Today I’m here to talk about a topic I’m knowledgeable about. Brothers.
Toldot is the story of Jacob and Esau, two twin brothers who didn’t act very brotherly. When I was reading the portion, one overall question came to mind. It seems the Torah was asking this question, as well. Why do brothers fight?
The Torah tells us why Jacob and Esau were fighting. One reason is that the parents had a favorite. Rebecca favored Jacob, the pale, skinny, wise child who preferred the company of his books. Isaac favored Esau, the eldest-- a hairy, strong, impulsive hunter. The parents showed their favoritism openly which fueled the jealousy between the boys. Jacob was jealous of Esau getting the birthright. So Jacob took advantage of Esau when Esau was hungry and traded a bowl of stew for Esau’s birthright. It wasn’t a fair trade and Jacob knew it.
Sibling jealousy can start at a very young age. Jacob was born holding the heel of his brother, almost as if he were saying “oh, no, you don’t, the birthright is mine.”
Jacob stole Esau’s birthright and his father’s blessing by impersonating Esau. In a fit of rage, Esau swore to kill Jacob. To save his hide, Jacob ran away. The brothers were separated for 21 years--twenty-one Yom Kippurs to reflect on what they did. Eventually, Esau, the hunter, and Jacob, the shepherd, made peace.
The Rabbis thought that the favoritism shown by Jacob’s and Esau’s parents was one of the main causes of the jealousy and hatred between the brothers. The Midrash tells us that Rebecca favored Jacob because G 0 D had told her that the younger son was to be the leader. A leader needs to make decisions that are in the best interest of his people. He needs to be patient, able to solve problems fairly and know how to rally people to his cause, just as Martin Luther King did with his “I Have a Dream” speech. Jacob had most of these attributes.
So, why did Isaac favor Esau? Genesis Rabbah suggests that Isaac never recovered from when his father, Abraham, tried unsuccessfully to offer him as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. He became fearful for all his life and leaned on people who displayed strength, such as Esau.
I agree that parental favoritism causes jealously. Imagine if your parents would buy your brother or sister a foot long lollipop and you only got the bite-sized one. How would you feel? Jealous? Angry? Confused? Hurt? There’s a lot more than a lollipop at stake in this struggle between brothers. Esau perceives that Jacob stole the blessing with his mother’s help. The strength of his anger leads him to want to kill Jacob.
It’s natural to want to hurt your brother when he makes you angry, especially someone like Esau with his quick temper and physical nature. It’s in the nature of brothers to fight, whether physically or by trash talking each other.
Why do we fight? We fight to get what we want. To be better than our sibling. To be top dog. The pack leader. But, as we grow, we come together more. We start to actually like each other.
So how did these warring brothers come together? They had 21 years of separation to mull over their offenses and regrets. That’s a long time. Esau had time to realize that it wasn’t entirely Jacob’s fault. Jacob, Esau and their parents all had a role in creating the discord. Esau realized that he should not have traded his birthright for food as he wasn’t going to die of hunger. When he was a child, he let his stomach do the thinking for him. During this period of separation, Esau matured. He became a true adult by being less impulsive and more reflective. As an adult, he had an army to command. He had to be responsible for rations, water supply and military strategy. He couldn’t afford to think only of himself.
Jacob also had regrets. He knew that he had taken advantage of Esau by trading food for a birthright and then tricking his father. He wished he had resisted his mother who had insisted that he steal the blessing. He had not stood up for himself. Instead, he had let someone else, namely his mother, make decisions for him. 21 years later, Jacob realized that he had been very selfish. As an adult, he too had responsibilities-- a family to look after and livestock to tend. Once he had become the parent, he could reflect on what he liked and didn’t like about his parents actions and his own.
These realizations would help in our own lives. If we thought about how our actions affect others every time we took advantage of someone or pressured someone into doing something, or acted out of duress, then we wouldn’t fight as much.
Eventually, Jacob and Esau made peace just like most brothers. Sometimes, I want to hurt my brother, too, but it takes me less than 21 years to get over my anger. My 21 years is more like 21 minutes or 21 seconds. That’s the time it takes me and my brother to make peace—to think about what we did, could have done, should have done, and then to come back together. Then the whole process of fight, regret, repent repeats itself. As we get older, the process repeats less and less. Our parents have encouraged us to think about our actions and to use words not fists. We learn to put up with each other and to forgive, even when it’s not Yom Kippur. Brothers are family. The closest family you can be.
For my mitzvah project, I worked at the Moose Hill Audubon property in Sharon removing large invasive plants. Some of the plants were huge with deep roots, requiring tools and strength to remove them from the ground. Weeds are like problems with brothers. Pulling them out is not easy, and there is always the chance that some of the roots will remain in the ground to grow back again. As we get older, the roots of our discord grow more slowly and become easier to extract. As we grow, our problems become easier to pull up and throw away.
There are many people who have helped me grow and develop deep roots in my home and Hebrew school communities.
Thank you all—friends, family, congregants—for being here to support me. Special thank you to my bar-mitzvah tutor, Missie, who sadly couldn’t make it today. She was a great help. Also, I‘d like to thank the Rabbi for being so helpful by meeting with me and helping me write this dvar. Without her, this would be a sadly short jumble of words. I’d like to thank my parents for helping me write this, motivating me by threatening to take away all my screen time, and giving me their whole-hearted support. Thanks to my grandparents Poppy and Bobby Zhanna for being so encouraging and to Pop for filling up some spaces of my aliyot. Thanks to Grandma Phyllis for travelling from Buffalo to come and support me. Thanks to Morah Tracy and my other Hebrew school teachers for helping me to be an effective Hebrew reader and making me learn prayers which are particularly helpful today. To my friends at school and Hebrew school, thanks for putting up with me and my crummy jokes. And to my brother, Nathan, for providing the inspiration for this dvar by being my brother. We are not at a point where problems are easy to pull up by the roots, but we’ll get there someday.