Parashat Toldot 5780

Cantor Tamara Wolfson – 29 November 2019

What gender reveals reveal about us

A few days ago, I came across a viral video making the rounds on social media. It was a compilation of “gender reveal fails”. The controversial trend of the gender reveal – a highly Instagrammable, publicized ritual to inform family and friends whether a couple is expecting a newborn boy or girl – has come under fire for all sorts of reasons, but the thing that made this particular video so compelling was that it focused on the reactions of the siblings rather than the parents. I watched clip after clip of children popping balloons, devouring cupcakes, opening packages and smashing piñatas to reveal either blue for boys or pink for girls. And then I watched as inevitably their faces fell and their bodies crumpled into heaps of tears. “I wanted a sister”, they’d sob into their cupcake. “I wanted a brother!” The image of the sibling they had been cultivating for so many weeks, suddenly swept away in a shower of the wrong colored confetti, is a type of bereavement that they were too young to process. And in these highly publicized moments of loss, we as viewers realize that even the youngest among us nurture strong expectations about unborn children and their preconceived destinies.

This week’s parashah, Toldot, introduces us to Jacob and Esau as they struggle in their mother’s womb. We know a fair amount about them before they are even born. God says to Rebecca:

    “Two nations are in your womb, and two separate peoples shall issue from your loins. One people shall be stronger than the other. And the older shall serve the younger.” (Genesis 25:23)

Before they were born, Jacob and Esau had the stage set for their relationship to be contentious and competitive. The brothers’ formative years were marked by parental favoritism and constant comparisons drawn between them; it’s no surprise that God’s plan for the boys came to fruition. But I often wonder what might have happened if God, Issac, and Rebecca had let the boys just run their courses. Would they have gotten along from the start? Would they have received equal love and attention from their parents? Could they have grown into personalities that we never got the chance to see?

In the Broadway musical Carousel, Billy Bigelow sings a famous soliloquy upon finding out his wife is expecting. He extols the virtues of his future son, ruminating on all the successes he’ll have in life and the pearls of wisdom he will impart to him throughout the years: “my boy Bill, I will see that he’s named after me… my boy Bill, he’ll be tall and as tough as a tree”. And then mid-song, Billy stops in his tracks and realizes with horror and humility that he may in fact be having a daughter. As he slowly wraps his head around a new-found vision of fatherhood, he paints a mental picture of the daughter he’ll soon meet: “my little girl, pink and white as peaches and cream is she… my little girl is half again as bright as girls are meant to be”. The orchestration of this moment takes us on a whirlwind journey through Billy’s brain. When he’s extolling the virtues of his son, the music is rhythmic, upbeat, and uplifting: a steady march forward. But when Billy envisions his newborn daughter, the tempo slows, the strings swell, crescendo, and sweep us along in a rhythmically freer, waltz-like, contemplative lilt. I love this musical moment as a midrash on the journeys we all take as we build up and dismantle the predetermined courses of our lives. How often we oscillate from march to waltz, from major to minor as we shift our thinking between blue and pink, or between Jacob and Esau.

I’m not here to encourage you towards or discourage you from a gender reveal when the time comes. However, this week I am thinking about what this ritual reveals about our emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. We often want to make order from chaos, and we want to grasp at what we think we know when we are faced with uncertainties. We predetermine as an attempt to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of what we can’t control. But perhaps this week’s parashah can guide us towards a place of embracing potential rather than trying to plan and predetermine. And if you need some inspiration, take a listen to “Soliloquy” from Carousel. In a time long before gender reveals, it reveals the deeper layers of humanity beneath the surface.

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