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Sibling dynamics: A window toward understanding the choices we have made in what we do, where we do it, and with whom. Sibling dynamics explain why, despite the fact that we share some fifty percent of our genetic material with our siblings, not to mention growing up in the same home, we are wired so very differently from them. It helps explain why we tend to evaluate our achievements not in absolute terms but relative to those people closest to us – our siblings. When I was a kid, I didn’t compare my SAT scores, my athleticism, or my musical ability with some kid down the street, I compared myself to my brothers! By extension, it helps explain why we allow ourselves to be assigned deterministic labels – “the funny one,” “the pretty one,” “the smart one” – labels that can shackle our self-understanding well beyond our childhood. It helps explain why even when we grow up, with spouses, children, and direct deposit accounts of our own, we still refer to our siblings (or, at least I do) as our big siblings and little siblings. Darwin, Adler, and Sulloway don’t explain everything, but they help explain an awful lot about us and the family dynamics that shaped and continue to shape us.
And you want to know what else they help explain? The Torah reading!
The story of Esau and Jacob is the one of the most well-known, most studied tales of sibling rivalry in the biblical canon if not of all time. And while the biblical account antedates Darwin by a few thousand years, it will prove, I believe, to be very much in sync with his evolutionary understanding of human nature, providing us with a renewed appreciation for the contours of our ancient narrative and affirming its enduring message for us today.
The name of our parashah is Tol’dot, which means “generations,” a fitting title, given its focus on survival, reproduction, and the passing down of attributes from one generation to the next. In this particular story, the sought-after resource is God’s covenant of land, progeny, and blessing – first established with Abraham, passed on to Isaac, and now, in the opening lines of the parashah, contested within the womb of our matriarch Rebecca. The two children struggled inside Rebecca, and though God does not make the pain go away, God responds to Rebecca’s cry by revealing v’rav ya·avod tza·ir, the older will serve the younger. In other words, God indicates that in the case of her offspring, an equitable allocation of covenantal blessing is not in the cards. They may not be sand sharks, but as Esau emerges first, his brother Jacob follows clutching Esau’s heel, which is what Ya’akov means – a “heel-grabber.” How extraordinary, and extraordinarily sad, that the name, the label that Jacob receives is not about him, but in relation to his big brother. Whatever chance these two siblings may have had of establishing themselves on their own terms quickly dissipates, as Rebecca and Isaac commit the unforgivable sin of favoritism. Intellectually, we may understand it. Rebecca, after all, knew from her exchange with God where this story was going; of course she was going to favor Jacob. And Isaac, perhaps due to his tortured relationship with his own father, Abraham, saw something special in his outdoorsy, varsity jacket wearing Esau. Whatever the reasons, it does not take much to imagine the toxic effect their favoritism must have had on the boys: constantly sizing each other up, measuring themselves against each other, jostling for their parents’ attention. It is why two such different personalities emerge. It is why they fought in life as they did in the womb, competing for the limited and precious resource of their parents’ attention, love, and blessing.
The next scene – the trading of Esau’s birthright for a bowl of lentil soup – is one we know well. This year, I was drawn to one particular midrash containing the Rabbinic suggestion that the bowl of lentils was not just any meal, but the traditional meal of a person in mourning. According to the midrash, Esau and Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had just died. As Esau returns from the hunt, is it possible to read his words hineh ani holekh lamut, I am at the point of death, as referring not to his own death, but to his grandfather’s? In the midst of loss, “Who cares about a birthright?” Esau may have thought. Jacob, on the other hand, saw things totally differently, just the opposite. The fact of his grandfather’s passing prompted him to think ahead, position himself, take the necessary steps to secure the birthright for himself, and thus perpetuate his own legacy.
While there need not be a correlation between Abraham’s death and the birthright/lentils negotiation, with regard to the final scene of our Torah reading – the stolen blessing – we are on surer footing. Isaac is well aware he is about to die, and he asks his beloved son Esau to prepare him a meal in preparation for the bestowal of his innermost paternal blessing. Rebecca – who years earlier was party to a private communication with God – now overhears this father-son exchange and sets in motion a deception by which Jacob, not Esau, receives Isaac’s blessing. There is so much about the scene that we don’t know. How Jacob felt about duping his father and brother. How Rebecca justified such a wrong against both her husband and son. What we do know is that when Esau returns from the hunt to find himself outfoxed by his brother, he lets loose a wild and bitter cry: Barakheni gam ani, avi! Bless me, too, Father! And then, in what I believe to be the most painful verse of the entire narrative, if not the Torah itself: Hav’rakhah ahat hi l’kha, avi? Barakheni gam ani, avi! Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father! And although Isaac musters something, it is not the blessing Esau wanted. The biblical system of primogeniture does not make room for compromise; it is a zero-sum game. The birthright, the blessing – what Jacob took, Esau was denied. A tragic turn that in retrospect preceded their very arrival in this world. Whatever possibility these two siblings had of developing a fraternal bond – stillborn. These two brothers never stood a chance.
Jacob and Esau are not the only fraught sibling relationship of Genesis. From Cain and Abel competing over God’s approval to Rachel and Leah measuring each other by the metrics of love and fertility to Joseph and his brothers contending for their father Jacob’s affection, and even the final blessing switch between Manasseh and Ephraim, Genesis serves as an extended case study in the origin of the species. It is a study that extends to Moses’s relationship with his older siblings Miriam and Aaron, to King David, the youngest of eight brothers, and many, many other examples. These narratives continue to resonate for us, if only because in them, we see our own stories – the miscues and misfires of our own lives. How many of our families suffer from forms of the very heartbreaks experienced by our biblical predecessors? One of the great blessings of my life is my relationship with my brothers and their wives, but it hasn’t always been straightforward; it takes intentionality, and it takes work. I don’t take it for granted for many reasons, one of which is knowing that it is a blessing not shared by all families. More than the bond between me and my brothers, I am well aware that my own parenting will ultimately be measured by the bond between my own children – and that game is still very much in play. Whatever time and energy we invest in sibling relationships, we all need to invest more – as siblings and as parents.
And yet, I will also say that for all the thought and attention we should give to siblings, birth order, and otherwise, it also seems to me that we must be careful to avoid the misstep of assigning excessive importance to something that none of us actually have any control over. None of us chose where we fell in birth order, nor for that matter, whether we have siblings at all, nor whether our parents were clumsy or careful in their allocation of love and affection. Significant as sibling relationships may be in determining character and self-definition, it strikes me as an abdication of responsibility to attribute too much weight to it. At some point each of us needs to take personal agency for who we are, and who we seek to be. At some point, the question of whether we are the leader, the creative rebel, the peacemaker, or the comic is up to nobody but ourselves. At some point it is we, and not anyone else, who determine the quality of our sibling relationships, whether we decide to let the wrongs of the past fall by the wayside or allow them to determine our future. With all due respect to Darwin, it is not the question of origins that matters the most, it is the question of destiny, and the answer to that question is in nobody’s hands but our own.
The story of Jacob and Esau does not end this week. Two weeks from now, the two brothers will meet again after having spent decades apart. They will embrace and they will weep. Jacob will greet his brother bearing gifts, and in response, Esau will respond, yesh li rav, literally meaning “I have enough,” but on closer inspection, I believe, a subtle rejoinder to that very first, in utero statement about Esau: rav ya·avod tza·ir. In other words, Esau is communicating not just that he is no longer in need of gifts, birthrights, and blessings, but that all those people, himself included, who would have him measure his rav, his worth, relative to his brother, were just plain wrong. Esau is happy with his portion. Jacob, for his part, responds with words that I believe to be as beautiful as they come, words that we should all aspire to say to our siblings: ra·iti panekha kirot p’nei elohim, to see your face is to see the face of God. We are both created equally in the image of God; there is more than enough to go around; your joys are my joys; your sorrows are my sorrows; your blessings are my blessing.
Friends, Thanksgiving is just days away. Some of us will be with our brothers and sisters. Many of us, myself included, will not be. I can think of no better way for all of us to spend these next few days than to pick up the phone to call our siblings, tell them that we love them, find a way to let go of hurts held far too long, celebrate their joys, support them in their sorrows, and express gratitude for their presence in our lives. Our brothers, our sisters – they need not be our rivals; they are our shelters, our supports, and our fortresses in times of need and in all times.