Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Art of Parenting: Being the Mother of both Yaakov and Esav
Parashat Toldot | Heshvan 5772 | November 2011

It is rare to gain insight into who our parents are as parents. A holiday visit after a long period apart might raise that moment of realization: Oh, so that’s the kind of parent my mother is! Observing how my parents act with my children has raised the same understanding: So that’s what my dad was like… The insights about our parents often become insights about ourselves: I guess that’s why I am so…
Of all the mothers of Bereishit, I find Rivkah to be the most fascinating, as a person and as a parent. Ambitious, tough, smarter than you, Rivkah is unique in the bible: she is a real go-getter. We are introduced to her watering a stranger’s ten camels, in an act that will land her a wealthy husband. After years of barrenness, when she experiences a severely painful and debilitating pregnancy with twins, she becomes the first seeker of existential meaning:
Rivkah became pregnant.
But the children almost crushed one another inside her,
so she said: If this be so, why do I exist?
And she went to demand God. (Genesis 25:22)
וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ,
וַתֹּאמֶר: אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי?!
וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת  ה'.  (בראשית כה:כב)
Rivka’s strategic thinking comes to the fore in this week’s parsha when she pushes her preferred son, Yaakov, to steal his brother’s blessing. It is a troubling ethical moment, but also a fascinating parental moment. Rivka is not only favoring one son over the other, but she is pushing her chosen son beyond his comfort zone. She is so certain in her acts that she takes responsibility for any consequences as she ignores his strong objections:
Yaakov said to Rivka his mother: …
I will be like a trickster in his eyes,
and I will bring a curse and not a blessing on myself!
His mother said to him:
Let your curse be on me, my son!
Only: listen to my voice and go… (Genesis 27:11-13)
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ...
וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ; וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה, וְלֹא בְרָכָה.
 וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ: עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי;
אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי, וְלֵךְ קַח-לִי.
(בראשית כז:יא-יג)
In trying to imagine how Rivka convinced Yaakov to do this (and how she convinced herself of the legitimacy of her actions), I hear a different mother’s voice. Langston Hughes’ 1922 poem, of a Harlem mom prodding her son to keep climbing up the social ladder, could easily be put into Rivka’s mouth:
Mother to Son | Langston Hughes

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Rivkah has worked hard to get to this moment. She walked through splinters to get out of Lavan’s house, out of the darkness of Avimelech’s grasp, and out of the clasp of barrenness. She will not see her life’s destiny (“why do I exist?”) become lost to an older son who has chosen the wrong path in her eyes, or a younger son who does not grab his destiny like his mother did. She wants her travails to be about something, and the way she’s going to make that happen is through her son Yaakov, even at the cost of thrusting him into a dark corner of his own. Rivkah is a tribute to those many parents who pushed their children to demand more from life, sometimes even at the risk of losing their own authenticity, but hopefully to the benefit of the world at large.
Allow me one more twist: In the last mention of Rivka in the parsha, the Torah gives a tiny hint that opens up an entirely untold episode of Rivka’s parenting. As Yaakov leaves for Lavan’s house, the text describes Rivkah in unique terms:
 [Yaakov] went to the country of Aram,
to Lavan the son of Betuel the Aramean,
the brother of Rivka, the mother of Yaakov and Esav.
(Genesis 28:5)
וַיֵּלֶךְ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם
אֶל-לָבָן בֶּן-בְּתוּאֵל, הָאֲרַמִּי,
אֲחִי רִבְקָה, אֵם יַעֲקֹב וְעֵשָׂו.
(בראשית כח:ה)
This last description, “Rivkah, mother of Yaakov and Esav” throws all the close bible readers off. Who needs this extra piece of biographical information here? As Rashi puts it, in a rare moment of interpretive befuddlement: איני יודע מה מלמדנו”I do not know what it teaches us.”
Nechama Leibovitz, in her ever inspiring essays on the parsha, answers Rashi’s query by suggesting that the text is opening up a window to Rivka as the parent of Esav as well, not just Yaakov’s doting mom. One wonders – what are the missing episodes of Rivka’s parenting that this verse is alluding to? How many pep talks did Rivka offer to Esav, how often did she give him a Langston Hughes’ style motivational?
Perhaps even at the very moment when she is preferring one son over the other, she is doing that as a parent of both, not only one. Rivkah reminds us that choosing to throw your lot in with one destiny does not mean that your complex ties with the alternative destiny must necessarily be severed (as my teacher Rav David Bigman once said, about a different parenting dilemma: “The tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that God’s two children are warring with eachother. What is he going to do?”). Even when faced with the toughest of choices, we are also at some level the mother of both options, Yaakov and Esav …
The story of Rivka shines a light on the complicated art of parenting: How much we push our own agendas and stories onto our children’s lives, and how much we are living the lives our parents have pushed us to live. It is easy to call for authenticity above all else, but the truth is that there are times when shoving a hairy coat in your child’s face is exactly the right move, and then there are times when living your parents’ dreams would be an act of tragic blindness. Perhaps Yaakov would have been best served if Rivka would have taught him to ask for himself her question: “If this be so, why do I exist?” But then again maybe he needed to be pushed into his brother’s blessing and out to his uncle’s home in order to reach the point where he could start his own existential journey. Through those dilemmas, there’s an element of thankfulness to those people who walked the tightrope of those decisions, raising us and being parents to both the Yaakov and the Esav within us.

Shabbat Shalom,

A special thank you to Rachel Cohen (’05) who helped me sharpen the ideas here, and in many previous divrei torah.