The days are drawing in. The clocks have gone back and it’s getting dark in the middle of the afternoon. Autumn is shading into winter. It’s a time to begin facing darkness within and without. And all through the autumn as the days get gradually shorter and colder we read Bereishit, the story of our ancestors, the narrative that tells us who we are and where we come from. We dig our roots into the ground and see what emerges.
I always find this week’s story, the tale of Jacob and Esau, their struggle from the womb onwards, one of the more difficult stories in this family saga. We are descended from Jacob – we are the children of Israel. He, in one sense, is us. But the cri de coeur that echoes through this parashah belongs to Esau. When Jacob, the heel, the trickster, deceives his father into giving him Esau’s blessing, the pathos is all with Esau.
“When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, “Bless me too Father”. But he answered, “Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing.” Esau asks a second time for a blessing and his father says he has already made Jacob master over him: “What then can I still do for you my son?” And Esau said to his father a third time: “Have you but one blessing Father? Bless me too Father!”. And Esau wept aloud.”
And in a way, so do we. At this point he isn’t just Esau, father of the Edomites. He is the voice of everyone who has been made to feel second-best, who is the least-favoured child, who never wins anything. It’s the voice of the child left out and sidelined and it’s very hard to hear.
The narrating voice of the Torah is implicitly critical of Jacob. He may indeed get the blessing, but he is repaid measure for measure for taking advantage of his father’s blindness. He is deceived by his uncle when he wants to marry Rachel and gets Leah instead. His sons deceive him with Joseph’s bloodstained coat. He spends years believing his favourite son is dead.
How does Jacob’s life turn around, how does he become more than a trickster? Jacob stays with his uncle Laban for 20 years and then returns to his homeland to try and make his peace with Esau. The night before he sees his brother he wrestles with a mysterious man whom we assume to be an angel – he asks Jacob for his name and then changes it to Israel, the one who wrestles with God. But why did he ask Jacob for his name? Didn’t he already know it?
Rashi says the angel wanted to make Jacob admit that he is a trickster, that he supplanted his brother. It is only at this point that the blessing he tricked his father into giving him, becomes truly his. He has to acknowledge the wrong he has done before he can begin to make things better. And then Rashi changes the story a little bit. In his commentary the angel wants Jacob to wait for his name change – part of Jacob’s victory over the angel is that he forces him to give him his new name immediately rather than wait. In fact it is not until some time later in Bethel, that God, not an angel this time, actually appears to Jacob, and names him Israel again. And why did he have to wait? Because he could not be truly forgiven until after he had made his peace with Esau the next day.
When he meets his brother he says: “Take, I pray thee, my blessing.” My blessing. Jacob gives Esau back his stolen blessing. Only after Esau has accepted Jacob’s blessing can God reveal himself. We need to make peace with those we have wronged before we can have peace within ourselves.
And we know in today’s world, as the Sages knew, that if conflict continues for too long without resolution, then the bloodshed can continue for centuries. The Torah says Esau cried “with a great and bitter cry”. Bereishit Rabbah connects this with the cry of Mordechai, which is also described as a “great and bitter cry”, when he hears of the edict to exterminate the Jews of Persia (Esther 4:1). The Midrash says: “Jacob made Esau cry and where was he punished for it? In Shushan.” Everything has consequences. If we let feuds rumble on, we can’t always foresee where they will lead. And God doesn’t just see our tears, he sees our enemy’s too.
Given that Esau seems to be the victim in this story, it’s ironic that in much of rabbinic literature, he represents the bad guy. Associated with Edom, he becomes a symbol of the Roman empire and then of the most oppressive aspects of the mediaeval Christian world.
In fact the rabbis were divided on what to make of Esau. In this week’s parashah, Esau says: “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” For some, this meant that Esau wanted to wait for his father to die to make sure his parents couldn’t have any more children once he’d killed his younger brother. He’s just someone else who wants to kill Jews, a symbol of hate. A lot of this imagery of Esau as ‘the baddie’, who deserved what he got because he was the wrong kind of person, still survives in traditional commentary. And in a way it reflects what we do with those we disagree with. It’s so easy to turn someone with whom we have an argument into a symbol of everything we don’t like, even when we are partly at fault. It might even assuage our guilt about anything we may have done to treat another person, or another people, as beyond the pale. Sometimes it’s easier to demonise someone we don’t get on with than to recognise how we might have hurt them.
But Rashi, who prefers the plain meaning, says that Esau simply meant he didn’t want to upset his father. Rashi was concerned with Esau the man, not Esau the symbol. And all human beings have a good and bad side. Esau may have lost his temper, he may have had a violent side, but he respected his parents. He loved his father.
Esau is different from Jacob. He is a hunter, a man of the outdoors. He has a different destiny. The original text, that powerful emotional narrative, is all about how we view those who are not like us – the Other. Do we turn them into a symbol of hate and fear or do we accept that even those who with whom we have real and serious differences are still real human beings, who love their kids, worry about their parents, try and pay the rent, and get tired at the end of the working week, just like us. And when we get caught in a cycle of hurt and wrongs, we too have an opportunity, like Jacob, to say we got it wrong and maybe offer our blessing, our kindness, our reconciliation. We can learn from Jacob’s journey but also perhaps reclaim Esau, in order to reclaim a bit of ourselves.
Student Rabbi Naomi Goldman
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.