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This week's portion: pulling the strings


Trickster Rebecca, I wish you'd known better
than to pit your sons one against the other

like Isaac and Ishmael, jostling and angling
for the lone blessing in their father's hands.

If you had taught your bookish son, the one
who stayed in the tent weaving stories

and your rough red-bearded hunter
whose heart chafed against being indoors

to see one another as sides of the same coin
think how much drama we could have been spared!

Then again, blind Isaac may have seen more
than we know. He tried twice to shame Jacob into truth.

God must have told you we need this tension
to shape the Israel we're meant to become.

In this week's portion, Toldot, Rebecca feels her sons quarreling in her womb. They quarrel once they're out of the womb, too: Jacob tricks Esau first out of his birthright, then out of the blessing rightfully due him as the elder son.

The younger brother getting the blessing that ought to have been due the elder is a theme in the book of Bereshit. Apparently God favors the underdog, and acts to subvert the dominant power structures of the day. In this case, God hints to Rebecca before the boys are even born that "the older shall serve the younger" -- making her, perhaps, culpable for Jacob's trickster behavior as this story unfolds.

Reading this today, I find myself thinking about expectations and blessings, parents and sons. To what extent were, and are, Jacob and Esau externalizations of their parents' various qualities? Torah tells us that one parent favored one son and the other parent favored the other: apparently that dynamic is as old as the stars. What does it mean that our tradition has for so long valued the intellectual accomplishments of Jacob, and spurned the earthy offerings of Esau?

I'd like to think that some good came out of Rebecca's subterfuges -- at least for Jacob and his progeny. But I flinch at the parental favoritism, and I wonder how Esau's children would tell the tale.


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