The holiday season has officially begun! Many of us kicked off this most joyous time of year seated around large dining room tables last Thursday eve, filled to the brim with turkey, stuffing and cranberry goop. No matter where or how we celebrated Thanksgiving though, I’m willing to bet more than one of us engaged in some pretty tense conversations with family and friends. It’s not a surprise – we’re just a few weeks past the most divisive national election in recent memory, providing well over half the country with a profound sense of anxiety over what’s coming next. Add to that the barrage of incentives to engage in Black Friday shopping and the building stress of holiday cards, gift-giving and party attendance, well – it’s no surprise that at this time of year business is booming for counselors, therapists and psychiatrists.
Family dynamics are front and center in this week’s Torah portion Tol’dot, which translates to “generations.” At the forefront of the narrative are the twins Jacob and Esau, two brothers as different as night and day. Their parents pick favorites – Rebecca chooses bookish, loyal Jacob while Isaac favors brutish, brawny Esau. The fight over their birthright reaches a peculiar apex when Rebecca meddles in Isaac’s selection; her beloved Jacob tricks his father, resulting in his fleeing the family unit, headed into the wilderness. He leaves in his wake an odd sense of brokenness within his nuclear family, one that’s repaired several years later at a reunion between Jacob and Esau’s newly established families.
How can we, as modern Jews, look to this story as guidance for our own family tensions at this time of year? My colleague Rabbi Lisa Kingston writes that, “Esau has physical strength, but Jacob’s strength lies in his ability to wrestle. Later in Jacob’s life he will wrestle with a messenger of God and earn the name Yisrael – indicating that [in Genesis 32] Jacob wrestled with the Divine and prevailed. With the name Yisrael, we recall all the ways Jacob has and will wrestle throughout his life. He struggles with his brother in the womb, he fights to win the birthright, he struggles with his own conscience alone on his journey from home, and he battles with his uncle Laban in order to marry Rachel. Thinking of Jacob only as the pawn in his mother’s plan takes away from the true strength of Jacob’s character. He is not just the favored son of his mother, born into a prophecy of greatness. His legacy is one of struggle. When we think of Jacob as a man who takes control of his destiny, he reminds us that we too are not fated to any situation in life; we too must struggle for what we want to accomplish.”
For many of us the holiday season is a time of joy and merriment, decorations and delicious foods. For others, the holiday season provides more tension and anxiety than any other. But no matter how we may see ourselves in relation to others these coming weeks, or how we might dread or anticipate that which December throws at us, let us remember through the teachings of Tol’dot that our patriarch Jacob, wrestling with demons physical and emotional, overcomes not only to survive, but to thrive.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen