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Parashat Toledot – 5779

November 8, 2018

“Mom Always Liked You Best!”
A D’var Torah for Parashat Toledot
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

During the late 1960s, one of the most popular comedy programs on television was the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

The team of Tom and Dick Smothers was a mainstay of CBS’s Sunday night programming, for two distinct reasons.

As public discourse over the Vietnam War heated, the brothers’ comedy would bring the anti-war protest directly into American homes, eventually leading to their cancellation by the network.

However, fifty years later, what endures most about the Smothers Brothers’ comedy was its ability to capture the subtleties of human relationships—in particular between two brothers.

Invariably, as the dialogue between these two siblings would deteriorate, it was Tommy Smothers—always portrayed as the dimmer of the two—who would attempt to trump his brother’s well-reasoned arguments with the accusation, “Well, Mom always liked you best!”

This week, as our Torah portion turns to the relationships within the family of Rebekah and Isaac—in particular, the factors that guaranteed enmity between their two sons—that Smothers Brothers punchline comes to mind.

But it’s not a comedy this time. Within the relationship between Jacob and Esau, we bear witness to the horrible consequences of parental favoritism. It’s bad enough when a child levels the accusation “Mom [or Dad] loves you best” at a sibling; it is a thousand-fold worse when it is true.

The Parashah, titled Toledot or The Story of Isaac, begins with a description of how, as Rebekah’s pregnancy develops, there are twins, different in nature, struggling within her. God tells Rebekah: “Two nations are in your womb.” (Genesis 25:23)

Esau emerges first, covered with a hairy mantle. Jacob follows, grasping his brother’s heel.

Esau, the more physical of the two becomes a hunter; Jacob more of a homebody. And the family lines are drawn.

The Torah tells us, “Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game, but Rebekah favored Jacob.” (Genesis 25:28) What follows is a ruse perpetrated by Rebekah, meant to fool the dim-eyed Isaac into bestowing the family birthright upon Jacob, rather than Esau.

Why did it have to come to this? And what is the Torah trying to tell us, given that it clearly seems to endorse deception and trickery?

Ultimately, the two brothers become enemies, and although the Torah shows them reconciled later on, each ultimately fathers nations who, throughout history, remain at odds.

One thousand years later, as Judea looks to the nation of Edom – descendants of Esau – for assistance against the Babylonians, Edom turns its back. The animosity between the progeny of Jacob and Esau is reinforced numerous other times in the Bible.

Many commentators ask why this had to happen. They and many sources have coached parents on how not to follow the example of Isaac and Rebekah: How not to play favorites with their children.

The Talmud teaches that favoring one child over the others can have dire consequences (Shabbat 10b), citing the hatred and resentment triggered when Jacob openly favored Joseph over his brothers.

The point is punctuated by the Midrash, our ancient collection of interpretations and commentaries, which concludes by citing the relationship between Abraham and Isaac, and those sons produced with concubines: “It is forbidden to treat one child differently from the other, lest by giving more to one I sow envy and discord among my children.” (Genesis Rabbah 61:6)

Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, of blessed memory, asserted the following: “I believe that the characters in the Torah are based on truth, and inspire us because they speak of the imperfection of human relations. We can learn so much from them.”

Our own relationships are as complex as ever. In Couples in the Bible, Jim Schnorrenberg argues that “Kids always know who the favorite is – they always know.” “For Isaac and Rebekah their favoritism was a consequence of growing apart,” notes Schnorrenberg. “Rather than meeting each other’s emotional needs, they tried to meet them through their children and they focused on the kids most like them.”

This is an important possibility as we consider this week’s Torah portion.

Some sages have argued that, in the end, the future of the Jewish people was best served through the leadership of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, as opposed to Ishmael, Esau, and Jacob’s other sons, but let us also consider the pain and ultimate animosity that were produced by parents playing favorites.

Judaism places a high value on ensuring that a person is never embarrassed or emotionally pained. In this week’s Torah portion, which recounts Isaac’s story, we learn about the profound pitfalls of one parent declaring, emotionally or verbally, “I love you more.”

It is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking moments of the Torah when Esau, upon realizing that he has forfeited his birthright to Jacob, approaches his father and asks, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (Genesis 27:36).

We may have laughed fifty years ago when Tommy Smothers declared, “Mom always loved you best!” But ultimately, favoritism—whether intentional or not—can lead to a lack of self-esteem, and in the case of the Torah, not only sibling rivalry, but even national hostility.

It is therefore important not only to love our children and grandchildren equally, but also to appear to do so. Indeed, each son and daughter, each grandchild, each human being carries within a unique spark—and each is divine.

It is therefore incumbent upon all of us, as we interact with our children in a variety of settings and relationships that each child is made to feel special. And therefore, each one deserves a unique and sacred blessing.

For each one, in different ways, is precious in God’s sight.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR ’10) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.