(Image credit to Sharon Rosenzweig, artist extraordinaire)
Some say the most difficult passage in the Torah narrative is the binding of Isaac, when God asks Abraham to kill his own son as a sacrifice to God, to prove his faith and obedience to God.
That is a tough one, but it is a story that highlights the relationship we have with God; what will we do or not do to prove our devotion? There is another disturbing story that highlights the relationships we have established with others.
For sheer discomfort at the deception, lying, manipulating, and “how is this all considered a good thing?”, I give you parashat Toldot, aka in my head, “Esau gets a bad rap”.
In the beginning of the parasha, we read of the birth of twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau is the older, and Jacob is born, “holding on to the heel of Esau” (Gen 25:26) We learn that Esau is a man of the field, a skilled hunter, and Jacob is an “ish tam”, a simple man, who stays by the tents. (Gen 25:27) We also learn that, in the time-honored tradition of dysfunctional Biblical families, the parents have favorites: Isaac favors Esau, and Rebecca favors Jacob.
But that’s only the backdrop. It gets interesting later on, when Isaac gets old and blind, and ready to confer the blessing on the oldest. Remember, by this time, Jacob had manipulated Esau into selling him the eldest’s birthright, by offering him food when he was at his weakest, returning from the hunt, famished. “Sure, brother dear, you can have some of this yummy stuff I’ve cooked, but first you have to trade away your birthright to me. So how hungry are you?” (Ok, that’s a paraphrase, and not a translation that would pass at JPS)
Isaac tells Esau to go get him some meat, and prepare it the way he likes it. Rebecca the Lurker overhears this, and gets a meal together for Jacob the Trickster to bring in to his father, wearing animal skins so Isaac wouldn’t realize it’s his younger son, deceiving him. Finally, when Jacob gets the eldest’s blessing, Esau came running back and realizes he’s been tricked. “Have you only one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!”, Esau sobs. (Gen 27:38) One of the most heartbreaking verses in all of Torah.
I’d been told my whole early childhood, in Hebrew school, that Esau was a bad guy, that he is forever our enemy. Esau did nothing wrong. The Rabbis had to come up with a reason that he got the short end of the blessing-stick, and so created a narrative that justified it. Now more than ever, we have to be vigilant against made-up narratives that explain oppression, hatred and intolerance, narratives that somehow make it ok.
It is not ok. No more making an inherent, automatic enemy of Esau. We can’t change the text in Toldot, but we can change what we learn from it. It’s not that the Esau/Edomites/Arabs are forever our enemies. We’ve seen what it does to a people to swallow the assumption that someone, the Other, is always to be distrusted. That makes the Other inferior to us, and it’s a short hop to being reviled, which means hateful, even violent action taken against them is justified. Plans to register Muslims makes it all the easier to vilify them….we know where they are. When you demean another’s holy ground, as in Standing Rock, it’s easier to justify attacks against them – they are less-holy-than, less-deserving-of; they are less.
In Toldot, we read of a wedge between brothers, one that is supposedly insurmountable. We may not be able to remove the wedge, but we have to be able to reach across it and begin to repair the damage done. That is the new lesson of Toldot.