Wednesday, 14 Nov 2012

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

Everyone familiar with the Jewish tradition knows of Jacob the Patriarch, one of the founders of our nation, the father of those whose offspring became the twelve tribes. The Jewish people is called by both of his names, Jacob and Israel, as is obvious in our prayer book. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel”: these are the words that begin many of our worship services. “O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Eternal”, “Hear, O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is One”. In the rabbinic tradition, he is a model of piety, studiousness, and godliness.  

Yet anyone who reads the Biblical narrative of this week’s parashah carefully must come away with the impression that here is a profoundly problematic individual, in many ways much more interesting that the white-washed, one-dimensional figure of rabbinic legend.
It is certainly striking that at the beginning he is presented as acting in a totally unsympathetic manner. He is an effeminate boy, protected and goaded to mischief by an overly indulgent and manipulative mother. The dominant characteristic appears to be his willingness to exploit other’s weakness for his own ends. He exploits his brother’s exhaustion, refusing him nourishment until the inheritance right of the first-born has been legally bartered; then he exploits his father’s blindness to receive, under false pretences the blessing intended for his brother.

In this parashah, he speaks a total of 27 Hebrew words, and all of them are either totally self-centred or untrue. He appears to be little more than a crafty liar, a cunning deceiver, a selfish opportunist. It is not until his dream in next week’s parashah that we find the first indications of awareness beyond his own immediate interests.

Esau, by contrast, is portrayed as a simple hunter, devoted to his father, cheated out of everything that is rightfully his. I find it difficult to read the narrative in Genesis 27:30–38 without a deep sympathy for Esau. Its conclusion—

Va-yomer Eisav el aviv, ha-varakhah ahat he lekha, avi? Barakheini gam ani, avi! Va-yissa Eisav kolo va-yeivk .
(Gen. 27:38)

“And Esau said to his father, ‘Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!’. And Esau wept aloud” (Gen. 27:38)—strikes me as one of the most deeply moving verses in the Bible.

Yet in the rabbinic literature Esau is presented as a paradigm of evil: an idolater, a murderer, who won his father’s affection by cynically pretending to be a pious man of faith.

What is happening here? The Rabbis who produced the midrashic literature were certainly capable of close and sensitive reading of the nuances of biblical narrative. Their distortion of the characters of Jacob and Esau in this parashah was driven by a different agenda: not a literary but a typological reading. Esau—described at birth as admoni, ruddy (Gen. 25:25)—was understood by Jews to be the progenitor and prototype for the Edomite nation, later transferred to Rome, then to medieval imperial Christianity. Jacob is of course the prototype for the Jewish people. All desirable qualities were therefore projected onto Jacob, all the most distasteful qualities of the historical Enemy through the ages were attributed to his brother.

I would suggest, however, that the real Jacob of the parashah may represent us more completely than the idealized version of the Midrash. He represents all of us who are born not as paragons of virtue, but full of shortcomings and imperfections; all of us who have made serious mistakes and caused hurt and suffering in others close to us.

Continuing into the following chapters, he represents all of us who have been awakened to the awareness that there are times when God is present though we fail or refuse to sense this. All of us who have worked hard for a goal and then have been cruelly disappointed at our failure to achieve it; all of us who have been sustained by love to endure such disappointment; all of us who have known the agony of wrestling with ourselves, who have striven with other human beings and God and come away limping but unconquered.

Jacob teaches us that we are not prisoners of our past, that growth is always possible thought it may not be easy, that true blessing cannot be stolen by deception, but must be won through struggle. May we who bear the name Israel be guided and inspired by his example.

And Esau’s tears? These are the tears of all those who, though not Olympic champions, media celebrities or multi-millionaires, are good at what they do, devoted to fulfilling the wishes of others, hurt no-one, yet are unfairly cheated by others who are more clever and less ethical than they. May we empathize with these as well.

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
November 2012

Previously published 2008

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.