As I checked out the calendar this morning in preparation for Shabbat, I was struck by the realization that this week is Parashat Toldot. This week we will read the story of Jacob and Esau, the twins. It is a Torah portion that has always carried special meaning for me for a number of reasons.
Years ago, when I was tutoring B'nai Mitzvah students in preparation for their special days, I had occasion to teach a young man who was recently recovering from a devastating family loss. Because of the turmoil he was facing at home, I suspended my normal practice of having students come to me for their lessons, and instead I went to him. Being a young mother, I would bundle up Younger Son and take him with me. He would busy himself on the floor with toys and books while the young man and I went about the business of learning Parashat Toldot. Many weeks later, Younger Son and I were driving somewhere and as would often happen, I would hear him singing to himself from his car seat. When I listened even more closely, I could make out that he was chanting the first Aliyah of Parashat Toldot, words and trope completely and stunningly correct. He was six at the time. Osmosis-learning is powerful and real, folks
I have often pondered that story of Younger Son with a special nod to the potency of this particular Torah portion and the depths to which I identify with it. Jacob and Esau bore the scars of a traumatic and difficult birth throughout their entire lives. Their mother Rebecca did not have an easy pregnancy, and the twins wrestled each other within her for dominance and birth order. As they were delivered, Jacob had a firm grasp on his older brother's heel as if to say, "This fight between us is far from over."
The boys were as different as they could possibly be. They seemed to share little in common and were always vying for one parent or another's attention. The rivalry between them culminates in theft and deception as Jacob steals from Esau, first his birthright as the inheritor of his father's property and with a final decisive blow, the blessing from father to son.
Jacob, knowing the depths of his duplicity, runs from his brother in fear. When in later years he finally decides to confront his twin, he comes home with an army for fear that his brother has held his anger close. Esau, firmly putting the past behind them, greets his brother with a kiss.
I have often wondered about Esau. As Jews, we spend much time trying to rehabilitate Jacob, mostly because we are the "Children of Israel" and having our dirty laundry aired through this our patriarch is patently disturbing. But what about Esau? I wonder what the brothers' lives would have been like, what they could have had, had they simply succumbed to the unexplainable relationship that is twindom. How much more could they have achieved as a team, rather than estranged?
I know very well the power of this relationship. I lived it. I loved it. I was a part of that special bond that only twins have. My mother and my aunt shared something that is absolutely indescribable for anybody who wasn't a close party or witness to it. Their husbands, children, and grandchildren were adopted into their orbit and together we are the privileged few that are part of a family that is strong, tight-knit, and resolute. Problems? Sure. Difficulties? Absolutely. Nothing on the scale of Jacob and Esau, but unlike them, we have done our level best to weather those storms together.
It is with some degree of irony that this week of Parashat Toldot marks the third English anniversary of my Other Mother's untimely passing. Due to the quirks of the lunar calendar, the Hebrew yahrzeit will be observed later this month. Her absence is still a cavernous hole that will never be filled. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't think of her in some way. It could be her handwriting on a recipe or her voice in my head when I watch a favourite movie. As we begin our winter down in the Southern Home, I am finding her presence here more personal and real. Here was where she was profoundly happy. Here was where she reveled in the warmth and sunshine. Here was where she got to spend so much more intimate time with my mom, probably more than they had since they were kids.
Mom and I had a discussion this week about the emptiness she still feels. She has managed to somehow carry on with her life these three years, but it was a final act she readily admits she never anticipated doing without her sister. She described the ache she still feels as if it were a bone that has badly mended and stings in the rain. That bond that she still shares with her is bigger than even she understood. The power of these twins, my twins, is found in their unbreakable closeness and the legacy of their family that has been their birthright and blessing.
I am left wondering how much stronger we Jews could have been had Jacob and Esau been more like my Mom and my Other Mother. What could they have accomplished had they done it together? What would we as a people have been like had they embraced rather than fought their twindom? The possibilities seem limitless.
May her memory always be for an abiding blessing.