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The origin of strife

Historically, it is in this week’s Torah portion of Toldot that is the Genesis of so much of the conflict in the world. After 20 years of childlessness, Rebecca has finally conceived. Yet her pregnancy is marked by struggle. “And the boys were active within her womb.”

Sounds innocent enough. The commentator Rashbam interprets this to mean, simply, that the fetuses were active, as is natural for a fetus in utero.

Reish Lakish, in the Talmudic era, interprets the verse more homiletically. Looking at the Hebrew word “vayitrotzasu, and they were active” etymologically, he hones in on its two letter root tzadi vav. It is a word unto itself: tsav, commandment. He concludes that the wrestling that the babies were undergoing was not merely a natural physical movement in utero but, rather, a theological struggle. “Each baby violates the command of the other.”

According to Reish Lakish, a deep theological divide will come from this womb. These are not merely twins, but twin enemies, if you will.

Then there is a midrash that says that the babies are struggling over who will be born first. They are vying for this first rite of (literally) passage.

In a dialogue, the midrash puts the words into Esau’s mouth that come what may, even if it takes killing his mother, he will do what it takes to be the firstborn. Whereupon Jacob ceases to wrestle. He will not spill his mother’s blood, not be a murderer, just for the sake of carrying the mantle of “firstborn.”

Later in life, we encounter the painful deception by Jacob of his aging, blind father, Isaac, in order to acquire his father’s blessing. This took place after Jacob’s strange negotiation with Esau over a bowl of soup and, finally, Esau’s cry of pain at understanding what he has lost.

Still later, the two brothers reconcile. It’s a lifetime later; Jacob is already a grandfather. The relationship is lost, the brotherhood is lost. Time has passed. It is too late. Nonetheless, there is a gesture of reconciliation.

But the book of Genesis begins with an actual murder, a fratricide — Cain kills Abel — not just imagined midrashic in utero conflict. There is some brief hope when Abraham courageously manages to find a way to avoid conflict by separating from his family, setting out on his own.

The book of Genesis concludes with the strife between Joseph and his brothers — a long, fraught story. It includes a decoy murder with a bloodied coat that is so graphic. The staged death of Joseph feels almost like the true intention of the brothers was actually to murder Joseph, even though in their mind they obliterate him in a different way, throwing him a pit, ultimately selling him into slavery. In their minds, they will never see him again.

The book of Genesis is fraught with conflict and pain. It is the first book of the five books of the Torah.

But then comes along the book of Exodus. We are introduced to the duo of Moses and Aaron, role models of what brotherhood should be — caring and harmony. In Genesis, time and again it is often the younger sibling who becomes the conduit of blessing and supplants the older sibling, but when it comes to Moses and Aaron, even though the same displacement occurs (Moses the younger brother is chosen to be the leader of the Jewish people), Aaron the older brother finds it within himself to accept this news with grace. Aaron extends exceptional support to his younger brother Moses.

Like so many of the pairs in Genesis, Aaron was the overlooked eldest, yet his response changes history of our people.

Brotherhood is possible. Harmony is possible. Working in partnership is possible.

And that is the model that we see in the next four books of the Torah. For four books, which trace a journey of 40 years, we witness this harmonious duo of Moses and Aaron. They did not have examples. That is why they became our examples.

Genesis presents the founding story of our patriarchs and matriarchs who, at the dawn of Jewish civilization, learned through painful experiences what the right thing to do is. But Genesis is not the final word on brotherhood. Ultimately, it is not Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, or even the 12 tribes of Israel, who teach us how to be a family.

The teachers of close knit love and the loyalty of siblings are Moses and Aaron and, of course, their guardian older sister Miriam.

While in this week’s Torah portion of Toldot, and the Book of Genesis in general, sadly projects a motif of family strife and conflict, it ultimately is dominated by the love and harmony of the special sibling bond of Moses-Aaron-Miriam.

Copyright © 2017 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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