This morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, generates stronger emotional reactions than most parashiyot in the Torah. It opens with the story of Esau and Jacob’s birth, and continues to describe their difficult childhood and the events that lead to the schism that drives them apart for over two decades.
The protagonist of the story, Jacob, our Patriarch, does not come off well. He manipulates Esau to acquire the birthright -which is the privilege of earning a double portion of their father’s inheritance.
Later, with his mother Rebecca’s guidance, he dresses up as Esau to deceive his father Isaac, and lies to his face in order to receive the blessing. The blessing in question is the continuity of the covenant that began with God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, would inherit the Land of Canaan, and would be a blessing to the world. This covenant passed from Abraham to Isaac, and now from Isaac to – because of his deception – Jacob.
It is not a pretty story. Is not Jacob, our Patriarch, the one after whom the Jewish people will eventually be named, supposed to be a role model for us? For that matter, what kind of mother is Rebecca, who would encourage her son to deceive his father and steal from his brother? She is our Matriarch! Do we not expect better? It is troubling to read that one of the foundational stories of the Jewish people is rooted in dishonesty.
But let us take a step back from the story and look at it through a wide angle lens.
What we are reading is the all-too-real description of a family’s struggles over legacy, and it is not pretty.
We saw a similar struggle in the previous generation. Ishmael, the older son of Abraham, is viewed by Sarah as a threat to his half-brother Isaac. To remove the threat, she demands that Abraham banish Ishmael and his mother Hagar from the household. This move ensures that the legacy of Abraham’s blessing, and the full, undivided inheritance of his entire estate, will pass to Isaac as the sole heir.
The struggles between siblings will continue in Jacob’s future household. It first manifests in the relationship between Leah and Rachel, sisters, and co-wives to Jacob. They struggle for position within the household. Rachel is the more beloved, but Leah is the more fertile – and they each use their respective strengths to posture for dominance. It is a similar tension to what we saw in the previous generation with Isaac and Ishmael.
The messy struggle for legacy passes to the next generation. Once again, the father plays favorites, as Jacob bestows the infamous coat-of-many colors on Joseph. The jockeying for control of the family legacy nearly leads to fratricide, as the brothers capture Joseph, plot to kill him, and finally settle on selling him into slavery and lying to their father about it.
So that is the birds’ eye view. In context, Rebecca and Jacob’s deception of Isaac and theft from Esau are fairly typical of this family.
Let us not be overly judgmental. How many families today struggle over issues relating to inheritance and legacy? The actions of these families in the Book of Genesis are, sadly, all too familiar.
But there is a happy conclusion to this story.
The family eventually reunites in Egypt, where Joseph has risen to become Viceroy. As Jacob is on his deathbed, all of his sons gather around him to receive a final message and blessing. In the midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:35), Jacob is distressed that as soon as he dies, his sons will abandon God and begin to worship another deity. The disfunction of previous generations will be repeated. After all, Ishmael and Esau were both idolaters.
But the brothers respond, as one: Shema Yisrael, adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.
Listen Israel – Israel is Jacob, after all, so named after his nighttime struggle with an angel of God. Listen Israel, Adonai – the God whom you worshipped, who blessed you, our Grandfather Isaac, and our Great-grandfather Abraham – that same Adonai is our God. Adonai alone.
Relieved, Jacob settles back in his bed and whispers: Barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va-ed. Blessed is the name of His glorious kingdom forever.
This is the first generation in the book of Genesis in which all of the children maintain the faith of their father. God’s promise to Abraham, that he would be ancestor to a great nation that would be in a special covenantal relationship with God, is finally beginning to be fulfilled.
When Jacob dies, the brothers are terrified that Joseph is now going to go after them. But he doesn’t. Instead, he promises to take care of them. The family is reunited, and can now, finally, begin its transformation into a nation.
So when we read the stories about Jacob and Rebecca behaving dishonestly, we must not do so without keeping an eye on the bigger picture, and without remembering that the family will eventually learn, will eventually forgive itself, and make a commitment to be a united people with a common faith shared by their ancestors.
We are reminded of this every time we recite the Shema. The Rabbis were wise to include the Shema in our prayers. In addition to a proclamation of belief in God, it is also a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people, both among our fellow Jews today, and with the generations that have come before and those that will follow us.
That is why it is so important for us to consider the legacy that has been left to us by those who came before, and to think seriously and act on what we need to do to ensure that there will be a legacy for the generations that follow.
Our world is changing rapidly. The old models of how Jewish institutions are supported are less and less effective. To ensure that there will continue to be synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish schools and educational initiatives and Jewish philanthropic organizations, those of us who value these institutions will to have to take concrete steps to ensure that they will be around for our children, grandchildren, and beyond.
We cannot be complacent if we want to preserve the legacy that began, somewhat messily, with our Patriarchs and Matriarchs – but that has continued unbroken for thousands of years, ever since that first, unifying Shema recited together by Jacob’s sons.
Our community Legacy Project is an extremely important opportunity for us. It offers us a concrete way to support Jewish peoplehood long after we are gone, to ensure that the Jewish institutions that have been so important to our own lives will be able to play such a role for future generations. Now is the time to put our legacies in place.
I hope you will join Dana and myself in ensuring that our children and grandchildren will be able to proudly recite the Shema, knowing that their parents and grandparents cared deeply about continuing the legacy of the Jewish people.