By Joel Elkins, November 26, 2022
Emile Boirac was a French philosopher and one of the earliest supporters of Esperanto, who lived in the late 19th/early 20th century. He noticed that sometimes when he was in a place that he was sure he had never been to before, he would see a tree or building and swear that he had seen it before. He called this feeling déjà vu.
If you experienced that feeling today, you would not be alone.
After all, two weeks ago, in Parshat Vayerah, we learned that Sarah was having trouble getting pregnant, but eventually God gives her a child, Isaac. In today’s Parsha, Rifka is having difficulty conceiving but God hears Isaac’s prayers and gives her twins.
Back in Vayerah, we read about a conflict that developed between Avraham’s children, Isaac and Ishmael. Today, we read about a conflict between Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau.
Two weeks ago, Sarah favored Isaac over Ishmael and convinced Abraham to send Ishmael away so that Isaac can carry on Abraham’s legacy. In today’s parsha, Rivka favors Jacob and helps him get Esau’s birthright so that he could carry on Isaac’s legacy.
Back in Vayerah, Abraham finds himself in Gerar, a kingdom in the Negev, and tells people there that Sarah is his sister, because Sarah is very beautiful and he is afraid they might take her and kill him. When the King of Gerar finds out the truth, he says “why didn’t you tell me?” and bestows upon Abraham sheep and cattle and land, and Abraham prospers as a result. In today’s parsha, Isaac also ends up going to the exact same Gerar, also calls his wife his sister, also because she is beautiful and that he is afraid they might take her and kill him. And when the King of Gerar finds out the truth, he says “why didn’t you tell me?” and gives Isaac free reign of the land and as a result Isaac also flourishes.
So if you’re having a “where have I heard this before?” feeling, it’s perfectly understandable.
Now, there are many theories about what causes déjà vu. Sigmund Freud attributed it to, what else, repressed desires. Because the desire is repressed, it is blocked from our consciousness, but, according to Freud, a sense of familiarity leaks through to our conscious mind and results in the déjà vu experience.
Carl Jung, alternatively, suggested we experience déjà vu when we tap into the collective unconscious.
Some modern day scientists believe that it may be due to a short circuit in our brain which mixes up long-term and short-term memory so that new incoming information goes straight to long term memory instead of making a pitstop in the short term memory bank. Other scientists believe that it’s due to a false triggering of the rhinal cortex—the part of the brain that signals that something feels familiar—even without the memories to back it up.
And, of course, it could just be a glitch in the matrix.
So, what’s going on here? Why is Parshat Toldot so eerily similar to Parshat Vayera that we read two weeks ago? Is it simply lazy storytelling? They ran out of story ideas? It worked so well in the original; why not use it again in the sequel?
Or is there something we can learn from this?
Well, let’s take a closer look at the two versions of each of these stories. In the first pair of stories, Sarah desperately wants a child of her own. By the time three mysterious strangers come and tell her she is to give birth within the year, she is already an old woman. When Rivka, on the other hand, has trouble conceiving, Isaac intercedes on her behalf well before she reaches old age and so she gets pregnant sooner. Same predicament, but a different reaction. Avraham is passive in the face of his wife’s longing and as a result, she has to wait a very long time; Yitzchak actively advocates on his wife’s behalf, and gets a faster, more effective result.
In our second pair of stories, Sarah has an issue with Ishmael, and her solution is to send him away. When Rivka has a similar issue with Esau, she works behind the scenes to change the dynamic in order to get her favored son the birthright. True, not altogether scrupulous, but at least more humane than exiling him into the wilderness, and arguably just as effective.
In the two Gerar stories, both Abraham and Isaac both lie about their relationships, valuing their lives over their wives. But when caught in their lies, Isaac freely admits that he was simply scared for his life, whereas Abraham continues the ruse by claiming that Sarah was technically his half-sister. They end up with the same result, but Isaac at least salvages some honor by fessing up when the truth is revealed.
Isaac and Rebecca are the middle generation of patriarchs/matriarchs. And compared with the bookend generations, they don’t get nearly as much attention, either in terms of column inches or reputation. But perhaps they got a bad rap.
Granted, in each of these stories, they are far, far from perfect. After all, they show clear favoritism to one child over the other (Rivka to Jacob, Isaac to Esau), and Rivka even goes so far as to help her favored child cheat the other out of what is legitimately his. But, to her credit, she doesn’t send him out into the wilderness.
Then, Isaac lies about his marriage to Rivka for no other reason than to protect himself even though he knows it might put her in danger. But, when confronted he admits the truth.
Not great, but it does show small signs of improvement. So perhaps the defining trait of this second generation is “progress, not perfection.”
In life, we often find ourselves in difficult situations. For example, we or our loved ones are denied something we sincerely desire, say a child. We can sit idly by or try to do something about it.
Perhaps we are caught in a lie. We can continue to propagate the lie, or we can come clean, put our cards on the table, take responsibility for our dishonesty and let the chips fall where they may.
Perhaps we see a situation that we know in our hearts is sub-optimal or even unacceptable. For example, someone less qualified holds a position in place of someone we know to be better qualified. We can jump in and heavy-handedly upend the entire framework, or we can work within the system to achieve what we believe is the preferred outcome.
We are not defined by the situation we find ourselves in, but in how we react to that situation.
The parshah ends with perhaps the quintessential example of choosing to react differently to similar situations. Jacob, with the help of his mother, tricks his father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn, which leads to years of animosity and estrangement between him and his brother Esau. In Parshat Va-y’hi, which we will read in a few weeks, Jacob, by then an old man, crosses his arms so as to place his right hand on the head of Ephraim, even though he is the younger grandchild, and his left hand on the head of Menassheh, the elder. Despite this obvious slight, Ephraim and Menassheh choose not to let it sour their relationship. Tradition tells us that this is why to this day we bless our children to be like those children, not because of what they did, but because of how they reacted to the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Let us learn from Rivka and Yitzchak and aim just a little higher. When faced with similar situations, deciding to act differently, slightly more honestly, slightly more prudently, slightly more proactively, slightly more humanely.
Progress, not perfection.
Ken y’hi ratzon.