Parshat Toldot Sermon Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum November 29, 2003
The conflict between Esau and Jacob is beautifully illustrated in many different ways by the biblical commentators. Many of them painted Esau as very wicked and Jacob as extremely righteous. Today at the end of 2003 it is clear that the conflict between Esau and Jacob still goes on.
I would like to concentrate with you today on one of the sources of this conflict, namely, Rebecca, the mother of Esau and Jacob. I would like to focus on Rebecca’s personality, character traits and view of the future. Let’s do a little Biblical psychoanalysis. After reading the portion literally, it appears that Rebecca was the one who set up a plan in order to make sure that Jacob inherited the blessing of Isaac. The Parsha ends with terrible hatred between the brothers. Esau wanted to kill Jacob and Jacob is forced by his mother to leave home to escape from Esau’s anger. How was it that a beloved mother who wanted the best for her children created such everlasting bigotry and hatred between her own sons?
The Jewish people believe that a mother looks out for what is best for her children. We are touched by the famous song "A Yiddishe Momma", which describes a Jewish mother and her great devotion to her children. According to our sages, who analyzed Rebecca’s personality, Rebecca had an ambivalent self-conflict. One side of her loved her husband, Isaac and her son Jacob. She deeply appreciated their sincerity, honesty and righteousness. By the same token, Rebecca loved her son Esau. However, when she looked at Esau growing up, she saw a very strong reminder of her own childhood. One side of her appreciated her parents and her homeland, even just for the fact that she was raised in the home of Bethuel. The other side recognized the wickedness and unscrupulous life of her father Bethuel and her brother Laban. Rebecca now looked at Esau and she saw a personification of her father and brother. Rebecca’s quandary was based upon the dilemma of whether she was going backwards or forwards in her life. She asked herself, "Do I want a repetition of my father’s and brother’s wickedness or do I want to do Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place to live? Because Rebecca’s mind was overwhelmed by this conflict, she was hasty and impetuous in her decision to switch the blessing between the brothers, creating tremendous animosity and dissent.
Some historians even say that this scenario was in some ways the root and even the genesis of anti-Semitism. We learn from this experience the concept of Ma’aseh Avot Siman Labanim, ("The deeds of the fathers are a sign to the children"). This means that a person’s childhood and the trauma or calamity in it may have a direct effect upon his or her attitudes towards others or even towards his or her own children. The anger that Rebecca carried towards the personal trauma of her early childhood carried into her actions and ultimately had a permanent effect upon future generations.
The Torah describes Esau as Ish Sadeh, a man of the field. The rabbis teach us that there is an esoteric element of the text that applies to Esau’s personal behavior. Esau was a person who had the capability to be a charlatan, not only in monetary issues but also in controlling a person’s mind. Esau went so far that he was able to manipulate his father Isaac. He maneuvered his father’s mind so that Isaac believed that his son Esau was righteous. Rebecca, however, because of her background, recognized her son Esau as a perpetuation of the character and traits of her brother and her father. This was a situation that she could not tolerate. She wanted Esau to stop manipulating the rest of her family.
This brings us to the question of whether Rebecca’s personality is interpreted positively or negatively. Rebecca’s duality and ambivalent conflict of emotions is a subject that remains to us an enigma. Childhood experiences and the behavior of a parent have the potential for great effects on the children and on many generations to come. We often try to be very careful in our actions and in our daily relationships with our children and grandchildren because we see the strong link between our actions today and their impact upon the future.
We cannot escape from the news about Michael Jackson. "He seems stuck in childhood" said forensic psychiatrist Ryan Finkenbine of West Virginia University Medical School. "Jackson does suffer from some form of psycho-emotional retardation." Like Bethuel, Laban and Esau, Michael Jackson was cruel to others, acting dishonestly and manipulatively. His issues from childhood had a negative impact on his actions as an adult. Rebecca did not want the evil forces she had confronted in her childhood to affect the family she had established as an adult.
Many people to this very day suffer greatly because of the conflicts that originated with Esau and Jacob. Throughout history and until today there has been tremendous Anti-Semitism. We have to contend with many forces for our right to exist in Israel as well as in the Diaspora and even now here. May we be blessed with the ability to abolish the forces of Esau and live in a peaceful world in which G-d bestows his blessings upon us. Amen.