Toldot: Family therapy time

sibling rivalry boys fightingLimmud Chicago was last weekend, and I’m still coming off the buzz of being with over 300 people, for 24 hours, learning, sharing, laughing, (eating) and learning some more. If I could convey the feeling that being at Limmud brings, you’d never want to miss another one again. Trust me. You need to experience Limmud.

I gave a session this year, along with about 70 other people. Mine was about dysfunctional Biblical families, and I co-led the session with a dear friend of mine, Susan Glazer, who is a family therapist. If you want to look at dysfunctional families, look no further than this week’s parasha (and most of the ones before, and after, in the book of Genesis). We are in Toldot, when Rebecca finds out she’s going to have twins.

Setting the scene: Isaac and Rebecca have gotten married, and as in many Biblical marriages, Rebecca is barren. Isaac prays on her behalf, and then God speaks directly to Rebecca, telling her that she is not only going to get pregnant, but she will have twins; twins who will battle each other within the womb and in the world. And, God says, the older will serve the younger.

My friend Susan mentioned that much of good family therapy boils down to communication, and there’s precious little of that in this story. Did Rebecca share her prophecy with Isaac? Did she share it with either of the boys, even her favorite son, Jacob? As the well-known story goes, Jacob “buys” (swindles, takes advantage of, etc) his brother’s birthright with a bowl of food. Later, as Isaac lays sightless and dying, he asks for his favorite son Esau to go bring him some dinner, and while Esau’s out hunting, Rebecca convinces Jacob to deceive his father into getting the first born son’s blessing. When Esau returns and finds this out, he is heartbroken (“Bless me, too, Father! And Esau cried out and wept” Gen 27:38) and then murderous, threatening revenge.

Normally, in the case of sibling rivalry gone amok, a therapist would bring the family members in, together, separate, combination of both. The interesting point Susan brought out is, what do you do when it’s God who set up the rivalry? Bring God in for counseling? God told Rebecca Esau would serve Jacob, and she set about manipulating the family dynamic to make it come true. What kind of staying power to the family dynamic is presented when it’s God who intervenes? How long does that intervention hold sway?

What sets up our family dynamics? Few are God-determined these days, since firstborns don’t automatically get certain legal rights, but tradition surrounding this point still plays a big role in some families. Indeed, how many lives could be saved from physical or emotional violence if God and/or tradition were removed from the equation? And I will go further. Esau went on to lead a great nation, as did Jacob. Had God not chosen sides, would these two brothers still be at war?

I think it would do us all well to remove God from the equation, actually. It hasn’t done us any good lately. Both sides need to stop relying on a tradition/religion that pits brother against brother, and sit down to communicate honestly, like any good family therapist would suggest.

Esau had a story to tell. So did Jacob. So do their nations, and we would do well to listen to the other’s story. Later in the Torah, Esau and Jacob meet again after twenty years. Esau embraces Jacob and there is a midrash that says Esau’s teeth suddenly grew into fangs, as he tried to kill Jacob; Jacob’s neck suddenly turned to stone, and broke his brother’s teeth. Why did the rabbis have to try so hard to demonize Esau? Why make up such fanciful stories to justify the enduring animosity?

Time for some family therapy.

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