By Rabbi Alex Freedman.
I am the older brother in my family. There were times when I was happy to be older, and there were also times when I wished I were the younger child. I imagine many younger siblings at times desire to be the older one. But is being the older sibling actually better?
In biblical times it was, if for no other reason than that the firstborn inherited double the amount of other siblings. That’s a better deal than most older children today! But of course there’s more to it than that.
Parashat Toldot contains a prophecy that God tells Rebecca when she has twins struggling in her womb.
God says, “Two nations are in your womb… one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger” (Gn. 25:23). At this moment Rebecca knows – and we readers know – that the younger son Jacob will triumph over the older brother Esau. And that’s how it played out.
Interestingly, this is how nearly every sibling relationship in Genesis also played out. In other words, you did not want to be the oldest sibling.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Among the first pair of brothers, Cain killed Abel (not good to be either one in that scenario). Later on Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael became his own nation, but the Jewish family tree bypassed him in favor of Isaac. Isaac then had two sons, Esau and Jacob, and it was the younger Jacob who continued the family legacy. Next, Jacob expanded the family tree by having 12 sons and one daughter. His oldest sons, like Reuben, Simeon, and Levi, never captured their father’s heart like their younger sibling Joseph. Then Joseph’s two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, were given a blessing by Jacob who famously crossed his arms to give his fuller blessing to the younger child. No reason is given as to why other than that Jacob foresaw that the younger one would be greater. But the older Menasseh must have had his feelings hurt by this relegation. To his credit, he did not pick a fight or threaten his brother, unlike earlier generations. This might be the reason, suggests the Etz Hayim Humash, why parents bless their boys Friday nights to be like Ephraim and Menasseh.
So the Torah presents a clear pattern that the younger child succeeds more than the older child. Why might this be?
I think that it has to do with the status quo. In ancient days, older sons were entitled to much more than younger brothers. It seemed to be destiny for them to accomplish more because they had such a head start. When the Torah empowers the younger sibling, it upsets the status quo. Remember that in Genesis, the family’s mission was to live a life according to the values of the one God in a world awash with idolatry. By definition, the Jewish family was upsetting the status quo simply by being! A key lesson from the Torah is that just because the world is as it is does not mean we should not change things to be what the world can be.