A Tale of Two Brothers
Before turning to this week’s parashah, I would like to reiterate a point that has guided much of what I have written here over the years: namely, that the Jewish tradition frequently puts a very definite slant on the meaning and interpretation of a particular Biblical text, so much so that we automatically see it through that perspective, and often tend to overlook the peshat, in the sense of the straightforward meaning. A case in point is the story of Jacob and Esau, which lies at the center of this week’s reading. We are so accustomed to thinking of Esau as esav ha-rasha, as the nemesis of the Jewish people throughout history since time immemorial, that a special effort is needed to see what the biblical text itself is actually saying. (Of course, one can also read it through the midrashic lens, as I have done on those years when my writing has been devoted to midrash, aggadah, Rashi, Hasidism, etc. It is nevertheless important to be aware that one is doing so, and from time to time to attempt to read the parashah with fresh eyes, without preconceptions.)
A second point about the Bible’s method of writing: literary critic Erich Auerbach, in his masterwork Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, begins by noting a basic difference between the Greek epic and the Bible. Whereas, e.g., Homer in the Odyssey depicts the scene of Odysseus’ homecoming in great detail, with digressions, elaborate flashbacks, etc., the Bible is often succinct to the point of terseness, conveying worlds of meaning in a few brief sentences. (Albeit not always: Hazal noted with some puzzlement the verbosity of the text in last week’s parashah, in which the story of the servant’s mission to find a wife for Yitzhak is repeated several times, and in considerable detail.) The opening section of this week’s parashah, Genesis 25:19-34, is a classic example of this: in a few broad strokes we are told of the conception, pregnancy and birth of the two brothers, their respective characters, their parents’ respective preferences between them, and the scene of the selling of the birthright.
We begin with the two brothers struggling in the womb and their mother seeking an oracle of the Lord. She is not told that one is morally superior to the other; rather, “Two peoples are in your womb, and two nations shall be separated from your innards, and one nation shall struggle against the other”—i.e., they are both [seemingly] equal. But it concludes with a prophecy about their future: “the greater [i.e., the elder] shall serve the younger” (v. 23). Thus, from the very outset there is a certain hint of destiny, of the idea that Yaakov is the rightful heir to his father (presumably, including the covenant with God and the inheritance of the Land); hence, his underhanded attempts to obtain, first the birthright, then the unique and singular paternal blessing, may be seen as carrying some justification.
Or is all this window dressing, and ought we to focus upon this story in terms of sibling rivalry, pure and simple—a story as old as humanity itself. There is a deep paradox here: we speak of “brotherhood” as a metaphor for human solidarity, friendship and cooperation, a model for peaceful coexistence between different nations and religions—and yet, as often as not, real brothers, born of the same flesh and raised in the same home, are at odds with one another. They fight for paternal love and attention: a situation often exacerbated when the parents, despite the best intentions, do not love all their children equally well, but favor one over another. Worse still, when each parent has their own favorite, the rivalry between the children may be deflected back to the marital relation. In royal households, or other families in which there is some hereditary privilege, this may end in bloody struggles over the succession (note the conflicts in the family of King David, or contemporary quarrels in Hasidic courts; I might note here that the late Bostoner Rebbe, ztz”l, did well to assure that his “Rebbesha” patrimony was divided among all three of his sons upon his death. There may have been more erudite scholars than he, but he was a very wise man.)
To return to Genesis 25: Esau was an outdoors type, a hunter, a person of crude, roughhewn masculinity—he was even born hairy; whereas Yaakov was delicate, cerebral, one who liked to sit at home in his mother’s tent. In a later age, these two types seemed to coalesce perfectly with, or even to serve as paradigms for “Goyish” and “Jewish” models of masculinity (see Daniel Boyarin’s Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, in which he asserts that Judaism, specifically in the notion of the talmid hakham, the Talmudic scholar, created an alternative model for male heterosexuality to the Greco-Roman Adonis figure; cf. Maurice Samuel’s The Gentleman and the Jew, in which the rejection of sports and the hunt is seen as a defining moment in Jewish self-understanding). Interestingly, one of the central cultural motifs of Zionism was the creation of the “new Jew”—i.e., a model of masculinity closer to that of the other nations: hence the emphasis on sports and physical fitness (the Maccabee Association), on agriculture, and of course on readiness to use arms in self-defense (Hashomer)—all of which also required a rejection of the religious piety of the “Galut Jew.” In more recent times, a new type of Israeli religious Jew has created a certain synthesis of the two, at times aggressively so. But one might conclude that even more recently, in a certain historical irony, as computer software has outstripped citrus fruit and even military goods as Israel’s major export industry, the computer nerd has become a new hero of sorts.
The term tam, used here to describe Yaakov, did not yet have the sense of simplicity or even naivete and simple–mindedness which it later acquired—e.g., in the third son of the Passover Haggadah. R. Nahman of Bratslav turns this stereotype on its head in his story Al Hakham va-Tam, which celebrates the man of simple, naïve faith. Here the word has the original meaning of completeness, fulness, integrity, soundness, purity, as well as a certain innocence and simplicity. But Bible scholar George Savran has suggested that Ish tam may be intended here ironically, in light of what follows.
After a few minor incidents, we turn to the second major part of this week’s parashah, Chapter 27, in which Yaakov, at the prompting and under the guidance of his mother Rivkah, receives the blessing intended for Esau. We have written in the past that Yitzhak may well have been suspicious all along, repeatedly asking “Are you really my son Esau?” The sense of this passage is that he had somehow chosen to play along with the masquerade, possibly realizing, as he began to confront his own death (see Gen 27:2,4; but he in fact did not die until more than twenty years later, after Yaakov’s return to the Land: see below, Gen 35:27-29) that Yaakov would be a more fitting heir to his covenantal inheritance. (The question as to why each parent loved whom he/she did is an interesting one. One traditional answer is “opposites attract”: just as in marriage we are drawn to someone whom we unconsciously feel may complement or compensate for our own shortcomings, so too in preferences towards children: Yitzhak knew he was indecisive, even somewhat effeminate, and was drawn to the uncomplicated, rough masculinity of Esau; Rivkah, who had grown up with a “toughy” like Lavan, appreciated Yaakov’s delicacy.)
Two more points. One is the role of Rivkah, and the psychology of a son who was loved overly well by his mother. Beyond the ethical issues, this can be unhealthy emotionally, leading to a passive personality. Indeed, Yaakov’s entire subsequent life history may be read as an attempt to overcome this.
A second point relates to the role of food in this whole drama. Why are food and eating so important here? Yitzhak tells Esau: “Go, bring me some hunt so that I may bless you before I die.” Three times the Torah uses here words implying causation—בעבור and למען— “so that I may bless you” (27:4, 19, 25), implying a direct cause and effect relation between the bringing and eating of food to Yitzhak, and his blessing the son who does so. We know, both in Judaism and other cultures, of the centrality of eating, of the table as a focus of fellowship, whether in the family or in the larger community. Moreover, feeding others is perhaps the paradigmatic act of Hesed, of kindness, of giving, of generosity. Joseph’s rule as leader and even savior in Egypt is tied to his role as provider, as ha-mashbir. Similarly, the term used in medieval Jewry for the communal leaders, parnasei ha-tzibbur, is derived from the root פרנס, which originally meant to feed or provide—hence parnasah is “livelihood.” (This thought is prompted by the death last week of a neighbor named Yosef Parnes—may his memory be a blessing.)
It is interesting that blessing generally, in Judaism, is related to food. Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, is the paradigmatic blessing from which all other blessings, both before partaking of food and on innumerable other occasions, is inferred. Rambam notes that it is the only blessing de-oraita, of Torah status. Is thanking someone who has fed one—a civilized convention—in essence equivalent to saying “bless you”? Are blessing and thanks conceptually equivalent? This is an appropriate question for the weekend of “thanks–giving.”
Finally, to return to the central ethical question posed by the parashah: perhaps Yaakov and Rivkah’s behavior is best understood, not as simple deceit, but as a certain choice, a way of dealing with a real dilemma, a situation fraught with ambiguity: on the one hand, the very real sense of destiny, that in some sense Yaakov is the rightful heir of Avraham and Yitzhak’s spiritual heritage; on the other, the sense that Esau, simply as a human being, was deserving of consideration and fair treatment.