A matter of choice

Candace R. Kwiatek

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

In Neil Simon’s hilarious Broadway play The Odd Couple and its equally famous film and television series counterparts of the same name, the obsessively fastidious Felix and obnoxiously slovenly Oscar become roommates after their divorces.

It doesn’t take long for the viewer to accurately predict how each of these mismatched roommates will react in any particular scene, for they rarely slip out of character.

Focus the camera lens a few thousand years earlier, and you would see an equally unlikely pair in the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah: Jacob and Esau.

The firstborn, Esau, is a hairy, redheaded “man of the outdoors,” a hunter. The younger, mild-mannered Jacob, stays in the camp near his mother.

Twins in ancient tales, the Etz Hayim commentary on the Torah notes, often represent complementary traits, “each twin representing one-half of a complete personality, each having qualities the other lacks and lacking qualities the other possesses.”

So what character traits do Jacob and Esau demonstrate that make them incomplete?  And what lessons might we learn about how to parent our children – and how to improve ourselves – to become complete personalities?

Lesson 1: Personality is a matter of choice. Even before the twins are born, Rebekah’s pregnancy hints at their dual natures: “…the children struggled in her womb, and she said, ‘If so, why do I exist?’ She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body…(Gen. 25:21-23).’”

Some would conclude from this verse that character is fixed at birth: Jacob and Esau are different personalities (“separate peoples”) from day one, and there is nothing to be done about it.

On the other hand, perhaps this prologue is an allegory in which the twins, representing opposing personality traits, symbolize the struggle within each individual: which traits will become dominant?

Personality is to a large degree, malleable and therefore a matter of choice: choice by parents on what to stress in child rearing and choice by the individual about what kind of person she or he wants to be.

People’s personalities reflect how they or their parents answer the question, “What is most important: to be happy, smart, successful, or good?” What would your personality say about your values?

Lesson 2: Personality reflects balance or lack of balance.

“Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in camp (Gen. 25:27).”

Through the ages, Esau has generally been vilified as a boor, a hairy, uncouth hunter who acts more like a caveman — “Give me food, I’m hungry!” — than a civilized tent-dweller. He plots the murder of his brother and impulsively marries women from a rival tribe.

Yet, he is not all bad; after all, Esau provides food for the family, has simple needs that are easily satisfied, and honors his father by making his favorite stew.

Furthermore, much later in the story, we learn that he has a generous, forgiving spirit when confronted by his repentant brother.

On the other hand, “Rebekah favored Jacob,” the child prophesied to be the future leader of the tribe. Jacob is the more sedentary and cerebral of the twins, a quiet, refined “tent dweller” who, the rabbis of the Talmud suggest, learned the arts of politics and subterfuge in the close-knit quarters of the large clan.

Jacob takes advantage of his brother for a birthright, steals his father’s blessing, and spurns his first wife, Leah.

What complicated persons these twins are, each representing the complementary traits that struggle within us. Their personalities, like our own, reflect choices about balance: active vs. sedentary, physical vs. thoughtful, straightforward vs. clever. Is there something in your personality that is out of balance?

Lesson 3: Personality is about growing up. A baby is the perfect portrait of an arrested personality: ruled by the physical, living for the moment, easily frustrated, and totally uncomprehending of delayed gratification.

A healthy personality is about growing up and growing away from these traits.

Esau, famished from the hunt, gives up his birthright for a bowl of stew. Ruled by his physical needs and living only for the moment, he doesn’t consider the future consequences of his trade.

Later, when he is thwarted out of receiving his father’s blessing, he resorts to tears and tantrums. He is the perfect picture of a baby.

A teenager is the perfect portrait of an arrested personality as well: ruled by desires, willing to push the limits, convinced of personal invincibility, and ignorant of long-term consequences.

A healthy personality is about growing up and growing away from these traits as well.

Jacob, seizing the moment to acquire the coveted birthright, takes advantage of his brother’s simple nature. Thinking only to satisfy his own desires, he thinks he is so clever, never considering the long-term consequences of his action. He compounds this by perpetrating a fraud on his father, stealing the blessing through a clever disguise, again unmindful of the consequences.

He is the perfect portrait of a teenager. Years later, we still see images of these arrested traits, particularly in Jacob.  He treasures the company of a favored son, Joseph, puts him in charge of checking on his brothers, and favors him with a special cloak.

Perhaps Jacob and Esau are allegories about the warring complementary traits within us. Or perhaps they are reflections of the internal struggle between staying a baby and growing up. Either way, it all comes back to choice.

Family Discussion: Are you an Esau? A Jacob? A grown-up? Or somewhere in between?


Literature to share

Checkpoints by Marilyn Levy:  The complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comes alive in this novel featuring typical, very believable teens and their families in Israel. Friendship, loyalty, politics, and terrorism are tightly interwoven in this complex story for young adults. Engaging for all ages, it would make an excellent trigger for discussion in the classroom.

The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan: A feast for the intellect as well as for the palate, Nathan’s cookbook is filled with personal anecdotes, historical photographs and vignettes, and mouth-watering recipes from the wide variety of traditions – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim – that make up modern Israel. You don’t have to be a cook to love this book.


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