Toldot: The Best They Could

Image: Two men arm wrestle for cash. (Ryan McGuire / Pixabay)

Poor Rebecca: she is beloved of her husband Isaac but her kids fight something awful.

It started even in the womb:

The children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD, and the LORD answered her, “Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

Genesis 25: 22-23

The phrase “If so, why do I exist?” always catches my heart. What does it mean?

?אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי

Genesis 25:22

Rashi says that what she means is, “If the pain of pregnancy is so great, why did I want to become pregnant?” But that is not what she said in this week’s Torah portion.

She feels the children inside her, and she exclaims, “If so, why do I exist?” She questions the whole meaning of her existence as she feels the children “crushing” each other (v’yitro’tzatzu.) The verb means more than “struggle” – it means “crushing” – a battle for absolute dominance. They are trying to kill each other, she feels, and they are not yet even born! Even as they are born, they are fighting, with Jacob trying to pull his older brother back into the womb so that he can be born first.

Rebecca is aware from pregnancy that her sons dislike each other intensely. At the very beginning of their lives, Rebecca cries out, ” If so, why do I exist?” – “If these two hate each other, what is the point of my life?”

One of the developmental tasks of being a parent is the understanding that the child is a separate person. For biological mothers, it is very easy to understand: that baby came out of my body, they were once a part of me, I fed them from my body, I am biologically linked to them by hormones and similarities in our DNA. So how come this kid is doing something I would never do – like try to “crush” his sibling, whom I also love?

Why do parents exist? We human beings are slow developers. Children need care for years after birth, to find food and shelter, to survive predators, to learn the things one needs to learn in order to survive. Children need adults to nurture them, to sacrifice for them, to take sometimes unreasonable risks for them, because otherwise the species would not survive.

We do this for our children, who will always be separate people from us, people who will make different choices than we might have made. Rebecca is feeling the division between the two sons, and it is agony because she still identifies strongly with both.

Ultimately she and Isaac deal with their sons’ mutual animosity by each choosing a favorite child: Isaac preferred Esau, and Rebecca preferred Jacob. Patriarchy and primogeniture set them up for disaster: Isaac identified with the older son, who would presumably inherit everything of worth. Rebecca identified with the underdog, who was much like her: clever and willing to manipulate people and situations for benefit.

This may have been the best they could do. The combative twins are a contrast to their peace-loving parents. Isaac seems to be a mild gentleman, content to stay near home and cultivate his fields and flocks. Instead of waging war on neighbors, he negotiates. He walks in the fields in the evenings to pray. Rebecca is known for her kindness to animals, and her tender care of Isaac. And yet these two peaceniks beget the battling twins, Esau and Jacob! They must have felt completely outgunned by their children.

One of the wonders of the book of Genesis is how bluntly our patriarchs and matriarchs are portrayed in all their fallibility. These are not idealized pictures of saintlike ancestors. Instead, they are real people, who have children they don’t understand.

In my darker moments as a parent, I have thought a lot about Isaac and Rebecca. They wanted to be good parents. I am sure they did the best they could.

Shabbat Shalom: No Nagging, Please!

Image: The word “nagging” in black, with a red “NO” sign imposed upon it.

How do you begin to keep Shabbat, if you didn’t grow up with it?

Here’s how I began to keep Shabbat more than 25 years ago.

My children were middle school age, so we were often frustrated with one another. It seemed that all I did was nag, nag, nag and I was sick of it.

One afternoon inspiration hit.

I had been reading The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel when suddenly light dawned: I knew what I wanted first for our “cathedral in time:” I wanted all the nagging to stop. I wanted us all to have as happy a Shabbat as possible. So that’s what I did: sat them down and declared a No Nagging Zone from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They were skeptical.

“No nagging at all?” the younger one said, “Even about my homework?”

“No nagging at all. I can resume reminding you at sundown. But get this: you can’t nag either: no whining to go to the store, or to take you to the movies, or whatever. You can ask, but no whining or nagging. If anyone tries something that feels like nagging to us, all we have to do is say, ‘Shabbat.’” They looked at each other and shrugged: yep, she’s lost her mind.

Over time, it became a habit. If I mentioned “homework” or “making your bed” or later “college applications” they’d look at me and say simply, “Shabbat, mom.” I’d back off (until sundown.) We all relaxed. We began to look forward to Shabbat. Conversations happened on Shabbat, because all the nagging options were closed.

Later I began to decide how I was going to keep Shabbat in other ways: what was “work” for me, and what kind of observance would align me with my Jewish community. But that first step towards the peace of Shabbat was maybe the best.

We say “Shabbat Shalom” and it’s worth pausing a moment to think about what that really means. Do we invite peace into our homes? Do we relax? Is Shabbat a time when family can become closer? For some families that happens with food and routines and traditional observance, but for me and mine it began with the No Nagging Zone.

What was your first step in beginning to keep Shabbat? If you grew up with Shabbat, what is your earliest memory of it?

This is an update of a post from several years ago.

The Gift of Attention

Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I noticed it last night – I logged in to maintain things here on the blog, and spammers had been everywhere, leaving “comments” to advertise things.  The tsunami of advertising for the holiday season is upon us.

What do the people you love really need? What do you genuinely need? These are good questions to ask right now, before the advertisers take over our brains. Most of us do not need more gadgets, more clothing, more dust-catchers. Some are already drowning in things they do not need.

When I am in a public place, I can’t help but notice the children who act out to get attention. I was lucky in my new motherhood that someone pointed out to me that I only paid attention to my toddlers when they did things I did not like – so they were very aggressive about doing things I didn’t like.  It took some practice, but I learned to use my attention as the potent reward it was, paying attention to behavior I wanted to encourage and removing my attention (with time-out, if need be) to discourage misbehavior.

Children need attention. The very best time to give them attention is when they are doing things that we want to encourage. But if the only attention they can get is negative attention, they need attention so badly that they’ll settle for that. The choice is up to the parent or caregiver.

We all need attention. When was the last time you felt like someone truly listened to you, and took in what you were saying? When was the last time you sat quietly and listened to someone else? What if, instead of giving gifts, we paid attention to the people we love?

What if instead of receiving gadgets and tchotchkes, we got the pure undivided attention of those we love most? How lovely would that be?