Wednesday, 11 Nov 2015

Written by Danny Newman

Let’s begin with two important questions.

1. “Which child do I love more?” The question no parent dare utter aloud. But what if a parent feels a natural affinity for one of their children?

2. “What do I need to do so that my parents will love me?”How often does a child ask this question?

And because, in one way or another, we are all children, we might want to ask ourselves: to what extent has this second question determined (consciously or subconsciously) what we do (or don’t do) in the world?

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot, tells the story of Jacob (our patriarch) and his elder twin brother, Esau.

The Torah wants us to know early on in this week’s portion that, just like in so many families, feelings are visceral and it often seems like there is not much we can do about them.

As Leo Tolstoy reminds us in Anna Karenina:

“All happy families are alike; but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The Torah tells us in B’reishit chapter 25:28 about the love of two parents for their two children. We are told that Isaac loved Esau and why. Isaac loved Esau because Esau would hunt for Isaac, he would bring back food. Esau would feed Isaac and place food in his mouth.

What about Rebecca? The Torah tells us that she also loves. But she loves Jacob. In fact the Hebrew verb used to describe Rebecca’s love for Jacob is in the present tense. “Rivka ohevet et Ya’akov.” She loves Jacob. Continuously in the present moment.

We are dismayed. Another difficulty in this fractious family! Another incident of filial favouritism!

We are told that Isaac loves Esau because Esau gives him food. So at least the Torah gives us a reason why Isaac loves Esau. The problem with this, however, is well known in our traditions ; as Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Father) 5:19 teaches:  a love that is conditional doesn’t last. A love that is dependent on an object won’t last.

We are not told why Rebecca loves Isaac. We just know she loves him. A lucky boy, he has the unconditional love of his mother. Surely that is enough for him?

But immediately in the next verse we are told that Jacob is making a lentil stew. Esau comes home from a hard day in the field. He’s exhausted and hungry and willing to sell his birthright for bread and stew.

But what is the connection between the verse  telling us about Isaac’s love for Esau and Rebecca’s love for Jacob and the very next verse containing the (in)famous birthright scene with the lentil stew?

Rabbi Chaim Ibn Atar , known as the Or HaChaim, one of the great rabbinic commentators from 18th century Morocco says something of profound psychological depth and insight. He reflects on what a child might do to get the love of their parent.

The Or HaChaim suggests that the reason that Jacob is making a stew is that he saw that his father loved Esau because Esau made him food. Jacob saw that his father’s love was given to the son that brought him food. So Jacob decides that he too will make food for his father. Jacob tries to turn himself into a person who will be lovable by his father. If only he performs in the right way, if only he can please his father, then maybe….maybe….. his father will love him too. 

How different are we from Jacob? What do we do to feel loved by others? What are the strategies we use to get the love and approval we want from our parents, from our friends and from our community?

For so many of us in our society we are taught, from a very early age, that our value, our worth in this world, is dependent upon how we perform.

When we are young, perhaps we equate our worth with our exam results, comparing ourselves with others, with what we thought we should get, or with what other people told us we should get.

So we might experience the crushing disappointment of feeling like a failure or we might experience the inflated grandiosity of being a success.

Or perhaps we judge ourselves by our physical appearance or the number of friends we have (more popular = better kind of person).

Later on we might equate our value with our salary, or the size of our house, our reputation, or the performance of our own children.

And we might feel inadequate or jealous when we see people with more money, recognition, status or successful children?

Or maybe we feel superior when we come across people with less?

And so we can live in a world of constant comparison – comparing ourselves to others and as a result we not only judge our own self-worth as being dependent on our performance, but the worth of other people too. It turns us all into objects.

Perhaps the most profound teaching in our tradition is that every human being is created in the divine image and every human being is descended from a single person. The corollary of this teaching is that all human beings are equal, all human beings are unique and, most importantly, all human beings are of infinite value.

When we begin to internalise this understanding of human beings, we can free up all the energy we use to construct, maintain and defend the image of ourselves that we are constantly presenting to the world.

We can free ourselves from the suffering caused by comparing ourselves to others.

It opens up the opportunity for us to be more fully who we really our, to give our unique gifts to the world and to stop withholding our contribution because of our fears about how well it might turn out.

And when we start to see others as being unique and of infinite value too, we are better able to listen to them, support them and trust them, so they too can bring their own unique contribution to this world.

May we be blessed to receive love, kindness and companionship – from ourselves, our families, our friends and communities – and may we have the courage to cultivate our unique ways of being in the world. May we have the courage to contribute our unique gifts to the world and may we have the courage to support others in doing the same.

Student rabbi Danny Newman

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.