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In Bereishis, origins of both strife and brotherhood


It is in last week’s Torah portion of Toldot that we see 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.”

The Rashbam interprets this to mean, simply, that the fetuses were active, as is natural for a fetus in utero. But Reish Lakish, in the Talmudic era, interprets the verse more homiletically. Looking etymologically at the Hebrew word vayitrotzasu (and they were active), 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, for the sake of carrying the mantle of “firstborn.”

Later in their lives, 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 lost.

Still later — a lifetime later — the two brothers reconcile. Jacob is already a grandfather. The relationship is lost, the brotherhood is lost, it is too late. Nonetheless, there is a gesture of reconciliation.

The book of Bereishis began with an actual murder, a fratricide — Cain kills Abel — not just imagined midrashic in utero conflict. There is 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 Bereishis concludes with the strife between Joseph and his brothers — a long, fraught story that includes a decoy murder with a bloodied coat. Bereishis is fraught with conflict and pain.

But then comes along the book of Shemot. We are introduced to the duo of Moses and Aaron, role models of what brotherhood should be — caring and harmony. In Bereishis, it is often the younger sibling who becomes the conduit of blessing and supplants the older sibling, but with Moses and Aaron, even though the same displacement occurs (Moses the younger brother is chosen to be the leader of the Jewish people), Aaron 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 Bereishis, Aaron was the overlooked eldest, yet his response changes history of our people.

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

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

Bereishis presents the founding story of our patriarchs and matriarchs who, at the dawn of Jewish civilization, learned through painful experiences the right thing to do. But Bereishis 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 last week’s parsha of Toldot, and the book of Bereishis 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.

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