I have three sisters, two older and one younger. My youngest sister, Debbie, was born when I was 8 years old. In the months leading up to her birth, I remember clearly the anxiety I felt over the possibility that it might turn out to be a boy and I might end up with a brother.
I suppose most 8-year-old boys would be thrilled at the possibility of having a younger brother to play with, boss around and teach the important ways of boyhood. So I must not be like most young boys. For months I had been telling my parents that if my mother gave birth to another boy, I was moving out and leaving the family! I was definitely not up for any competition in the boy department of my family — sorry, that job was already taken.
So, when the fateful day arrived on Oct. 9, 1957, I recall the anxiety and anticipation with which I greeted the arrival of my yet-to-be-known sibling.
I was sitting in class when a call came in asking that I be sent down to the principal’s office. I knew immediately it must have something to do with the impending birth of my sibling, so I raced down to the office, where I found my father waiting for me and my sister Candy, who was in another class at the same school. When, with a big smile, our dad informed us that we had a new baby sister, I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to welcome Debbie into the family.
But as the years went by, reality set in, and I became convinced every time my parents let Debbie do something that they would never have allowed me to do at the same age, that it must mean they loved her more — and I was jealous.
I even recall teaming up with an older sister to bring our “grievances” to the attention of our parents so we could enlighten them as to how unfair they were being and how unequally we were being treated. And I remember how deep the feelings could be.
So when I read this week’s Torah portion reminding us about the intense sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and how fearful Jacob was of meeting up with his brother once again, knowing how he had abused and mistreated him, I thought back with great sadness on my own misplaced childhood jealousies and insecurities.
The fact is that too often parents do love their children differently, showing preference for one over the other and letting them know in a hundred different ways that no matter what they do, they will never really measure up. I see it in my work as a rabbi all the time, and every time I do it breaks my heart, knowing how fragile children’s egos really are.
In Vayishlach, we catch a glimpse of something remarkable, something redemptive in the human soul. When Jacob finally meets up with Esau bringing along his childhood fears and vulnerabilities, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). And Jacob, startled and awed by the open love of his brother, sweeping away decades of hurt and fear, replied, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).
Would that we could all be as generous of spirit as Esau. Perhaps our real challenge from the Torah this week is to embrace the spiritual gifts of both brothers — from Esau to learn generosity of spirit, and from Jacob to look into the eyes of everyone we meet and have the vision to see the face of God.