Parashat Toldot

How Much Love is Too Much?

By Rabbi Judith Edelstein

This week’s parashahToldot, was my son’s Bar Mitzvah portion 13 years ago. I can still vividly recall teaching him Torah and Haftarah chanting. We started nine months before the date because he wanted to read as much of the parashah that he could. This was what his classmates did, and he would not be satisfied with less. I established a routine of daily practice. Often my Jacob reclined and after 10 minutes of fidgeting would brandish his foot in my face. I remained undaunted, determined that he accomplish his goal. To that end I coaxed, coached and threatened “My Little Man” (whose height then matched mine). I believed that he could do it all if he worked hard enough, despite the fact that he was quiet, shy and humble – as he has remained to this day. To my amazement, he recalls nothing of the hours we spent struggling together as I poured out my love and dedicated myself to his success. Could I have been overzealous on his account? I am afraid to ask him now.

Toldot, generations, deals with similar dynamics under very different circumstances. It continues the saga of Abraham’s progeny following his death, drawing us into the drama of his son Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and their twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Many of the plot lines from preceding chapters repeat themselves here: the barren wife, famine in the land, passing off a wife as a sister. But what struck me was the urgency and passion of a mother’s love that knows no bounds.

We saw this first in Sarah, in Parashat Vayera two weeks ago, when, in a rage of jealousy as well as ambition for her son, she expelled Hagar and Ishmael from her home. Sarah’s love for Isaac and her desire for him to ensure his birthright took prominence over any concern for Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah was a lioness prepared to attack as she guarded her baby cub. She was a cold, calculating, possessive woman, blinded by her love for her son who lost her sense of humanity as a result of that love.

Rebecca, this week’s heroine, went beyond her mother-in-law, Sarah, when she chose one of her sons over the other. We read in Bereshit 25:27-28: “The boys grew up. Esau became a skilled trapper, a man of the field. Isaac was a man without fault, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his trappings but Rebecca loved Jacob.” In researching the classic commentators’ elucidation of these verses, I was surprised that Rashi, the 11th century father of Biblical commentary, focused on Esau’s duplicitous nature once the boys matured. Ironically he points to Jacob as “one who is not shrewd at deceiving.” Neither Rashi nor the Ramban, a major 13thcentury Biblical exegete, explored the parents’ favoritism. Was it assumed and therefore unworthy of comment?

Later on, in the 15th– 16th centuries, Sforno, an Italian Biblical scholar, comments on Bereshit25:28: “Rebecca loved Jacob…for she recognized the wickedness of Esau.” Perplexing reason for preferring one child over another!

Jump ahead five centuries to the ground breaking Five Books of Miriam: 

“OUR DAUGHTERS ASK: How can parents play favorites? Even in the Torah! OUR MOTHERS ANSWER: All parents have to struggle with their natural tendency to favor one child over another. Faced with the inevitable sibling rivalry among our children, we try our best to be evenhanded. Even so, our children quickly learn that life is not fair – and neither are parents” (p. 42).

In the next several upcoming parashot, in fact, we are continually reminded of the ramifications of favoritism on future generations.

Further along in The Five Books of Miriam: 

OUR DAUGHTERS ASK: Why does Rebecca favor Jacob…we are given no reason for Rebecca’s bias toward Jacob. Is she motivated only by God’s promise that ‘the older shall serve the younger’? REBECCA ANSWERS: A mother’s love is usually not so pure. I was drawn to Jacob because of his personal qualities: he preferred tent life to hunting; he was clever; he was smooth-skinned and handsome; he attended to me and heeded my advice” (p. 42).

In contrast, Genesis Rabbah 63:10 suggests that the more she heard his voice engaged in the Torah, the more she loved him. On the other hand, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, posits:

“Rebecca loved Jacob without any reason, and her love lasted forever. This is what the Midrash means when it says that ‘whenever she heard his voice, she came to love him even more.’ This means that it did not depend upon any particular thing” (The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, translated and interpreted by Arthur Green, pp. 39-40).

Was Rebecca’s love for Jacob unconditional? Is any parents’ love for their child? Is God’s love for humanity? We can only conjecture. What is blatantly evident is the destructive nature of favoring one over another, as well as love without boundaries. We have seen how each of these wreaks havoc, especially in the case of Israel. Love is a gift, but it must be bestowed judiciously.



Rabbi Judith Edelstein, D.Min, BCC is the part-time rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam in Nantucket, MA. She teaches at the JCC in Manhattan and works independently with private students for conversion, B’nai Mitzvah and other life cycle events.