Parashat Toldot – We Are All Kin

Posted on November 17, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

This week’s parashah, Toldot, tells us of the birth of the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, and how they become bitter rivals. It looks at first like a redux of Cain and Abel, a sobering tale of fratricide, and a prophecy that humanity is doomed to never-ending conflict.

Even before they are born, the twins are fighting in Rebecca’s womb, each striving to gain advantage over the other by being the first-born. Esau is the first to emerge, but Jacob is unrelenting. Holding on to his brother’s heel, he tries to pull him back so he can get ahead. His very name, Ya’akov, memorializes this moment. It means “the one who comes on the heel.” The one who wants to surpass his brother.

The story, of course, is not merely a tale of conflict between two brothers, or even of the two nations they will come to represent. It is a reflection on the nature and challenges of the human family. Like so much of the Torah narrative, however, its message is complex and open to multiple interpretations.

One reasonable understanding is dark and pessimistic. If twin brothers cannot get along, what hope is there for those who come from divergent backgrounds? If the shared bonds of family are insufficient to quell our differences and elevate our commonalities, can those from different cultures ever hope to achieve understanding? Sadly, we see in so many cases that the most intractable conflicts are often between those who are the closest of kin. How many of the most brutal and bloody wars are civil wars? From Yemen to Pakistan, Ukraine to Afghanistan, today and throughout history, the closer the proximity, the more bitter the divide between peoples. Surely the unrelenting conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is nothing other than a continuation of the struggle between Isaac and Ishmael for the patrimony of Abraham, our father. And even closer to home, we know that many Thanksgiving meals turn ugly because political differences made for icy or steamy exchanges between sisters and brothers.

But there is another possible understanding of the story of Jacob and Esau that is more hopeful. Instead of concluding that even brothers are doomed to discord, maybe the Torah’s message is exactly the opposite. Maybe it is trying to tell us that even our greatest enemy is actually our sister or our brother.

This week’s parsha ends as the divide between the brothers is deepening. Jacob has deceived his brother twice and must run for his life after Esau vows to kill him. But this is not the end of the story. Two weeks from now in parshat vayishlach the brothers will meet again after more than 14 years and much life experience, and what promises to be the final fateful battle takes a blessed and unexpected turn toward reconciliation. The brothers come together in loving embrace and resolve their differences.

It is not entirely clear what turns the tide. This, too, is open to interpretation. My take is that both brothers have had their fill of conflict. There is simply too much to be lost and too little to be gained by remaining enemies and harboring hatred. When we break our foe a part of us is broken as well. And in no place is this more evident than in family conflict. Estrangement makes us strangers to each other and to ourselves. In the end, Jacob and Esau come to understand that they need each other to be whole.

And this is the lesson I take away from parshat toldot on this Shabbat preceding Thanksgiving: only in loving relationships can we truly be ourselves. We need each other. We need our family and the unconditional love that family represents. Without it, we are incomplete. With it, we can find wholeness.

May we ever be grateful for this gift of love, and may it grow from heart to heart until it embraces the entire human family.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck