Parashat Toledot 5780

Our “Imperfect” Biblical Characters
A D’var Torah for Parashat Toledot
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, one of my most influential teachers, once shared a profound insight with me regarding why he believed the Torah is based on truth.

“The characters we read about are so flawed,” he said. “While the heroes of many other religions are depicted as perfect, ours are not. There is no reason to describe them this way, unless it is to touch on the truth within each of us.”

This week’s Torah portion, Toledot (“This is the story of Isaac”), is a case in point. It recounts the story of a dysfunctional family worthy of a reality television series.

After twenty childless years, Rebecca conceives twins. The Torah describes Rebecca’s difficult pregnancy, as her two future sons “struggle inside her.” God describes “two nations in your womb,” and—as often is the case in the Torah— “the elder will serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

Esau is the first to arrive and is covered with red hair. He will grow up to be a hunter. His father, Isaac, “who had a taste for game,” likes him best. (Genesis 25:28)

Meanwhile, Jacob, who enters the world holding Esau’s heel, described by some commentators as “innocent,” (Rashbam 25:28) becomes the tent dweller. He is Rebecca’s favorite.

Indeed, as we review our holy Biblical text, we need to ask ourselves: How is it possible that a text as sacred and instructive as the Torah promotes the model of one parent favoring one child over the other?

Does this ever lead to good? How many families today are plagued by sibling rivalry? How many of these rivalries stem from one parent appearing to favor one child over another?

As we review these texts today, on many levels, we are reminded of how not to raise children.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) in his Hirsch Commentary on the Torah, points out that Isaac and Rebecca broke the golden rule of parenting, as quoted in the Psalms: Hanokh l’na’ar al pi darkho – “bring up each child in accordance with their own way.” (Prov. 22:6)

Not only did Isaac and Rebecca foist their own biases upon their children, but they potentially stifled their children’s individual nature by perhaps making each an extension of themselves.

Later, it will be Jacob who will favor Joseph over his other sons. The Talmud uses this example to emphasize that, for example, in the preparation of a will, one parent should never favor one child over another lest it cause animosity and resentment which can resonate within a family for generations. (Shabbat 10b)

Indeed, each parent, then and today, by loving the uniqueness of each child must not only love each equally, but appear to do so.

As parents, Isaac and Rebecca fail this test.

Later in the Parashah, Esau is victimized by a conspiracy as Jacob, dressed in fur, and upon the coaxing of his mother, impersonates Esau and steals his father’s blessing. It’s a tale of dishonesty, deception, and manipulation.

What does this say about the love and communication that married couples must share as they raise their children? Why was it that Isaac and Rebecca, who earlier in the Torah are described as passionate lovers, pit their own children against each other?

The Torah describes Isaac as blind. This is true on many levels. Rebecca may have been ultimately right in her support of Jacob – but this week’s Torah portion inspires us to ask, “Is this the way that disputes should be addressed within a family?”

In the end, most of these biblical vignettes are resolved. Many biblical characters revisit their flaws, and ultimately adopt a more wise and responsible personal path.

As Rabbi Ehrenkranz noted, herein lies the Torah’s inherent truth. Our biblical characters enter the world flawed. They commit interpersonal errors, often in their youth, or as a result of impaired awareness.

It is why this week’s Torah portion is both disturbing and inspiring. For while so many of our biblical characters are imperfect, they represent truths about each of us.

If, as the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) suggested in his Commentary to Mishlei 4:13, “The entire purpose of our existence is to overcome our negative habits,” then, in many ways, we can thank our biblical ancestors for inspiring us by example, to explore and eventually overcome the defects which plague each of us.

There is an Aramaic text which we recite each Shabbat morning before removing the Torah from the ark. It reads, “Not upon mortals do we rely, not upon angels do we depend, but upon the God of the universe, the God of truth, whose Torah is truth…” (Siddur Sim Shalom, 1985 Edition, Page 398)

I love the Torah because it tells truths. Our role models are not always perfect, but more importantly, they teach us by example to expose and explore those tendencies and characteristics which we struggle with.

Indeed, the Torah is sometimes messy, upsetting, and confusing. Just like life.

It is one reason why perhaps the Torah, as it echoes the imperfections of humanity, continues to endure.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR ’10) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a USCJ affiliated congregation located in Glen Cove, NY.