HIGH HOLIDAYS FEATURE
NEW YORK (JTA) — Rosh Hashanah’s Torah reading on the banishment of Abraham’s son, Ishmael, has a special acidity for me as an identical twin.
It’s difficult to square the fresh start and requisite “accounting of the soul” commanded of us in the new year with our patriarch’s easy shunning of his first-born child.
True, the text says “the matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his” (Genesis 21:11), but it didn’t distress him enough to protest. He allowed Sarah not only to banish Hagar, the concubine she herself suggested, but to send away his son with her without food or water.
The notion of favoritism runs all through the Bible, and it’s uncomfortable for me in every instance:
* Abel is favored over Cain — at least as Cain perceives it.
* Abraham, as I began, allows Sarah to expel Ishmael in favor of Isaac.
* Isaac plays favorites with his twins, preferring Esau to his younger brother, Jacob, while Jacob is his mother Rebecca’s chosen one (not to mention God’s).
* Laban, it could be argued, favors Leah when he swaps her for Rachel in Jacob’s marriage bed.
* And Jacob prefers Joseph over his other 11 sons and one daughter.
As an identical twin, I don’t accept the Torah’s schematic representation of parental preference and siblings — twins in particular — as instinctive enemies. Reality is more nuanced than that, and sometimes wholly opposite. I never sensed that my parents preferred my sister, Robin, or me, and I know that Robin and I feel a primal protectiveness of each other, not a toxic rivalry.
That’s not to say we have a perfect union, or that at times we don’t quietly measure, contrast and spur each other to achieve, but the baseline is unshakable loyalty, warmth and goodwill. Moreover, it seems facile to me to cast twins as adversaries, almost like a lazy literary device.
In fact, the majority of twin pairs I interviewed for my upcoming book, “One and the Same,” described their relationship as a kind of romance: intense intimacy and primacy that they haven’t found with a spouse and didn’t expect to. But the two sets of twins in the Torah are presented unequivocally as opponents.
The battles between Jacob and Esau, and Perez and Zerah, begin in the womb.
Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, who has taught a class on twins in the Bible, says both pairs share one central idea: “They’re all about who gets to come out first.”
Indeed, Jacob holds on to Esau’s heel as Esau exits Rebecca’s womb — presumably to hold his brother back from being the first-born. (The Hebrew root of Jacob’s name, Yaakov, means “heel.”)
Similarly, during Tamar’s labor, her son, Zerah, thrusts his hand out of the womb, and just as the midwife ties a red string around his wrist to signal that he will be born first, Zerah’s hand suddenly retreats and Perez actually comes out first — the implication being that Perez has pulled his brother back and charged ahead.
As if to underscore the gesture, his mother remarks, “You broke through” and “Wherefore hast thou made a breach for thyself?” — thus the origin of his name, Perez, which means “breaking” or “breach.”
“The stories are both about the younger usurping the older,” Wolpe says, pointing out that in each parable, the twins struggle, as if to suggest that they are born already in conflict. “In both cases, the natural order is overturned by deception or by force.”
English professor Hillel Schwartz in his book "The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles" has a different take on why Zerah might have begun to surface, only to retreat and have Perez go ahead.
“Commentators describe the two struggling for primogeniture,” Hillel writes, “but the episode can also be read as expressing Zerah’s reluctance to leave the perfect twinship of the womb.”
I prefer that reading, and also Wolpe’s gentler take on why Jacob grips his twin’s ankle.
“You actually could read it as saying that Jacob was frightened that Esau was leaving him, so he grabbed hold because he didn’t want to be abandoned,” Wolpe offers.
The twin accounts in Genesis bring to mind the traditions of the Yoruba tribe — the African clan I’ve been researching because of its inordinately high rates of twinning (45 in every 1,000 births, as opposed to the typical 12 in 1,000.)
The Yoruba believe that the older twin is actually the one who emerges second. Their conviction is that the older twin protectively stays back, holding down the fort, as it were, while sending the younger twin out to safety.
This African interpretation rings truer to me than the biblical one because it suggests the sweetness of twins’ first moments in the world, not the violence of fighting to be No. 1 or the notion that twinship, even in its incubation, is inherently fractious. Not only has my twin experience been fairly uncontentious, but I was born first — one minute ahead of Robin — as a result of my mother being delivered by Caesarean section, and I like to think Robin, who should have been the eldest, was overseeing my safe arrival.
Even in the Torah, as it turns out, a more optimistic view of the sibling relationship eventually emerges. Isaac and Ishmael do come back together at Abraham’s graveside — their father’s favoritism did not alienate them from one another forever. Similarly, Esau greets Jacob after years of estrangement, not with an assault, as Jacob predicted, but with a surprising embrace. Joseph also finds it in his heart to forgive his brothers despite their treachery.
Siblings in the Bible may be cast as foes, but at the end of the day they are brothers above all: connected, charitable, even loving. That’s what rings true for me. And it seems a more suitable, resonant takeaway for the new year.
(Abigail Pogrebin is the author of "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish" and "One and the Same," coming out in October from Doubleday.)