The Zero Sum Game - Parashat Toldot
This short D'var Torah was given to Herzl-Ner Tamid Synagogue, WA, for Parashat Toldot 5778 by Rabbinic Intern Natasha Mann.
The Zero Sum Game
I have a question for you. I won’t ask you to put your hands up, because it’s not exactly a fair question, but just by a count of smiles and nodding heads – how many of you have found yourself thinking something along the lines of: ‘oh my goodness, I’m turning into my mother/father’? And for how many of you was the behaviour in question something you once found not-so-favourable about your parent?
We learn an awful lot from our parents, and it’s often things that they did not exactly intend to teach us. One of the weird and wonderful things about the Torah’s story of our ancestors is that it does not shy away from this. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been reading about the life and times of Avraham Avinu, our father Avraham. And among the more controversial of Avraham’s decisions is that he agrees to keep one child, Yitzhak, the child of his wife Sarah – and allows his other child, Yishma’el, to be cast out into the wilderness with his mother, the maidservant Hagar. It’s a complicated family situation, and one which is not handled particularly well.
And now, this week, we are watching Yitzhak grow to be a father to two sons himself. We will read tomorrow morning about how Yitzhak and his wife Rivkah will each have a favourite child, a child they are described as ‘loving’, and how this will ultimately tear their family apart.
It is clearly learned behaviour. Yitzhak has a favourite child, because his parents had a favourite child – him. For what it’s worth, Yitzhak does not favour the child who is like himself, which is Ya’akov. Yitzhak favours Eisav/Esau – the son who is described as being like Yitzhak’s brother, Yishma’el. Yitzhak loves the child who reminds him of his ill-treated brother.
But all intentions aside, what Yitzhak and Rivkah do to their children, by each loving one over the other, destroys the relationship between the boys. It is not pretty. And I have to imagine, with one son running away into the wilderness, that Yitzhak must be lying there and thinking, ‘oh my goodness, I’m turning into my father’.
But just wait – it gets worse. We have yet another generation to take into consideration. Ya’akov will be the third generation to have a favourite child, and the third generation to have his family torn apart by it. There are apparently no lessons learned here. Ya’akov will have twelve sons and at least one daughter, and he will love one son above all the rest: Yosef/Joseph. And you know how that turns out – with the brothers faking Yosef’s death, and selling him into slavery. Again, not pretty.
It seems to me that each generation continues to make the mistakes of the father due to one powerful and toxic lesson: that love must be a zero-sum game. A zero-sum game is one in which there is a limited resource, and either I have it or you have it. You either win or you lose. And this family has an ongoing problem of raising children to be jealous of one another, to see each other as the competition – and what they are competing over is love.
Most of the lessons that we learn from our ancestors are through emulation. But not this one. This is a lesson that I think we’re supposed to learn from our ancestors’ mistakes.
The lesson is this: it is terribly, terribly dangerous to treat love as a limited resource. Love is not a zero-sum game. Thank God, love is one of the few games which – if done right – everybody can win.