Weekly D’var Torah Commentary
“Two nations are within you.” One would be forgiven for believing that these words are a poetic representation of the current divisive moment in our nation. However, these are, in fact, God’s words to Rebecca during her difficult pregnancy that we read about in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot. Rebecca, previously infertile, is suddenly pregnant with twins. But these twins seem destined for conflict from their very conception; they fight with one another in Rebecca’s womb. Rebecca cries to God: “If these children struggle within me, why do I exist?” God tells her: “Two nations are within you. Two separate peoples shall issue from your body.” From one founding family, two peoples, with distinct destinies, will emerge.
At an early age, the twins, Esau and Jacob, differentiate and struggle to find their unique voice. Esau is described as a “skillful hunter;” Jacob as a “mild man.” Isaac, their father, develops a special relationship with Esau; Rebecca favors Jacob. Esau is trusting and naïve; Jacob is cunning and shrewd. It can be challenging to comprehend how these two children – from the same family of origin – can become so very different from one another.
Although no analogy is perfect, it is hard not to see the similarities between the story of Jacob and Esau, and the two separate political camps emerging in American politics today – each with different opinions, goals, and values. Members of these camps celebrate the same Independence Day, adhere to the same Constitution, share the same history. Like Esau and Jacob, we are all part of the same national family. But just like the contentious brothers, Americans seem to be drifting farther and farther apart, as this tense and painful election season has shown us.
At the climax of the story of Jacob and Esau, we learn that the brothers are locked in a competition for their father’s blessing. When Isaac is on his deathbed, he summons Esau – the older of the twins – to give him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. But Jacob, along with his mother Rebecca, trick Isaac – whose eyesight is poor – into giving the blessing to Jacob instead. When Esau discovers that he has been duped, he begins to sob and between his tears, cries: “Bless me too, father!” In later verses he beseeches Isaac again: “Have you not reserved a blessing for me? Have you but one blessing, father? Bless me too, father!” Esau’s request is modest. He asks neither for gifts, nor land, nor power. He simply seeks a blessing of his own from the lips of his dying father.
If we turn again to this moment in our country, we can ask: what is at the root of the strongly held but diametrically opposed beliefs about immigration, climate, identity – along with a myriad of other issues – that seem to push members of American political camps farther apart? Just as both Esau and Jacob each believed that he – and only he – was entitled to their father’s blessing, perhaps the current political divisions stem from an ingrained belief that each group is entitled to all of the blessings – justice, freedom, and power – which are intended to be bestowed on all Americans.
Perhaps our mistake, and that of Esau and Jacob, is that we harbor the incorrect notion, premised in fear, that blessings are limited. Later in the Torah portion, Esau finally receives a sought-after blessing from Isaac. This parasha teaches us that, just like there was more than one blessing in Isaac’s heart, blessings are abundant and meant to be shared.
When we live in a state of fear and short-sightedness, it is easy to feel that blessings are scarce and limited. Perhaps we ought to be reminded that, like Isaac, our nation has a wealth of blessings – enough for new immigrants and for those who have been living here for generations, enough for citizens of every race and religion, enough for people of all genders.
Enough to go around; enough to share.
Deena Gottlieb is JCP’s Student Rabbi.