Toldot: Because Labels Are For Cans

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When I was growing up, perhaps in middle or high school, I remember having conversations with my friends about how we would never bring children into a world that was so messed up; we were dealing with race riots, environmental issues, the Viet Nam War, to name a few.

Those children I swore I’d never have are now 31 and 29, and despite my best efforts, seem to be turning out just fine. I hope, God willing, to be a grandma someday, but it all depends on whether or not my children are hopeful and optimistic enough to have children of their own. And the cycle continues.

This week’s Torah reading, Toldot, leaps from Isaac’s birth to age 60 in three verses. He’s born, marries Rebecca at age 40, and then becomes father to twins at age 60. This is the first time in the Torah that we’re explicitly told of a multiple birth, which might not have been common at the time.

The text tells us va-yit-rotz’tzu habanim b’keerbah, “the children struggled in (Rebecca’s) womb.” She goes to “inquire of God,” and is given a prophecy that There are two nations inside her, “one shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.” The rest of the parashah, with the wife-sister interlude in chapter 26, tells how that prophecy manifests, ending with Jacob deceiving his father to receive the blessing of the first-born.

When our children are born, we have hopes, ideas and preconceived notions about how they’ll turn out based on our own families of origin, our lives and our environment. So often parents try to orchestrate their children’s lives, never considering what the child might want, or what they might be best suited for. Some societies offer few choices, others offer many. However, our language about our children reflects how we see them, and what options we might offer.

Midrash Bereshit Rabbah describes the twins’ struggling in the womb in terms of their nature: “Whenever Rebecca passed by the doors of the Torah Jacob moved convulsively to be born, but whenever she passed by the gate of a pagan temple, Esau moved convulsively in his efforts to come to birth. Talk about labeling! Poor Esau never had a chance, and Jacob was destined to fill the big shoes of his father and grandfather, whether he wanted to or not.

There’s no question that children internalize what we tell them, and quickly learn our expectations. May we merit to treat every child we meet as individuals created by God, and help them to become their best selves, regardless of what we think they should be.

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