Lessons from dysfunctional family

Lessons from dysfunctional family

Shemot — Genesis 25:19-28:9

Parshat Toldot is about one of the most dysfunctional families in the Bible — Isaac and Rebecca and their twin sons Esau and Jacob. The boys are different. Esau is “ruddy,” an outdoorsman and hunter, while Jacob is “smooth,” a homebody who “dwells in tents.” Moreover, the Torah tells us that Isaac preferred Esau while Rebecca preferred Jacob.

When Isaac is old and blind, he decides it is time to give his blessing to his favorite son. He asks Esau to hunt for some game and make the dish he loves, after which he will bless him. Rebecca overhears and convinces her favorite son, Jacob, to deceive his father and claim the blessing for himself. When Esau learns what his brother did, he vows to kill him as soon as their father has died. Jacob flees for his life and will not return for 20 years.

The rabbis put the blame on Esau, whom they portray as wicked from birth. In rabbinic literature Esau becomes a symbol of all the nations that have oppressed Israel. Esau’s other name, Edom, is used to refer to Rome, the empire that destroyed the Temple and exiled the people. Later Edom becomes the Christian church that for much of its history persecuted the Jews.

But the story in the Torah has impact precisely because it doesn’t deal with symbols but with people, with a family, and it teaches us things about family relationships that we forget at our peril.

What touches me about the story is what happens when Esau returns from his hunting trip and learns that his brother has already received the blessing that was intended for him. The Torah says, “He cried a great and very bitter cry.” At that moment, Esau is not a cunning hunter or the symbol of wickedness; he is only a child who feels he has lost his father’s love. He says, “Don’t you have a blessing left for me?” It’s as if he is saying, “Daddy, please love me too. Love me, Esau, your son whom you loved before.”

Why was his father’s blessing so important to him? Not because it included the inheritance of the larger share of Isaac’s wealth. And not because it indicated that he would be heir to God’s promise to Abraham. This wasn’t what Esau was concerned about.

What rings true in Esau’s cry is the awareness that nothing can replace a parent’s blessing. Every child needs his or her parents’ approval and acceptance; if it’s not there, the child will always feel a certain emptiness.

Often a young child will come home from preschool with a crayon drawing — green circles and purple lines and red squiggles — and say proudly, “Look, Mommy, I drew an elephant.” The mother will smile and say, “That’s a wonderful elephant, sweetie,” and hang the picture on the refrigerator door. What she is really saying is, “You’re my child and I love you and I’m proud of you.”

But after a few years, no more pictures are hanging on the refrigerator door. The kids are too big for crayons now. And sometimes the parents forget to say with words what they said before with the simple act of hanging up a picture: “My son, my daughter, I love you and I’m proud of you.”

When we speak about parents and children we must never forget that it’s a relationship we never outgrow. Esau’s cry — “Bless me, too, father” — touches us all because it is a part of us all. Whether one is 5 or 50, every child needs to see his or her pictures hanging on the refrigerator door.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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