Parashat Toldot: a chain of blindness, our ancestors at therapy!
“Here is the history of Isaac, Abraham’s son” –
in this way starts the weekly Torah portion “Toldot”.
This portion revolves around the story of our ancestor Isaac, but what it actually starts is the tale
of the life of Jacob, who became our main patriarch and is the character most spoken-of in the book of Bereshit. But as we said, “the history of Isaac”. And already in the first sentence we hear twice of Abraham, as if this was an a Freudian “party” based on how Isaac’s childhood story and the figure of his father affected his own parenthood.
In the “Vayera” portion Isaac was born and started growing up next his half-brother Ishma’el. One day his mother, Sarah, saw Ishma’el and Isaac together and asked Abraham expel Hagar and Ishma’el. Leaving aside the ethical issue here, we can look at Isaac’s perspective in facing the expulsion of his brother. I’ll dare say that this probably devastated the idea of the house and the family as providing a sense of safety and confidence. Can a child who understands at a young age that children can be kicked out of the house develop a sense of confidence?
The portion continues with the story of the Binding of Isaac, where Isaac goes out for a “stroll” with his father, planning make a sacrifice together – what we nowadays call father-son quality time – and ends up realizing that he himself is the sacrifice. The history of Isaac! Parents who expected his birth for many years, an instable house, detachment of his brother, have we mentioned family violence? And it doesn’t improve; directly after the story of the Binding, the portion Chayei Sarah starts with Sarah’s death, adding mourning Isaacs many struggles. Moreover, it is assumed that the tear between Isaac and Abraham his father was so big that he didn’t even come take part in his mother’s funeral. Isaac’s sadness only expressed when he meets his wife at the end of the portion. These are the burdens that Isaac carries with him as he starts his family, with a story that also starts with infertility, until Rebecca goes inquire God and they are announced:
23 … “There are two nations in your womb. From birth they will be two rival peoples. One of these peoples will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.”
25 The first come out was reddish and covered all over with hair, like a coat; so they named him ‘Esav. 26 Then his brother emerged, with his hand holding ‘Esav’s heel, so he was called Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.27 The boys grew; and ‘Esav became a skillful hunter, an outdoorsman; while Jacob was a quiet man who stayed in the tents. 28 Isaac favored ‘Esav, because he had a taste for game; Rebecca favored Jacob.
This statement of “favoring” a child over the other makes us almost automatically feel uncomfortable. This distinction creates a basic situation difficulty. Favoring a kid is considered “taboo” in parenthood, and here is is stated very clearly. It is quite probable that it was similarly clear the children themselves. In this sort of family settings, extreme competitiveness, exaggerated attempts please the parents and a general feeling of insecurity would all be very dominant elements. Children always wish please their parents. Even when they challenge our boundaries and they seem be doing the opposite, this is still a request closeness and love. We can’t ignore the fact that this story is about a family in conflict. For the same reason the story of the birthright (Bechora) started out at a situation which was doomed fail.
Symbolically, the part of the portion which deals with the blessing starts by mentioning that Isaac was blind. But
paradoxically, only out of his blindness he managed have a few moments of clear sight.
We are familiar with the majority of the story, Jacob dresses up as Esau, and exploiting his father’s blindness receives the blessing which was meant for Esau. On the current reading of this portion we will wonder what is the experience of a boy who needs dress up as his brother in order receive his father’s attention and kind words…
Jacob leaves the tent and a few minutes later his brother Esau arrives. When Esau understands what happened he gave a great and bitter cry, as if he lost his father’s love for always. Esau begs his father bless him too – Give a blessing me! he repeats several times.
These are the “tzures” of Isaac, these are his burdens! But this time it is Isaac the father, who built a family which reconstructs a dysfunctional model, who suffers from his past but was not able look at it critically and offer his own children a better model.
At this moment of the story the blindness becomes apparent. Nothing can be seen but darkness. Jacob’s deceit, Esau’s heartbreaking cry.
36 … and now he has taken away my blessing. And he said, Have you not kept a blessing for me?
37 And Isaac answering said, But I have made him your master, and have given him all his brothers for servants; I have made him strong with grain and wine: what then am I do for you, my son?
38 And Esau said his father, Is that the only blessing you have, my father? give a blessing me, even me! And Esau was overcome with weeping.
And now comes the story which seems be able change the trend of the story:
39 Then Isaac his father made answer and said him, Far from the fertile places of the earth, and far from the dew of heaven on high will your living-place be: 40 By your sword will you get your living and you will be your brother’s servant; but when your power is increased his yoke will be broken from off your neck.
Isaac “sees” his son! His son standing before him and asking “where art thou?” – the question which God used call Abraham – “Ayeka?” With generosity and nontrivial honesty he says “here I am” – “hineni”. He understand what his son is confronting, he understands his distress and stands by him. This is a moment of sight, it is sad and difficult, but also contains a sparkle of hope.
Another meaningful moment follows the conversation with Rebecca, in which she asks Isaac Jacob her brother’s house seek a bride there. Commentaries debate whether Isaac was aware of the real reason behind this or not, either way Isaac calls his younger son and blesses him:
3 And may God, the Ruler of all, give you his blessing, giving you fruit and increase, so that you may become an army of peoples
4 And may God give you the blessing of Abraham, you and your seed, so that the land of your wanderings, which God gave Abraham, may be your heritage.
This time Isaac knowingly blesses Jacob, and consciously (seeingly) completes a process that started with deceit.
Despite the “Hollywoodian” aspect of our story, this Parasha does not have a happy end. The siblings continue in conflict and Jacob escapes. Esau hears and wrongly understands that his father does not wish for his sons marry local women (this in fact was just part of Rebecca’s plan help Isaac escape) and he goes his uncle Ishmael look for a wife, wishing only please his father.
Parashat Toldot continues the stories of complex relationships between fathers and sons. It leaves us thinking about the repetition of models which hurt us, about “blind” parenthood which is not able recognize the needs of its children. Parenthood which obliges our sons disguise their true selves and behave in extreme ways.
This is an opportunity ask ourselves what it is that we’d like keep and what are the things that we do not wish carry forwards anymore. It is an what we would like “see” as a part of our lives and what we wish not “see” as our legacy in our children’s lives.