Toldot – Generations of Dysfunctional Families

by Arliene Botnick, November 30, 2022

Our ancestral families! My goodness, they were dysfunctional. The first commandment given to Adam in Genesis 1:28: “God then blessed human beings and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply…” and they did and we still do, but they had and we have a lot to learn about parenting.

We know very little, actually nothing, about Adam and Eve as parents, but we do know that their sons, Cain and Abel, had some real problems with each other. The very first murder in Torah is fratricide. What better way to introduce the theme of dysfunctional families! God would have to educate Cain about why one should not murder, especially one’s brother. We read that, when they were in the field, Cain turned on his brother Abel and killed him. Apparently, jealousy was the cause since the Eternal approved Abel and his offering but did not approve Cain and his offering. God asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel? “He replied, with a those oft repeated words: “How should I know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Obviously, Cain hadn’t yet learned that yes, he was his brother’s keeper and for that lesson not learned, he would become a rootless wanderer on the earth, and it seems to have been a hard lesson to learn for all our ancestors.

Jumping head to our patriarchs and matriarchs and their families, brothers still didn’t appear to have loving relationships yet! That could possibly be the fault of bad parenting but we, again, don’t really know much about Sarah or Abraham or Hagar’s parenting skills, but we do know that Sarah has Hagar and Ishmael cast out (perhaps out of jealousy), ensuring that her son Isaac would be the son that Abraham would love and care for, but Abraham almost sacrificed that son as well. Later on, we will meet up again with a tribe of wandering Ishmaelites near a famous pit! And there is some retributive justice!

We continue the saga of fathers and sons and the role of mothers when we meet up with Isaac and Rebekah’s twins, Jacob and Esau. Once again, brotherly love is not dominant, and Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s hunger when Jacob offers up some lentil soup in order to deceive Esau to get his birthright. Later on, in Parashat Toldot, their mother Rebecca will encourage her favourite son, Jacob, to trick her blind husband into giving the blessing, not to his favourite and oldest son Esau, but to her favourite son Jacob, who is probably more deserving of this particular blessing. Parents shouldn’t have favorites or should they sometimes? Was that the error perhaps God made when he preferred Abel’s offering over Cain’s. And is it OK for wives to help to see deceive their blind husbands? Obviously biblically it is, and after all, it is Jacob who is the one who should lead us as a people. The means may justify the ends!

We continue on with dysfunctional families as Jacob gets his come upping and is himself deceived. Jacob wants to marry Rachel. but is tricked into marrying her OLDER sister Leah. On his wedding night, he is blind to the identity of the woman he has just taken as his wife (remember how he tricked his blind father). But eventually, after many years, and unions with Bilhah and Zilpah – there’s a lot of jealousy in all these unions- Jacob will marry his beloved Rachel. Rachel will bear him his 2 favourite sons, Joseph and Benjamin, and we know that favouritism causes problems! We’ve already learned that parents favouring one child over another never ends well. For Joseph, it meant being tossed into a pit, left for dead, being carried off by a group of wandering Ishmaelites (Ishmael himself, in that earlier story, was also tossed out and left to die) and ending up imprisoned in Egypt. But perhaps it had to be that way because Joseph was the one who was going to be able to save his family back in Canaan when there was a famine. He was able, through the gift God gave him of interpreting dreams, to prepare for the famine, stock up on grain during the seven years of plenty since he understood, from interpreting the dreams, that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. He had to endure what he endured and be where he was in Egypt so he could save our people. Being tossed into the pit and left for dead seems to have been part of a much larger master plan.

Brotherly love didn’t really appear till the end of the Joseph story when he calls out, “Come, draw near to me…. I am Joseph your brother”, after he sees his brothers’ concern over Benjamin, and he realizes that they aren’t the same jealous men that they were when they tossed him into a pit. That first commandment: “Be fruitful and multiply” is one that we value. We have our own children, and or we take on the responsibility of caring for the world’s children. But let’s hope that we’ve learned a few lessons from our biblical narrative. There can and should be less envy and more caring among siblings. We have to reign in jealousy and anger and insecurity. Parents can help by favouring each child equally and respecting each child’s uniqueness. And finally, what we learn from these biblical stories is that we are human beings. Our patriarchs and matriarchs made mistakes and sometimes suffered because of them, but that’s life, we just have to keep learning how to create Shalom Bayit, peace in our homes and maybe that can lead to shalom in the world. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah and their sons, and one daughter (whom we don’t hear too much about) were all human beings with the potential to do both great and not so great things, but the best thing we can do is learn from their mistakes and try not to keep making them ourselves. Our job is Tikkun Olam Let us mend the world and be the best parents that we can be!

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