Sheri Shapiro delivered this D'var Torah at Congregation Beth Ahm on Saturday, November 18.
It is particularly fitting that today’s Parshah is Toldot, which means “generations.” You see, I never had a bat mitzvah … of course, I became a bat mitzvah by age alone, yet I have never read from the Torah. The synagogue to which we belonged at the time and where I attended Hebrew School did not allow girls to read from the Torah; the early feminist in me would not accept the offered alternative of doing a report on Golda Meir.
That said, I have felt incomplete about this for much of my adult life, particularly after my deeper Jewish learning experience participating in the Wexner Heritage Program and watching my own kids study and read Torah at their mitzvahs. So, in honor of my 50th birthday, I want to continue the traditions of the many generations before me and have a shared experience with my kids and our family’s future generations.
In today’s Torah portion, Isaac and Rebecca struggle with years of infertility. After prayer and pleading with G-d, Rebecca finally conceives, only to suffer a challenging pregnancy with twins, where the “children struggle inside her.” G‑d tells her that “there are two nations in your womb,” and that the younger, Jacob, will prevail over the elder, Esau.
Jacob and Esau are very different. Jacob dwells in tents, spending his time learning. Esau is a robust, hairy hunter and man of the field. For reasons unclear, the parents play favorites — Isaac favors Esau, while Rebecca favors Jacob. Returning exhausted and hungry from the hunt one day, Esau asks Jacob for some red lentil stew; Jacob provides Esau the stew on one condition, that Esau gives Jacob his birthright, entitling him later to the authority and inheritance of his father.
Rebecca later seals Jacob’s prominent role over Esau through deception of her husband Isaac. Upon his deathbed, Isaac wishes to bless his elder son Esau with prosperity. However, Rebecca dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, covers his arms with hairy goatskins and tricks her blind husband into blessing her favorite son, Jacob instead. There is also a scene in which Isaac and Rebecca enter Gerar, the land of the Philistines, and he re-digs the wells of his father Abraham, over which there is strife with the Philistines.
There are many insights and observations that can be gleaned from this Parshah. Given the pain and anguish of our community due to current events, I am purposely going to refrain from drawing on the parallels of “two nations struggling” with each other or the fact that Isaac and the Philistines (biblical Palestinians), argue over the land and resources of Gerar, which is modern day Gaza. That said, it does highlight, in a somewhat miraculous way, the enduring learnings or parables that can be gleaned from such an ancient text.
It should also be noted that in midrashim, the two nations in this story are often described by the rabbis as Israel (for Jacob) and Rome (for Esau whose descendants were the Edomites, ancient peoples of the Roman Empire). As a result of Rome’s treatment of Jews over time, the rabbis paint Esau in a negative light in most interpretations of this story in order to channel their perspective of Rome as the “wicked empire.” That said, I’ve chosen to focus on different insights culled from Toldot.
Perhaps driven by my studies in behavioral science, I want to focus on the juxtaposition of how quickly Esau relinquishes his birthright for a bowl of lentils and how Jacob is singularly focused on obtaining the birthright, even though he won’t reap its benefits for many years to come. I couldn’t help but think of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment on delayed gratification.
For those unfamiliar with it, psychologist Walter Mischel tested hundreds of 4- and 5-year-olds regarding delayed gratification. The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them. They were told “You can have this treat now, or have two when I get back to the room.” However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, they would not get a second marshmallow.
Researchers followed these same children for more than 40 years. The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills, and generally better outcomes in a range of other life measures. This study led many to believe that consistently demonstrating the trait of delayed gratification was critical for success in life.
This study tracks with the Parshah. Jacob played the long game, waiting patiently and studying in his tent, focused on one goal - obtaining the birthright, whose larger rewards wouldn’t come to him until much later in life. Esau, on the other hand, spends his days hunting and, in a moment of weariness and hunger, impulsively relinquishes the birthright for immediate sustenance. The story portrays Jacob as the more successful one, his legacy much more pronounced in the rest of the Torah than that of Esau.
So we should all be like Jacob, right? He would’ve passed the marshmallow test. I mean, in modern terms, isn’t it better to save for retirement then spend your last dollar on a reward you can enjoy today?
Except that years later, the marshmallow test was debunked as a predictor of future success. Through replication of the study, they realized that social context, upbringing, trust instincts, and expectations of each child played a role in their behavior, causing some kids to act more quickly to get the sweet treat than others. What the marshmallow test really showed is that kids with more privilege or from higher socio-economic classes, had the luxury of waiting for the treat because in general rewards were less fleeting for those kids.
Upon reflection, the parshah is very binary. Jacob was a mild, studious man while Esau was a hairy, robust hunter. Isaac favored Esau; Rebecca favored Jacob. Jacob was a long-term planner, Esau was focused on meeting immediate needs. Jacob, good. Esau, bad. But, like the marshmallow study, is that really the case? Perhaps Jacob’s easier lifestyle, mother’s adoration and bulldozer parent approach to get him his father’s blessing enabled him to play the long game and await reward?
Does that really mean that Jacob was better — or just more privileged? In an empirical sense, Esau actually had more critical skills than Jacob. He was more physically able and he could provide food for the family … much more useful skills when the zombie apocalypse comes than being able to study in a tent!
So, maybe the lesson from this parshah is not as binary as it looks at first blush. Jacob and Esau were a product of their respective treatment and environment, despite being born from the same parents. They had different needs and skills and perhaps each should have been cultivated by both parents instead of the parents choosing favorites. Similarly, maybe we all need to be a little bit Jacob and a little bit Esau in our daily lives?
Perhaps leveraging a toolkit of skills for different circumstances is a better predictor of success in life? I’m sure all of us can think of a time when acting on impulse, following your gut, or grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns was the absolute correct action to take in specific situations. Other times, being contemplative, thoughtful, and more deliberate is more appropriate.
This reminds me a lot of the Jewish practice of Mussar, which tells us that all human qualities, even anger, jealousy and desire, are not intrinsically "good" or "bad." It's when we have too much or too little of a trait that our problems arise. For instance, everyone has some anger in his or her soul but too much anger is a problem; the most enthusiastic person needs to stop and listen sometimes…and so on with all the traits (or middot, in Hebrew).
Mussar teaches that we are all primarily souls, with the same traits/middot. However, we may express or employ those traits in different ways and magnitudes. This means that the most arrogant person you know still has humility, or the least organized person possesses the trait of order. Yet for some people, these traits are out of balance and may not be evident.
The study and discipline of Mussar is to work on balancing these traits and applying them in the right way for various situations, just as we can balance ours. Perhaps that means that sometimes we should channel our inner Jacob and other times channel our inner Esau in order to be most successful in life?
Life is not binary. Perhaps being successful in life is critically thinking about what skills or traits are needed for what situation and using those appropriately? It was possible for Rebecca and Isaac to love both children equally; it was possible for Jacob and Esau to teach each other their respective skills.
It’s possible to be caucasian and support equity for people of color. It’s possible to be a gun owner and support stricter gun laws. It’s possible to support the right of Israel to exist and defend itself and also support humanitarian aid for Palestinian civilians. Polarities don’t create solutions or bring people together. By definition, they are on opposite ends of the spectrum, without common ground.
So, my ask of each of you on this Shabbat — and at essentially the midpoint of my life — when you find yourself feeling or acting unilaterally, pause for a moment to identify what a balanced response might be, taking into account various perspectives and having empathy for others’ points of view. This is not easy, but the more you do it, the easier it will get.
I am not saying to avoid taking a stand or advocating for a specific point of view, but rather to do so in a manner that will be considered and listened to. This is the practice of Mussar. Think to yourself: in any given situation, which skills can I leverage? What is the best thing for me to do in this circumstance?
I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be able to stand before you today to read Torah and share my thoughts on the Parshah of Toldot. Of course, I couldn’t have accomplished this without the support of the synagogue clergy and executive director, my tutor, and, of course, my family. Finally, thank you to the Beth Ahm congregation for creating a welcoming and supportive culture to enable me to stand before you today.
Shabbat Shalom and Am Yisrael Chai!