D’var Torah: Jacob and Esau after Paris

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 14 November 2015

There is something strangely resonant about the Torah portion that we read this morning.

Rebecca conceives after a period of infertility, and is blessed with twins – “two nations”, as God tells her, “are in your womb”.  But, rather than being a source of joy, even from conception these two are in struggle. “Va’yitrotzatzu ha-banim b’kirbah” – “The children struggled within her”.
They are destined, from even before birth to be in opposition to one another.

It is a depressing view of family dynamics – if one with an element of truth – that siblings will always struggle together.

But, even more so, it is a depressing view of geo-politics – that peoples are necessarily in conflict.  Because Jacob and Esau do not only represent children but also whole nations: Jacob is Israel; Esau, according to the bible, is Edom (a play, as we read this morning on the word Adom – red).  And the Edomites are an enemy, a tribe which is in constant tension with Israel, with whom both Kings Saul and David battled.  The book of Amos tells us that Edom: “Pursued his brother with the sword, and repressed all pity”.  And, more than that, among the Edomites, according to Esau’s genealogy, is Amalek, the eternal enemy of Israel, and through Amalek’s line, biblically, Haman, the genocidal villain of the Story of Esther.

The rabbis go a step further and see the figure of Esau and Edom as representing Rome, the imperial power of their day, and destroyer of Jerusalem and the Temple.  At a later period, the term becomes a synonym in Jewish literature for Christian Rome and thus for Christianity in general, especially at times of medieval persecution.

So, from the start of our portion, we have a struggle between brothers, one that represents an eternal struggle between nations.  In the Talmud, God’s explanation to Rebecca in our portion ‘ul’om milom ye’ematz’ – “one nation shall be mightier than the other” is understood to tell us that Caesaria and Jerusalem – that is Rome and Israel – are locked in an eternal struggle in which one will always be on top and the other laid waste at any given time.  If, Rabbi Yitzchak says, someone tells you that both are settled, do not believe it.  Successful, peaceful coexistence is impossible.

To the rabbis this was not just an eternal clash of nations, but a clash of good and evil.  A common theme in our tradition demonises Esau, describing him as an idolater, as a murderer, as someone who disrespects his father.  How are we to understand the line we read this morning: “And the children struggled together within her”?  The midrash Genesis Rabbah says that when she stood near the synagogues and schools, Jacob struggled to come out.… When she passed idolatrous temples, Esau struggled to come out.  Esau is not only the enemy, but a particularly villainous one, in a state of constant tension with the forces of good, in eternal bitter conflict with his brothers.

It is a view without a great deal of hope.
And we can understand where it comes from in the lives of the rabbis.  Our ancestors experienced a world in which they had seen autonomy lost, the temple destroyed, persecution and oppression.  Hope was hard for them to find, the other was a source of conflict.  And, so, that is how they read and understood their stories.

We can understand it, and we can also empathise with it, because we also experience it – not, it is true, about Rome, or Christianity – but a sense of inescapable struggle.  Hope is hard to find – in Israel, Syria and Iraq, on the streets of Europe.  The events of last night challenge our perceptions of our safety – as those of our ancestors were challenged.  They reinforce the feeling of an eternal inevitable conflict, as our ancestors experienced.  They leave us with a feeling of them and us, good and evil, of a world utterly divided – of Caesaria and Jerusalem – “do not believe that they live together”.  Can peaceful coexistence ever truly be possible?

So, it is important to remember that this is not the only vision we are offered, the only voice in our story.  The bible, and the rabbis, are not utterly without hope.
Despite it all, in Deuteronomy, we are commanded, – commanded! – “Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother”.  Even where we struggle with the other, we must not descend into the hatred that is so easy to embrace, we must remember the potential humanity, the brotherhood, of the other.

That applies to God, too.  One of the most challenging of all texts is in the prophet Malachi, where we read: “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Eternal. “Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau”.  Yet, as the Vilna Gaon, the great sage of eighteenth century Lithuanian Jewry, sought to explain, God’s hatred of Esau was of his actions, of what he had become, of Esau in his specific historic context, not his basic humanity.  Any anger we might feel – and we have every right to, this morning – must be focused, not allowed to consume, not go beyond the action of the individual, to a whole people.  For us to have any hope we must hold onto the belief – however much it may be challenged, however undeserved it may be – that the other is still in essence, another human being, potentially our brother.

And we should not forget that Jacob and Esau were ultimately reconciled.  Many years after they separate they come together.  After 22 years apart, we read: Esau ran towards him, and embraced him, and they kissed.  Jacob says to Esau: “to see your face is like seeing the face of God”.  Theirs is a model of struggle, but also of possibility – of even the most deep seated, most ingrained conflict – ending with reconciliation.

The Nineteenth/Twentieth Century Orthodox Rabbi, Rav Kook built on the teaching of the Vilna Gaon:  “The brotherly love of Esau and Jacob, Isaac and Ishmael, will assert itself above all the confusion… It will overcome them and transform them into eternal light and compassion.”  He was not talking about Jacob and Esau – he was talking about Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims.  And he was talking to us about how we should read our story.

So, let us hope, and pray that the world view of our parshah does not prevail, that we are not destined to be locked in eternal conflict.  May we remember, in even these dark times, that even a struggle that begins in the womb is a struggle between brothers, and that we can, ultimately, be reconciled.  Let us pray that Rabbi Yitzchak was wrong, that peaceful coexistence can one day be achieved.  And may all of our conflicts, too, be transformed into light and compassion.