Last week, my kindergartener was home with a cold and had to miss Hebrew school. The lesson for that week was the story of Jacob and Esau, the classic biblical tale of sibling rivalry. I was sorry he would miss it, seeing as my house has become a battleground for him and his little brother. Hoping to discover ancient pearls of wisdom, I turned to the story and the commentaries on my own. Surely Rashi had some tips on how to keep siblings from clobbering each other!
I remember hearing this story as a kid, along with my Hebrew school teacher’s plea for us to be honest and try to get along with our siblings. But as I reread the story today, I found myself focusing less on the conflict between the brothers than on the failures of their parents.
Although Jacob and Esau are twins, one is clearly marked as older. When Rebecca feels the two fetuses tussling in utero, God tells her: “Two nations are in your womb… One kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.” It’s not exactly subtle foreshadowing, and soon Rebecca becomes complicit in the self-fulfilling prophecy. The elder Esau emerges from the womb with his twin, Jacob, clutching his heel. It’s a literal expression of what we know to be true of younger siblings: They are forever nipping at their older siblings’ heels, desperate to keep up. Though twins, Jacob and Esau are polar opposites: The older one is a fiery outdoorsman, while the younger one prefers to stay home with mom. Their inborn differences are hardly surprising to anyone who has more than one child.
Early on, we learn that Isaac favors Esau, while Jacob is favored by Rebecca, who helps to orchestrate the dramatic deception around which the story revolves. It starts with Esau relinquishing his birthright to his brother Jacob in exchange for “a mess of pottage,” an absurd tradeoff that really makes you wonder just how deliriously hungry Esau could have been. Then, while Esau is out hunting at his ailing father’s behest, Rebecca helps Jacob disguise himself as his hairy brother, draping goatskins on his arms and neck to conceal his smoothness and dupe the blind Isaac into granting him the blessing due the firstborn. When the deception is revealed, Esau cries out: “Have you but one blessing, father? Bless me, too, father.” But his heart-wrenching words fall on deaf ears. The enraged Esau resolves to kill his brother as soon as their father dies.
This is not the sad story of sibling rivalry that I remember; it’s a cautionary tale about bad parenting! I mean, what were Isaac and Rebecca thinking?! Didn’t she realize she was fueling the jealousy and resentment? And couldn’t Isaac have scrounged up another blessing?
But the longer I sit with this story, the more complicated it becomes. Although Isaac and Rebecca’s missteps are obvious, they point to the (albeit subtler) ways we as parents often contribute to sibling rivalry, no matter how well-meaning and fair-minded we may be.
When my second son was born, de facto alliances were formed. Because I was exclusively breastfeeding, the baby was literally bound to me for most of my waking (and supposed-to-be-sleeping) hours. Initially, I cultivated a stronger bond with him than my husband did. My husband in turn devoted more time to our firstborn, to whom I could offer very little undivided attention. What began as a practical plan for survival — the “divide and conquer” method of parenting wee ones — evolved into a pattern.
It has been weeks since I read a bedtime story to my now 5-year-old, who typically requests his dad. The other day, he mused, “I like cuddling with you sometimes, but I always like cuddling with Aba.” When I tried to comfort him after a bad dream, my younger son, who shares his room, flung his arms around my leg, yelling, “No! MY Ima!” Moments later, my husband entered the room to comfort our older child, and the two camps were reinforced.
We didn’t mean for this to happen, of course. There was no overt favoritism at play. Certainly no prophecy from God. And yet here we are. The dynamic will surely shift over time, but it’s hard not to view it as a set dynamic.
As I explore the Jacob and Esau story through the lens of my own experiences as a parent, I wonder whether Rebecca and Isaac’s failings can be read as an amplified expression of the smaller, less injurious rifts that emerge even in the happiest of families.
At the same time, it’s clear that our forebears handled the situation badly. Both Isaac and Rebecca make the mistake of pigeonholing their sons, of viewing them solely in terms of their familial roles, rather than acknowledging each as a unique individual. What’s worse, both make the mistake of riding the wave of sibling rivalry alongside their children rather than allowing the children to resolve the conflict independently. In other words, Isaac and Rebecca (like stereotypical Jewish parents!) fail to get out of their kids’ way.
This is their biggest mistake, since they are the very source of the conflict. After all, the object of Jacob and Esau’s competition is their father’s blessing. Psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy points out that it’s natural for children to view each other not simply as playmates but as competitors: “Not a competitor for the green truck that they are fighting over but really a competitor for feeling valuable and worthy, getting one-on-one time and being seen.”
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove reads the biblical story through a similar lens: “In my imagination,” he remarks, “the sale of the birthright for a bowl of lentils was but one of many tit-for-tat incidents, two siblings in constant competition for their parents’ love, for their self-worth and for their right to self-definition.”
Rebecca and Isaac don’t seem to realize that they are already at the center of the conflict between their children, and for this reason, they cannot be the ones to resolve it. Their only job is to bestow love — the ultimate blessing — upon each of their children.
Any parent who deals with sibling rivalry on a regular basis knows how easily a screaming match can miraculously end in laughter. My husband remembers how he once punched his younger brother in the stomach and caused him to fart loudly, leaving them both in stitches. I often marvel at how my 2-year-old can try to kick his big brother one moment and, in the next, throw his arms around him in the most blissful hug. The reconciliation usually happens when my back is turned, never because I’ve coaxed it out of them.
Interestingly, Jacob and Esau eventually reconcile despite the looming mortal threat. In what is one of the most moving scenes in the entire Bible, they appear face to face for the first time in years. They are now married men and fathers, each accompanied by his own entourage. When Jacob bows humbly before his brother, Esau rushes over and kisses him, and they both fall to the floor weeping. Isaac and Rebecca are no longer present to either fuel or fix the conflict between their children. When Jacob and Esau reaffirm their brotherly bond, they do so on their own.