Parashat Toldot is about the struggles between Isaac and Rebecca’s sons, Jacob and Esau. In reading through the text we are reminded that much of Genesis is focused on sibling rivalry. For Rebecca, it began when the twins were in utero. “The children pressed against each other inside her. She thought, ‘If this is so, why do I exist?'” (Genesis 25:22). According to Nachmanides, what Rebecca is really asking is “What good is life if I have to suffer like this?”
Now one classic interpretation of this text is that Rebecca is asking why she has to suffer the physical challenges of pregnancy. But the text seems to be implying that what Rebecca is really struggling with is the feeling of creating two human beings who will always be in conflict. This notion is reinforced when Rebecca inquires of God, who reinforces this concept by stating, “Two peoples are in your belly; two nations shall branch off from each other [as they emerge] from your womb. One people shall prevail over the other; the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23).
This line of questioning leads to a much bigger question, which is: why are human beings always in conflict with one another? Judaism for the most part sidesteps this question. Instead it focuses on the idea that peace is always the goal. That even in times of war, one should always seek to make peace.
But what if we are not in a period of war? What if we are just in conflict? Thankfully there are modern interpretations of our tradition to help guide us in these situations.
As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, taught, “Traditions of conflict and resolution patterned in Judaism:
1. Silence is the sure way to continue and prolong conflict.
2. In order to converse you have to: speak and listen. Jews are “the world’s best speakers and the world’s worst listeners.” Listening is the essence of conflict resolution.
3. Listen to the Other: Teach your opponent’s view before you explain your own.”
All too often we seek out conflict rather than striving to resolve it. Our tradition states that conflict is an inherent part of the human condition. However, as Jews, we are not allowed to simply accept the reality of conflict. Instead we are commanded and compelled to intervene to help resolve the issues at hand whenever possible.
So in a way, Rebecca’s line of questioning is a call to action. We are reminded by her words that we exist to be engaged in the difficult issues of our time and work under God’s guidance to bring them to a peaceful resolution whenever possible. But always with an eye for what is good and right and holy.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff