Shabbat Toldot

In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, the family line of Abraham is extended into the third generation with the arrival of the twins Jacob and Esau. But even before their birth there is a premonition of discord. The twins struggle in their mother’s womb. God reveals to Rebecca that this pre-natal conflict will continue on into the lives of the children and their descendents. “Two nations shall issue forth from your body and the older will serve the younger.”

While the Torah does not explicitly tell us, it would seem logical to assume that Rebecca never shares the content of this revelation with Isaac. That would explain why Isaac, who appreciates Esau’s skill as a hunter, actually goes on to favor first-born Esau, the one who would customarily inherit the birthright and blessing.  And why Rebecca favors Jacob, the one designated by God to carry on the covenant of Abraham. To quote a classic movie line from the past “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

And because Rebecca keeps her revelation a secret, the family dynamic will be further damaged by incidents of fraud, theft, deception and ultimately Esau’s intention to murder his brother. The Yom Kippur confessional contains a long list of transgressions brought about through the agency of speech, by the rough words, the unkind words, the malicious hurtful words that we let escape from our mouths. But sometimes it is equally wrong to withhold our words, not to speak, not to communicate the thoughts, feelings and concerns that we hold in the head and heart.

In family life, some secrets are healthy and necessary but others limit the next generation’s freedom and self-acceptance. What a child doesn’t know can hurt him or her. Kim Edward’s novel, The Memory Keepers Daughter tells the story of a doctor who delivers his wife’s set of twins and then sends away the Down-syndrome-afflicted daughter at birth. Over the next 25 years the family suffers the consequences of the doctor’s secret as secrets beget more secrets and obfuscations abound.

The truth is families are paradoxical. Secrets that are so carefully guarded get revealed and uncovered when the children act them out – if not in their own generation than in the next. As the story of Jacob unfolds, the consequences of Rebecca’s secret keeping will play out in the lives of her children and grandchildren. Family secrets have consequences far beyond what the secret keepers ever imagined.

The downside of secret keeping shows up in organizational life as well. When problems are kept off the table for fear of threat or embarrassment they remain impervious to correction. An un-disscusable problem is an un-solvable problem. When an organizational truth is an open secret, even the well intentioned - who want the best for their organization - will dance around the real issues focused on redressing the multiple symptoms and not the root causes of their problem.

The truth is that there are few secrets so dangerous that they cannot stand being brought out into the open, where they suddenly lose the evil and darkness that once surrounded them. Though there is always some risk to revealing what has previously been kept secret, the maxim ‘there is nothing to fear but fear itself’ is worth keeping in mind.

The writer of Ecclesiastes counseled “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.” Among other things, “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” If Rebecca had shared her revelation with Isaac perhaps Jacob’s deception of his father and the rift between brothers could have been avoided. At any rate it is no secret that open and honest communication is an essential key in sustaining any and all relationships. 

Shabbat Shalom