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Nov 1 2013

Torah MOMentary: Even Esteemed Matriarchs Play Favorites

By at 10:17 am

sibling rivalry jacob and esau parashat toldot

This post is part of our new Torah commentary series. This week we read Parashat Toldot. To read a summary of the portion and learn more, click here.

Maybe you’ve been feeling a little guilty about your parenting lately; you shouldn’t. There is no one perfect way to be a mom, and you’re doing your best with the resources you have. (Remember, #YouAreAGoodMama.)

Still, it’s so easy to feel insecure sometimes–especially when you constantly see other mothers who seem to have it all together, all the time: they take to breastfeeding with the greatest of ease, they throw birthday parties that are Pinterest boards come to life, and they look damn good doing it in their little black dresses two months after giving birth. Meanwhile, you’re desperately tossing back Fenugreek like M&Ms for just a minute increase in your milk supply. Your nipples look like Mike Tyson’s face (or Evander Holyfield’s ear) after a brutal round in the ring; your parties are fly-by-night operations with whatever was left over at Amazing Savings; your fashion style is more worn beatnik than city slick.

So maybe you’re feeling a little down on yourself lately. You’re only human, after all. But guess what? This week’s Torah portion Parshat Toldot shows us that even Rebecca, our esteemed matriarch and one of the mothers of all mothers herself, wasn’t perfect.

As Parshat Toldot begins, we learn that Rebecca waited 20 years to get pregnant with twins, and then had a rough pregnancy. After the twins’ birth, forget squabbling over Mega Blocks in the playroom–these two would set the gold standard of sibling rivalry for all future generations to come. Fertility struggles, morning sickness, bickering children with completely different temperaments: so far, Rebecca’s looking pretty relatable. But still, you might think, she was a Biblical matriarch: surely she was the perfect mother! No way did she possess any parenting flaws like us mere mortals.

And then the Torah says this: And Isaac loved Esau for he was also a hunter with his mouth, but Rebecca loved Jacob (25:28). Both Isaac and Rebecca committed one of the biggest parental no-no’s: they played favorites.

While Isaac’s love was conditional and depended upon Esau fulfilling his carnivorous demands, Rebecca’s love for Jacob was unconditional. Knowing that, how can a mother’s unconditional love–a love that requires no merit or has no expectations, and thus, should naturally extend to all her children–allow for Rebecca’s clear preference of one child over another?

It turns out that Rebecca fell prey to another major parenting no-no. To her, Esau was a common, brutish hunter, with none of the academic dedication or spiritual promise of his slightly younger brother. He was a rebel who married outside the faith. These things deeply disappointed her. If you think about it, simply fast-forward and realize that Rebecca is basically the archetypal, overbearing mother giving side-eye to her less accomplished son, who attended a small liberal-arts school and majored in the art of butchery or folklore instead of law or medicine, and who brought a non-Jewish girlfriend home for Thanksgiving dinner.

We love our children and should celebrate each of them for who they are. We should never favor one child over another, despite what may be more typically pride-inducing achievements. We should–but sometimes we don’t. There are times when we wring our hands or lose sleep over one child more than others. There is often that one child who tests the boundaries of your love, who pushes you to your limit and makes you contemplate jumping over the edge. One child who is sometimes, occasionally, just a little “harder” to love than his easier-natured, less complicated siblings.

And maybe we don’t show favoritism as Rebecca did, with her Machiavellian plot to have Jacob receive Isaac’s fatherly blessing instead of its intended recipient in Esau, and her disguise of Jacob in a hirsute suit to mimic his brother’s abundant body hair (the Biblical version of a scheme to bribe Harvard admission officers?). Maybe we show subtler signs of our exasperation with the “rebel.” We are more sparing of our patience. We visibly roll our eyes or sigh at another note home from the teacher. “I don’t understand,” we might say. “Your brother never causes any trouble.”

Rebecca wasn’t a perfect mother, but she was still a good mother. A little later in the Torah portion, it says Rebecca was the mother of both Jacob and Esau” (Genesis 28:5). This seemingly extraneous statement initially puzzled commentators. Presumably, we’ve read the story up to that point; we already know Rebecca is the mother of both Esau and Jacob. But Tzedah Laderekh, as quoted by Nechama Leibowitz and Rabbi Avi Weiss, explains it as such: despite Rebecca’s clear preference for Jacob, she was still concerned about Esau’s well-being. When she foresaw that Esau would angrily murder his brother over his lost blessing, she sent Jacob away not only to save his life but to save her love for Esau.

In the end, despite her obvious preference, and her distress over Esau’s character and actions, both Jacob and Esau were her children.

Regardless of how our children might later rebel or disappoint us, or discard the values we so lovingly try our best to instill in them, they will always be our children. And we hope that they won’t grow to be boorish hunters who trade their birthright for some lentil stew and take numerous wives, but even then–we will love them. And we hope that we will be strong enough not to allow individual character or height of achievement to define the order of our love for our children, as Rebecca did.

Because none of us–not those insufferable “yummy mummies,” not even Biblical matriarchs–are perfect mothers. We are good mothers who can learn from other moms both in what to emulate and what not to, and who can only strive to do better in our areas of weakness.

And a good mother who strives to do her best is really perfect enough.

To read the previous posts in our Torah MOMentary series, click here.

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