Parashat Toldot: Brothers, Birthrights and Blessing

For Congregation Ner Shalom and B'nai Israel Jewish Center

Hineh mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad. These words, set to one melody or other, are among the basic sound bytes of Judaism that we all got in Hebrew school; for many this is one of the few phrases that stuck with us on the long road from childhood.

Hineh mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad. How good and how pleasant it is to sit, side by side, like brothers," says the text.

The older I get, the more I grasp why these words, which constitute the opening verse of Psalm 133, are so very catchy and compelling. When you’re young, they sound like a platitude. But as you get older, you realize that they point to the difficult problem of siblinghood. It is good and pleasant to sit together as siblings not because it is easy or natural or always fun. It is good to sit together as siblings precisely because it is not easy. The sibling relationship is complex. The pushme-pullyou of it: the inevitable jealousy and competition. But also the natural intimacy. You are tethered to each other by a common history, heritage and upbringing; by shared relatives, playthings and hated living room furniture. No one will ever know you as well or, God willing, as long as your sibling. And no one else – not even your spouse – is stuck with you in quite the same way. A married couple can divorce. We might think it’s terrible, but we know it happens and we sigh, “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.” But when siblings break up, it somehow goes against the nature of things.

Exhibit A: Brothers

I had a chance to closely observe and appreciate the ties of siblinghood – especially the bonds of brothers – over this past week. I went with my husband and his brother, and my mother- and father-in-law, to their ancestral homeland of Vancouver, British Columbia. There we visited my father-in-law’s cousins – a band of three brothers, who are the sons of one of my father-in-law’s several uncles. They had children and grandchildren in tow, more sets of brothers among them. My father-in-law himself had two brothers who are no longer living. I watched these generations, as I would waves on the beach. Repeated incursions of brothers, some at hand in the room, some whose presence could only be felt by inference.

My father-in-law hadn’t visited the Vancouver family in some six years; my husband hadn’t in maybe twenty. And I’d never met them at all. Since my in-laws live in Israel, the route of our family visits has always traversed the Atlantic but never the 49th parallel. And because my father-in-law had made aliyah to Israel at a young age, he was more myth than fact to the younger Vancouver generations. So here we were, like visiting nobility. A great party was thrown in honor of the return of the Slozbergs from exile. Children, grandchildren, siblings, nephews, nieces, cousins – all here in abundance. And I loved it. I moved easily from family group to family group, learning names, memorizing relationships, asking for family stories. It was easy for me to experience this as hineh mah tov umah na’im, as good and pleasant. Because I didn’t know them. I knew no back-stories. I had no grudges and I was not charged with maintaining anyone else’s. In fact, it took days more to discover that there had been any.

Torah makes much of the tensions and grudges of siblinghood, perhaps because they’re universal, and because they can be read on both micro- and macro- levels: literal siblings and figurative siblings, individuals and nations. But Torah almost never treats the subject more intensely than in this week’s parashah, Toldot.

This is the helping of Torah that brings us from Jacob and Esau struggling already within Rebecca’s womb, to a hungry Esau selling his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of soup, and finally to Jacob masquerading as his minutes-older brother in order to abscond with their father’s blessing.

We all know this story and our reactions to it are, I would guess, mixed. One can, and generations have, argued that Jacob was chosen by God, and in this story he does what he must in order to claim his destiny. One can argue it, but it’s hard to feel good about it. Jacob is one of our avot, one of the patriarchs. Here he steals what is understood to be our inheritance, making our own heritage hot property. It’s hard not to feel a little shame.

And as a story, it’s just plain sad to see it go this way. We know what siblings can accomplish together at their best. Think of Orville and Wilbur. George and Ira. The Brontes. Venus and Serena. Click & Clack.

But we also know how it can go so very bad. The famous fraternal feuds. Adi and Rudi Dassler, the founders of Adidas and Puma, respectively. Anne Landers and Dear Abby. AS Byatt and Margaret Drabble. Cain and Abel.

Often these breakdowns are over insignificant things; small jealousies and misunderstandings that snowball. And sometimes they’re based on very significant things. The items of controversy in this story are two: a birthright, or bechorah in Hebrew, and a blessing, or berachah.

The first of these, the bechorah, the birthright, Esau, tired and hungry, agrees to sell to Jacob rather than have to make his own dinner. The bechorah is about property rights – the larger share of land and livestock that the eldest son was entitled to inherit. The sages have questioned whether the sale of an inheritance that had not yet been received was even valid, but the story itself doesn’t questions it. It might have been poor form to sell your birthright, like refusing to go into the family business, but it wasn’t illegal. And, as for one who would squander a birthright on a bowl of lentils, you might apply the axiom, caveat venditor. Let the seller beware. No sympathy here.

But the blessing – the berachah – distinct in Hebrew from the bechorah by the mere reversal of two letters, as if they are flipsides of each other – the blessing seems another matter. This is the juicy bit. It cannot be bought and sold. It is bigger than the inheritance, and deeper too. It carries intention. It exists not in the legal realm but the spiritual one. Blessing engages our hopes and even our fears. Blessing implies something transcendent, something bigger, maybe something divine. The bechorah, the birthright, speaks to the wallet. The berachah speaks to the heart. By analogy, I’d say the institution of the civil union is an example of bechorah. But marriage is about berachah, which is why it is so desired by those who can’t have it, and defended so fiercely by some who can.

So if the bechorah here was land and livestock – conveyable property – what was the berachah? What was the blessing that was so desirable that Jacob drew it from Isaac by cunning and guile? It was this: the dew of heaven; the fat of the earth; grain; wine. Prominence over nations and precedence over brothers. This was the father’s blessing. Were they in fact Isaac’s to give? Are the words prediction or prophecy or magic to bring it about?

Esau, when he discovers the fraud, also begs for a blessing. His rapidly failing father cannot refuse, but is unable to offer a blessing to undo the one he’d given Jacob. That blessing was already uncorked and released into the world. But he nonetheless offers what he can: again the dew of heaven and the earth’s produce; plus the means to survive oppression and ultimately overcome it. This is the blessing given to Esau, that by all rights should have been given to Jacob – and inherited by us. And, given our history, it would have been a useful one.

But it was not the blessing Esau wanted. And who among us gets the blessing we want? In Deuteronomy, God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose blessing. Choose life.”

We are instructed to choose life, to choose blessing, but with no real guarantee about its content. It might be our lot to rule; it might be our lot to be ruled. It might be our lot to throw off the yoke of oppression. We must say yes, without knowing which it will be. But in any case, we can still be blessed, as both Jacob and Esau were, with the dew that flows down from the heavens, as the ancients believed, dew that flows just like the Kabbalists imagined blessing itself to flow, downward from source to us.

Psalm 133, hineh mah tov, “how good and pleasant it is to sit together as siblings” continues for three more verses:

Kashemen hatov al harosh yored al hazakan, z’kan Aharon sheyored al pi midotav.
K’tal Chermon sheyored al har’rey Tziyon
Ki sham tzivah Adonai et habrachah – chayim ad-ha’olam.

Like the good oil on the head,
Streaming down onto the beard of Aaron.
Like the dew of Hermon that trickles down
To the Mountains of Zion;
Where Adonai commanded this blessing: life, always.

Sitting together as brothers and sisters is not just good and pleasant: it is blessing embodied. It is like the oil of anointment flowing down, onto the priestly beard of Aaron, himself an older brother who stands in the shadow of a younger brother and a sister too. It is like dew, like shefa, the divine trickle-down, whose flow sweeps us back to the place where we are reminded that we must choose life and we must live it, with all its inequalities and sorrows and joys and possibilities.

Being together like brothers and sisters – ultimately coming together despite grudges and hurts - that is the blessing. Isn’t that the case in this story? These bought birthrights and stolen blessings seem like nothing but trouble until twenty years and five chapters later when Esau and Jacob finally fall on each other’s necks and weep. Weep for the time lost and the fears outlived and the differences not fully resolvable and the future never quite knowable. But they weep together, as brothers, and they sit together, like brothers.

Hineh mah tov u-mah na’im. Isn’t that blessing? And if Esau and Jacob can do it, then why not Isaac and Ishmael? Why not us, their descendants still caught in the shock wave of their brotherly grudge, playing it out this very week with missiles aimed at houses, each side claiming the bechorah, the rights of the firstborn, when really what each of us wants is the berachah, the chance to be blessed?

The image of Jacob and Esau, reunited even if not fully reconciled, holding each other, sitting together in the soothing light of evening – this is the blessing we must choose, that we must seek, that we must create, that we must steal if necessary. In Yiddish, to cross a border is called ganeven di grenetz.

You “steal” the border. You don’t wait for passage to be offered to you. Instead you tiptoe up, you do a little dance, like a snake charmer, and you charm that border until it is yours. It is what Jacob failed to do when he clumsily drew verses of Torah from his unwitting father. And it is what Jacob and Esau succeeded in doing so very elegantly and naturally when they strode past the border of their fear and into an embrace.

So let us be, like Jacob and Esau, stealers of blessing. Let us ganeven di grenetz, let us face borders, or oceans, or parallels, or fences. Let us approach the borders and use all our charms, all our wiles, all our hearts, to draw down blessing. So that we might know the goodness, the pleasantness, the berachah, of sitting, at long last, as brothers and sisters together.

Hineh mah tov u-mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad.

May it be so.