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Parashah Toldot: How Jacob and Esau Can Help Us Bring Out the Best in Ourselves and Others

By Sarah Koffler

This Shabbat, we will read from Parashah Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28.9), which includes the story of Isaac and Rebekah’s children, Esau and Jacob. After fertility issues and Isaac’s pleas to God, he and Rebekah conceived the twins. We learn of the struggle between them in the womb and the understanding that they would grow to be “two nations.” Not only did the twins look different from each other when they were born, but as they grew, they demonstrated different interests—Esau loved to hunt and be outdoors, and Jacob was more of a homebody, staying near the tents.

Jacob and Esau remind us that children are born with innate qualities—not only in how they look and what they like, but in who they really are. To any of us who are siblings ourselves or have multiple children, it’s no surprise that two individuals raised in the same family can be drastically different from one another. My sisters and I are three of the most different women you’d ever meet—we joke with my parents regularly that we cannot understand how we were all brought up in the same home, yet are so different from one another.

But, as we learn in this story, Esau and Jacob were not actually raised the same way—Isaac favored Esau, and Rebekah favored Jacob. Was it because Isaac and Esau had similarities and shared interests, just as Rebekah and Jacob did? Was it because they spent time together? Was it because of Rebekah’s insight that Jacob would inherit Esau’s birthright? While the brothers clearly were not treated equally, were they treated fairly? Equality means everyone gets the same thing—and of course, this was not the case with Jacob and Esau. Fairness means everyone gets what they need to be their best selves, which wasn’t the case for Jacob and Esau either.

The story of Jacob and Esau is a great reminder to us as leaders to encourage all those in our lives to be their best selves. Whether it’s our children, our colleagues, our spouses, or our friends, we can help those around us let their unique talents and skills shine. Dr. Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor, developed the theory of multiple intelligences, proposing that traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ tests, do not measure the full range of potential for children or adults. Rather, he suggests eight different intelligences to account for a broader range of potential. How transformative could it be for individuals to be recognized for their strengths and abilities—and for us to support people not in ways that are equal but in ways that are fair and honor them as their truest and best selves?

So, perhaps Rebekah favored Jacob, and Isaac favored Esau because of similarities they shared, or perhaps they saw each son for who he really was. Regardless, this family story should prompt us to recognize those around us for their innate gifts and abilities—and all they have to share with the world. What’s more, with Thanksgiving just around the corner, this parashah reminds us not only to be thankful for the gifts that live within those we love but also for the special gifts we possess—and to nurture and support the people we love, including ourselves, so all our gifts can shine brightly for the world.

Sarah Koffler is the early childhood education specialist at JCC Association of North America.


Correction: An earlier version of this piece misspelled Dr. Howard Gardner’s name.

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