Address to Kehillah Synagogue

The Battle Within: What a Story of Twins Tells Us About the Human Psyche

Delivered November 21, 2015

Simone and Martin Lipman Scholar in Residence

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Eighteen years ago my wife was pregnant and she was feeling a lot of kicking so we went to the hospital for an ultrasound. We did not want to know the gender of our expected child and we told this to our physician. But our physician’s mind lacked stickiness, because when he looked at the ultrasound, he yelled out: “Look! Frick and Frack!” And we turned to each other with a look of “WTF”? This is how we learned that we would become parents of twins. And not only twins, but identical twin boys.  

I envisioned their development in the womb for a second – a thriving, growing tiny embryonic cluster of cells splitting and becoming two competing forces, each struggling to obtain nutrients for themselves to survive, and yet floating around in the same fluid, influenced by the same thoughts, feelings, and hormones. Once it sunk in that we were having twins, I was immediately overwhelmed with a sense of relief that we were not having triplets. I kept saying to myself “it is just twins, they will each have a breast all to themselves.”

One of the questions that we will consider today is this: Why do twins figure so prominently in the Torah? And what wisdom might we draw from the repeated narratives of twins?

For my twins, who are, right now, tutoring kids in our shul, bnai keshet in Montclair NJ, the struggles to co-exist outside the womb have taken place in every corner of our house. Their arguments are fierce and sometimes the boys have needed to be physically restrained. In many of their arguments, they resemble an old married couple. One says “I am talking about what just happened” and the other says “I am talking about a pattern of things that have happened” and the other says “that is not the pattern!” They do not agree on the facts that make up their shared past and they both see the other as the one in the wrong.

Over the years, I’ve learned that my identical twins are not so identical. One of them is like an aggressive trial lawyer and has to win every argument and he is relentless. I would call it intellectual aggression. The other is inherently a peace maker but he has an edge in terms of physical strength, so when he wants to intimidate he can wield power. During their arguments, which can go on in our home for up to three hours, my wife and I often find ourselves yelling “Just stop it!!!!! I can’t take it anymore!!!!”

Being the father of identical twins has given me a unique perspective on the human condition – a perspective that I cannot help but bring to my thinking about humans. Are some humans innately argumentative? Do some humans have a disposition to fight, to argue, to take risks? And conversely, are some humans innately calm? Do they have a disposition to seek peace? To play it safe?

Another way to ask this question is this:

What do we think of human nature?

Are all children inherent sweet and good?

Are all children inherently mean and selfish?

Are children inherently both?

Are children a blank slate?

What makes a person go one way or the other?

Today we will look at two sets of twins in the Torah and consider these questions.

A deep thought before we look at the texts. “Fathering” is a human invention – with our male primate cousins, chimps or gorillas or bonobos or orangutans, fathers do not have specific relationships with sons or daughters who they feel will take over when they move on – fathers just relate to all young as part of the wider troop of young ones. Human males developed a system in which fathers protect particular children and develop first-born privilege. We do not know when these bonds formed, but anthropologists argue that it was around the time we started to harness fire. In the Paleolithic, caveman era, before agriculture, fathers were likely to feed their own children, sons and daughters, before feeding other members of their clan. At the time clans were between 100-200 humans maximum.

When agriculture started out, humans started to live together in large groups and claim land and to pass that land down to their children. In particular, men passed down land to sons. Eventually it became land and flocks and houses and women servants and male servants. In most cases, a father’s legacy would be carried on by the oldest son. The patriarchy.

But what do you do with twin sons? Twins disrupt the natural order of patriarchy because in a sense, they are both first born. In Japanese culture, for example, the second born twin is considered the first born, because he is seen as more patient and gracious.

With twin sons a new set of questions arises: Who is favored? Who gets the birthright? Who gets the blessing? Who inherits the farm?


The ancient rabbis give two other explanations: Maybe it was spiritual “I wanna build the temple here, no over here.” Other rabbis say: they were arguing over which sister they would get to shack up with. Very limited romantic possibilities at the time.The first twins are a disaster in turns of reconciliation. A tragedy. But maybe we can learn to get beyond it with the second great story of twins.


A later commentator built on this rashi and said that their was an event that happened at age 13 that triggered the divergence. The death of Abraham was interpreted in two different ways. Esau took the death of his grandfather as proof that everything is going to disappear anyway so you might as well eat and drink and take as much as you can. Jacob reacted to his grandfathers death by working to extend his grandfather’s legacy by learning and teaching his grandfather’s “Torah,”

Over the years, I have come to read this story as more a parable of our inner lives. Esau and Yakov are both real within us. Some people are more inclined to Esau, some to Yakov. We know that if we go too far to one side or the other, we’ll be in danger.  and we seek balance. Rambam.

Yakov, in listening to his mother, in being sensitive to his mother’s needs,

In my mind, the Jewish teaching on the human psyche is that all human beings have the potential to be righteous.  Some of us are born with an inclination to be caring and sensitive and to value safety and comfort. But some of us are born with an inclination to be something else – to be risk-takers, wanderers, loners, hunters. Our goal, spiritually, is to build a community where both types of folks can see the dangers of the extremes and grow. A world that is governed with a balance of care and risk.

If we had more time, we would also dive into the meeting that comes as both men are now adults, with children of their own.

Genesis 33

But he himself passed on ahead of them and bowed down to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother. Then Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. He lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and said, “Who are these with you?” So he said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.”…

When the rabbis read this story, they are still divided. Listen to the difference between Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar in this passage and Rabbi Yannai:

In Genesis Rabbah 78:9 we read

וירץ עשו לקראתו וישקהו נקוד עליו אר”ש בן אלעזר מלמד שנכמרו רחמיו באותה השעה ונשקו בכל לבו, אמר לו ר’ ינאי אם כן למה נקוד עליו אלא מלמד שלא בא לנשקו אלא לנשכו ונעשה צוארו של אבינו יעקב של שיש וקהו שיניו של אותו רשע ומה ת”ל ויבכו אלא זה בוכה על צוארו וזה בוכה על שיניו

Esau ran to greet him. [He embraced Jacob and, falling on his neck,] he kissed him; [and they wept.] (Gen. 33:4). [The word] ‘kissed’ is dotted [above each letter in the Torah’s writing]. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said . . . it teaches that [Esau] felt compassion in that moment and kissed [Jacob] with all his heart.

Rabbi Yannai said to him: If so, why is [‘kissed’] dotted? On the contrary, it teaches that [Esau] came not to kiss [Jacob] but to bite him, but our ancestor Jacob’s neck became like marble and that wicked man’s teeth were blunted. Hence, ‘and they wept’ teaches that [Jacob] wept because of his neck and [Esau] wept because of his teeth.

These are two ways of looking at the world: on the one hand – Every human, even a murderous human can be redeemed. And on the other hand –  a murderer is addicted to murder. he will always be a murderer. Which way do we want to see the world?

Given the week of terror that it has been, I want to share a few words from my favorite Israeli writer, Etgar Keret words he wrote during the past winter to his Palestinian friend Sayid Kusha. He is writing about the way that the Israeli public responded to missile fire from Hamas.

…the collective desire to prevail through violence was inspired by the same urge that makes people kick a vending machine that swallowed their money without dropping a can of soda: not because they think it’ll help bring the refreshing liquid closer to their dry lips but because they can’t think of anything else to do.

The explanations I hear from so many of the people I know are: Islamic fundamentalism is growing stronger all over the world, the governments in the region are unstable, and all negotiations will end in the loss of territory without compensation, anyway, because there’s no one in charge there. And that’s only what I hear from people who are trying to be rational. Many others just reject any new idea or initiative by saying something like, “The Arabs don’t want peace, and they won’t stop fighting us until they get Tel Aviv and Jaffa, too.” But all of those dubious claims can’t hide one feeling: despair. And despair is a much more dangerous feeling than fear, because fear is an intense feeling and, even if it can be momentarily paralyzing, in the end it calls for action, and, surprisingly, it can also create solutions. But despair is a feeling that calls for passivity and acceptance of reality even if it is unbearable, and it sees every spark of hope, every desire for change as a cunning enemy.

How do we, in the face of terror, not despair?

Last year I met Ali Abu Awad, A Palestinian peace activist. He himself was once a militant and served time in Israeli prison. His brother was killed in the conflict. He spent many years in despair until he became active with his mother in the bereaved parents group.

He said two things about letting go of the old narrative: First, he said that both sides need to give up on the competition to win the world’s sympathy for their suffering. And second, both sides need to give up on revenge. He said that when he was a teenager he thought to himself:

“How many Israelis do I have to kill to make up for my brother?”

But as an adult he realized that revenge would never bring back his brother. Kicking the soda machine isn’t getting you anything more than a sore foot. So while some of the people in his town are sharpening their knives to stab Israelis, he breaks bread with settlers.

There is one more set of twins in the Torah that are worth mentioning – Tamar, a women who suffers widowhood twice and must cleverly trick her Father-in-law in order to fulfill her desire to be a mother, gives birth to Perez and Zerah. In the Book of Ruth – that incredible tale of redemption, we learn that a descendent of those twins will bring a new paradigm of peace to our planet. Shabbat Shalom.

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