Thursday, 18 Nov 2010

Written by Lea Muehlstein

1Apologies for looking tired; I must admit, I’ve had a sleepless night. I’m sure you can all appreciate what it’s like when you hear some shocking news during the day, something that you can’t stop thinking about. It truly steals your sleep.

I received a message from my brother2  who I hadn’t heard from in over twenty years3.  Can you believe it? Twenty years! Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s not like we parted peacefully – but who hides from their sibling for twenty years?

I wonder what he looks like these days?

My brother was never an easy person. He always wanted to be the one who stood out. It wasn’t even enough for him that our mother clearly preferred him4.  You know, I didn’t blame him – it wasn’t his fault that our parents had favourites and that our mother bonded with him. And to be honest, I was more of a daddy’s boy anyway5.

But, as I said, he always wanted to be the special one. No matter how much love my mother poured over him, he was always filled with jealousy. I mean, sibling rivalry is a normal thing and we probably all felt at one point that it might be better to have been born first or to be the younger one, but we learn to live with those feelings because there isn’t much you can do about it, right?

Not my brother!

He’s always been hot on my heels6.

I know it’s an ugly word but really, he’s always been a sneaky trickster.

He learned at a young age how to exploit people’s weaknesses. Well, one of my big weaknesses is that my stomach overrides my brain – when I am hungry I just can’t think!

One day, when we were still teenagers, I came back home after having been hunting. Don’t forget, hunting 25 years ago was not an easy task – back then, I didn’t have sons or servants who could help, so it took a few days at a time, trekking through the wilderness, to make the kill. And, of course, it was more important to carry water than rations. My brother knew that I would be starving once I returned. Patiently, he sat at the entrance to the camp and – right there – cooked my favourite meal. I could smell the food before I even saw the camp and my steps accelerated. And that little voice in my stomach grew louder: “If you do not eat this sweet-smelling food, you will surely die.”7  My eyes caught sight of my brother stirring his red stew. But when I approached him he covered the pot with his hands and said: “First sell me your birthright!8  … Swear to me first!”9  So, I sold him my birthright because I was hungry – and tired.

As soon as my stomach was silent, I realised how stupid I had been. But I am not one to go back on my word. In any case, I couldn’t help thinking that what would have been good enough for my brother, his inheritance as the second-in-line, was probably good enough for me, too. After all, I’m the one who can take care of himself.

Maybe I shouldn’t even be telling you this story; I don’t want to sound like I still bear a grudge. It’s just hearing that he wants to meet me brings up these old feelings.

And unfortunately, that story from our youth wasn’t the worst thing my brother ever did to me. With the help of my mother, God rest her soul, my brother tricked our poor, blind father so that he would bless him instead of blessing me. 10

I won’t lie; I was really distressed and furious that I was deprived of my father’s blessing. I don’t think I have ever been as upset in my life – missing out on the blessing from my beloved father, whom I had cared and provided for my whole life as if he were a king.11

At that moment, I wanted to kill my brother.12

My father, who always knew me best, was right to send my brother away because I am not sure if I could have controlled my anger. 13

As you can probably hear, I still feel some of that pain today! But I stopped being angry a long time ago. I’m not resentful – you can see I’ve had a successful life: I’m the master of more than 400 men, and while there is occasional unrest in the area where we live, my family and I have flourished and made a decent life for ourselves. In fact, we are no longer just a small family – we have grown into a clan. My father’s final blessing, the one he thought he didn’t have left,14  this blessing – it came true for me.

Did my little brother’s blessing also come true? 15

I’ve often wondered what became of him.

Sometimes, when I look at my children and grandchildren, my thoughts turn to my twin and I hope that he too experiences the joy of fatherhood.

I’ve always wondered when he would stop running away from me!

Perhaps, he’s not the perfect brother, just like my mother was not the perfect mother, but, after all, we are family. Despite his shortcomings, I look forward to being reunited with my brother.

When my father gave me his final blessing I was filled with anger and stricken by grief. I misunderstood his words: “You shall break his yoke from your neck”.  I thought I had to fight my brother. But many years ago, I came to realise that dad didn’t speak about my brother’s physical yoke around my neck.16 The yoke was a metaphor for the anger that had seized me.

Over the years, I’ve succeeded in freeing myself – letting go of my anger. Life is too short to waste time being angry.

Last night – during that long, sleepless night – I rephrased over and over what I would say when I finally see my younger twin again.

Don’t worry, I’m not angry any more….

I love you, even though you hurt me….

I missed you….

Maybe I won’t say anything: rather than speak words, which can mean everything and nothing, I’ll run up to him, hold him and kiss him.17

Lea Muehlstein
November 2010

1Thanks to Rabbi David Mitchell for his help with this sermon.
2Genesis 32:4-5
3According to Genesis 31:38, Jacob spends 20 years working for Laban.
4Genesis 25:28
5Genesis 25:28
6Genesis 25:26
7Genesis 25:32
8Genesis 25:31
9Genesis 25:33
10Genesis 27:5-29
11Reference to the midrash in Genesis Rabbah 65:16 (Soncino translation): “R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: All my lifetime I attended upon my father, yet I did not do for him a hundredth part of the service, which Esau did for his father. I used to attend upon my father in soiled garments and go out in the street in clean ones; but when Esau attended on his father, he attended upon him in royal robes, for said he, nought but royal robes befits my father’s honour.”
12Genesis 27:41
13Genesis 28:5
14Genesis 27:38-40
15Genesis 27:28-29
16Genesis 27:40
17Genesis 33:4

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