiss evidence that does not fit, and hold fast to evidence that does.

As Rabbi Skopitz said – all families have dysfunction. Similarly, all people have the good parts that we admire, and the bad parts that we scorn. Our goal, difficult though it may be, is to see the whole person. We must rise above the archetypes we read about in Bereshit, and take in the entirety of someone’s personhood.

The Bible may give us black and white, good and bad, and it is easy to move people in our own lives and experiences into one category or the other. Breaking away from our deepest instincts, and instead, using our intellect to observe honestly and to categorize consistently, is something we must learn. We can teach ourselves to recognize the good in the Esaus of our lives, and the unforgivable faults in the Jacobs. We are each complex, challenging individuals – more than any categorical label can ever capture.

-Yvonne Asher