Vayishlach: Esau and the zero sum game

Here’s the thing. Stories tell a lot about the people telling them, not just the stories being told.  The same is true for midrashim, the tradition of commentaries and elaborations on Biblical text.  And of all the midrashim I have ever heard, one of the most problematic involves this week’s parasha (Torah portion) Vayishlach. What it says about the story-tellers isn’t very nice.

Jacob and Esau, finally meet on a field after being estranged for twenty years.  Now, with their families and accumulated wealth in view to each other, the brothers approach, and Esau “[runs] to meet his brother, embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him”.  (Gen. 33:4) And they both burst into tears.

Beautiful, no?  You’d think so, except some of the “Sages” couldn’t let it go.  The midrash says that when Esau embraced his brother, he really meant to bite him. And just at the moment Esau would bite down on Jacob’s neck, Jacob’s neck miraculously turned to stone. Jacob’s life was saved, and Esau stood there with broken teeth.  Doesn’t matter that Jacob had duped his brother into giving away his birthright, stolen his blessing by deceiving their blind father, and ran off into the night….Esau’s the bad guy, no matter what the text says.

Jacob wins, Esau loses.  But life is not a zero-sum game, and thinking that it is just locks us  in destructive cycles.  Just because I succeed, doesn’t mean you have to fail.  Nothing is gained by vilification of the “other”, yet our Rabbis have taught that the only way to raise up Jacob is to push Esau down.   Even in utero, the commentators do nothing but paint him as a bad person. He kicked when his mother passed by idolators; Jacob kicked when she walked by a synagogue.  (Please, no Temple yet, but synagogues? I digress)  It’s heart-wrenching when Esau realizes his brother has stolen the first-born blessing, and cries: “Have you no blessing left for me, Father?  Bless me, too, Father!”

I came across a paper focusing on the struggle for dialogue, and the stories of Genesis. It was written by Daniel Reisel, ( and it centers on Isaac and his sons, Jacob and Esau.  Esau is the continual outsider, as were Hagar (Abraham’s first wife) and her son, Ishmael.  Reisel writes that when Jacob lay dying, a new model of Jewish leadership emerged.   Instead of blessing only one son to lead, Jacob blessed all his sons, acknowledging their individuality.  No longer would he divide the world into The Chosen and The Disgraced, as the Bible had up to that point: “Because Jacob knows that the time when history was divided between the blessed and the outcast, when exclusivity necessarily meant exclusion, had passed.  The time of true dialogue, of the inner kind as well as between members of one family, the time of sharing and of building on differences, had arrived.” The longer we insist upon painting those with whom we disagree with a broad and blackened brush, the harder it will be to have any dialogue, much less productive dialogue.

According to the Sages, the only way “our” side can shine is to diminish the other and it has to stop.  When Esau cried on his brother’s neck, both brothers were able to overcome fear, betrayal, estrangement and pain. The brothers never lived together again, but they didn’t hate each other, either. They do now. Esau and Jacob went their separate ways, not begrudging each other’s wealth and happiness.  They do now.  The zero sum game doesn’t work anymore.  Neither does the, “My blood’s redder than your blood” game.   I know what the Esaus have done.  And I know what the Jacobs have done, too, and it has all led us to blood and crying.  Stop telling this midrash, and others like it, unless it’s to point out how hateful it is.

Of course, this kind of thinking doesn’t occur only in our faith community.  It doesn’t take much to see our political system, our global alliances, and more, following the same dead-end models.  Old, dying Jacob knew his leadership model had to change.  So does ours.

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1 Response to Vayishlach: Esau and the zero sum game

  1. Charlene says:

    Hi Anita –
    Good point about there being “enough” of the if 1 wins the other 1 has to lose scenarios. I read all of your weekly posts & just had to add my “hear, hear” for this one!

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