Possession, Envy, and Hope

Possession, Envy, and Hope November 16, 2023

Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

By Naomi Gurt Lind

Growing up, there was a time when one of my siblings received a gift I really wished had been mine. (It was a snow globe, if you must know.) I very nicely asked if I could have a turn with it and as soon as it was in my hand, I threw it across the room. I only meant to show how upset I was, but of course the laws of physics had different ideas. The snow globe smashed, with water and glitter scattering everywhere. My childish envy ended up not only depriving my sister of her gift but destroying the gift itself. (Sorry, Deb.)

Wanting what someone else has is part of human nature. We’ve all experienced it, even if we have learned as adults to modulate or argue with our greedier impulses. When two people want the same thing, things can easily get contentious. When two peoples want the same thing, it can get downright horrifying, as is evidenced in the millennia-old struggle between Jews and Arabs currently flaring again in the Holy Land.

This week’s parashah, Toldot, makes this point with a Hebrew pun that is economical in both senses: (economical, as in having to do with exchange of goods and money, and as in linguistically compact). The verse in question is Genesis 26:14

וַיְהִי־לוֹ מִקְנֵה־צֹאן וּמִקְנֵה בָקָר וַעֲבֻדָּה רַבָּה וַיְקַנְאוּ אֹתוֹ פְּלִשְׁתִּים׃
And he [Isaac] acquired flocks and herds and many slaves, and the Philistines envied him.

Notice that the word for acquisition comes from the root letters קנה (kuf-nun-hey) while the word for envy comes from the root letters קנא (kuf-nun-alef). The sound is almost identical, and the Hebrew text makes the most of this seeming coincidence. Yet the two concepts are somehow entangled: the acquisition of possessions often incites envy, as evidenced in my cringey story from childhood.

Toldot makes a theme of the confluence of possession and envy, primarily playing it out through the brothers Jacob and Esau. Even before birth, these two brothers are in competition; we learn in Genesis 25:22 that they struggle within Rebekah’s womb, with enough vigor to give her a case of existential dread.

וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ וַתֹּאמֶר אִם־כֵּן לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי וַתֵּלֶךְ לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת־יי׃
The children struggled within her and she said, “If this is how it is, why do I even exist?”
And she went to ask God [for guidance].

At birth, the boys’ rivalry is evident in Jacob’s grabbing onto Esau’s heel as if to try to catch up with him and become the first born. Their struggle continues with Jacob supplanting his brother’s legal status as firstborn and eventually usurping the fatherly blessing meant for Esau, by tricking Isaac into confusing his twin sons’ identities.

The parashah is so full of such conflicts that it is easy to overlook one instance in which two contesting parties do not quarrel. When Isaac’s herdsmen and the herdsmen of Gerar argue over water supplies, twice Isaac’s servants dig wells which the others claim belong to them. These first two wells get named in recognition of the conflict: Esek (contention) and Sitnah (harassment), respectively. Then, they dig a third well and, for some reason, there is no quarrel (Genesis 26:22). This well they name Rechovot (spaciousness); the verse reads:

וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם וַיַּחְפֹּר בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת וְלֹא רָבוּ עָלֶיהָ
וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ רְחֹבוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי־עַתָּה הִרְחִיב יי לָנוּ וּפָרִינוּ בָאָרֶץ׃
He [Isaac] set out from there and dug another well, and there was no arguing about it.
And he named it Rechovot, and he said, “Now God has given us plenty of space to make the land fruitful.”

As the reverberations of the horrific October 7 attack on Israel escalate ever higher, I feel dwarfed by the enormity of the world’s problems. Often I am not sure where to turn. The Torah frequently seems to ratify (and even endorse) tribalism and violence. Am I reading it wrong?

I strain to hear the Torah’s message.

Can this tiny little verse, barely a wink of sharing and cooperation, really balance against the cutthroat competition that makes up most of the parashah? I don’t know. There is so much about which I don’t dare to feel certain, so many ways in which certainty feels like the enemy.

And yet this feels certain: if we don’t look for glints of hope, we are lost. So let’s hold onto the expansiveness this passage of Rechovot offers us. Perhaps the wink of sharing and cooperation can inspire us to look for a better way, for all of us.

Naomi Gurt Lind (she/her) is a Shanah Dalet student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. These past few months, she served as summer rabbinic intern at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott and is slated to continue at Shirat Hayam in the fall, as well as at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester and Temple Reyim in Newton. Naomi’s High Holiday pulpit this year is at Oberlin College Hillel. Also a sought-after educator, Naomi has taught several courses through Open Circle Jewish Learning, and at numerous local synagogues and community events. 

Learn more about Hebrew College’s rabbinical and cantorial programs at Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear), our November Virtual Open House on Sunday, November 19.

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