At first glance, the assumption underlying this week’s parashah is very different from that of the modern mentality (if there is such a thing): namely, the concept of birthright or primogeniture, that the first-born child is rightfully entitled to a special status within the family, and perhaps beyond. Thus, Esau’s “sale” of his birthright for a “mess of pottage,” and later on Yaakov’s “stealing” or deceitfully receiving the paternal blessing intended for his brother, the central events in this reading, are fraught with ambiguity. Were they in fact acts of deceit, of taking advantage of the weakness of others (Esau’s ravenous hunger; Isaac’s blindness)? Or did they in fact set matters right and as they ought to have been from the beginning?
One could well argue that this chapter, and several others both before and after it, in fact make the opposite point: they challenge the very idea of primogeniture. The fact that Yaakov is ultimately seen as the favored son, the bearer of the Divine covenant, to the evident approval of the biblical author, mitigates against this idea. Indeed, the two parallel incidents that make up the heart if this parashah may be read as polemics in support of an approach closer to the modern view, namely, a combination of the notions that: a) no preference should be shown to any son; all children are equal, or ought to be in their parent’s eyes (including the very modern idea that daughters should be seen as equal in value to sons, a notion by no means universally accepted even today, even in the West); b) what might be called the merit system: given the inevitable inequalities bestowed by nature, favor is properly due to that one who proves himself—smarter, stronger, more agile, more pious (in a religious world)—to possess those qualities which we would like to see in the “first-born.”
There is no lack of examples in the Bible for challenges to the notion of primogeniture, going all the way back, perhaps, to the very first pair of children who were born rather than being created: Abel, whose sacrifice was preferred by God to that of the first-born Kain, and was then tragically murdered by the latter. The idea is manifested dramatically by the role of leadership taken by Joseph, who was younger than all of the children of Leah and of the concubines, who emerged as the hero who saved them all from starvation; Moses, the father of prophets and teacher of all Israel, was his parent’s third child; whereas David, the archetypal king and progenitor of the almost-mythical messianic royal line, was the youngest of seven. Indeed, his father, after Samuel’s probing question, says rather dismissively: “O, there’s also the little one who’s looking after the sheep” (1 Sam 16:11). (Paradoxically, after God tells Shmuel “Do not look to his appearance and his height… for man looks with the eyes, while God sees the heart” [v. 7], David himself is described as “ruddy [or red-haired], with beautiful eyes and handsome appearance” [v. 12]. Saul himself was “a shoulder’s height taller than all the people [1 Sam 9:2; 10:23].)
Hence, one could justifiably argue that the Bible itself fosters a revolution of sorts. As against the traditional, hierarchical system, in which a person’s position is fixed by his position within his family, the Bible tells story after story in which individual merit and the individual’s personal qualities overrule fixed rank. On the very simplest level, this is an expression of the Biblical concern with ethics, with goodness and righteousness, as the qualities most desirable and most to be cultivated within society. (Albeit on the legal level the Torah does maintain the principle of the first-born’s rights of inheritance, as in Deut 21:15-17)
A very brief comment about a recent event, which hopefully won’t overly upset certain readers. During the wee hours if Wednesday morning (November 29), the Israeli government released 26 Palestinian prisoners who had been held for terrorist acts—murder, mostly random, of innocent Israeli citizens—as an act of “building good–faith” in the context of the attempt to restart real peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Virtually all of these prisoners had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and had served twenty or more years, their acts having been committed in the 1980’s or early 1990’s; i.e., they are all at least 40 years old; hence, it is at least plausible that at this point they are more interested in returning to ordinary private life, raising families, etc., then returning to terror.
This act set off a hue and cry in Israel, with vocal protests, mostly from the Right Wing, as well as from the families of their victims. It was claimed that Israel was performing an immoral act, dishonoring the blood of those who had been murdered by these people, etc.
A few brief comments about this. First, many convicted murderers are released, typically after serving a decade or more of prison time, even when they were in theory sentenced to life imprisonment without reprieve. Many of these murders were every bit as horrendous, cruel, vicious, etc., as the acts of these terrorists. Does the fact that the Palestinian terrorists acted out of nationalistic, “political” motivations automatically make their acts worse than, say, that of a husband who stabs his wife in cold blood, acting out of purely personal, individual hatred or jealousy? And if so, why? The latter acts often involve components of sadism, and cause great and extended suffering and pain to their victims—so why the distinction? And yet, as noted, “private” murderers are often released; indeed, it is often taken as an unwritten law that “life” really means twenty years imprisonment, and no more. Not to mention the cases of those Jews who have murdered Arabs, who may also be innocent civilians—perhaps manual laborers sitting by the side of the road awaiting their day’s work—who have enjoyed “compassionate” treatment at the hands of the authorities, or special interest by the rabbis.
Second, we must remember that Israel was imply fulfilling promises it had made, to America and to the PA, within the context of trying to change the atmosphere between the two peoples, and beginning to create a sense of reconciliation and forgiveness of past crimes, however horrendous.
About ten years ago I was privileged to be present at Yakar one Saturday evening when Bishop Desmond Tutu came to speak about the South African experience. During the period of apartheid and the struggle of the black people to rid the country of apartheid, there was much violence and bloodshed, what might be described as “terrorism,” on both sides. After this ended, and the blacks received full citizenship rights, they established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sponsored hearings on human rights violations committed during the period of apartheid, at which both sides spoke, and perpetrators could request amnesty and forgiveness. The central idea was that the country could not move forward towards a new era of racial brotherhood and mutual acceptance without somehow attempting to heal the scars left by the period of struggle and antagonism. Bishop Tutu suggested this as a model for the Israeli situation but, sad to say, such a notion sounds utopian in the Israeli context. And yet, sooner or later (and why not sooner?), some kind of mutual acceptance, recognition of the humanity of the other and, yes, eschewing exclusivist religious claims on both sides, will be necessary if our grandchildren are to live as adults in a better, more peaceful society that that which exists today.
For more teachings on this parashah from previous years, see the archives of this blog and search under the appropriate heading.