“How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” – Parashat Toldot 5777
The story of two brothers struggling. One of the oldest stories in the world. From the womb itself. The elder came out red, and the younger holding onto to his heel. In the stomach of their mother they turned and wrestled. As our commentators say, they fought.
The midrash states, the mother herself could tell that they were opposites. When she passed by discussions of lofty subjects of Torah, one moved. When she walked by the places of idol worship, the other shook. Their struggle just another shadow of the first murder in the Torah of Abel by Cain in a fit of jealousy and rage.
Hine ma tov Uma Naim shevet achim gam Yachad.
Brothers and sisters should dwell together in unity.
They are closest kin that can be. They share the same blood…
But what should be closest is turned into the most heated and explosive of bonds. Jealousy, misunderstanding, competition for the attention of their father and mother – earthly and heavenly.
Opposites, as Abel and Cain, the shepherd, who watched over his flocks and the farmer, engaged in agriculture. Isaac and Yishamel, fathers of Jews and Muslims. In our parashah Yaakov and Esav, Jacob and Esau. Later Joseph, the dreamer, and his brothers, far more practical. Their struggles and conflict as opposites drives all of the tension in the book of Genesis.
In our parashah, Esau is the mighty hunter and man of the field, while Jacob is the contemplative man who dwelt in tents. Their tensions derive from their opposing characters. Esau is hairy at birth, comes out ruddy, and is impulsive. He takes wives among the Caananites. When he is hungry, returning from the field, he sells his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup. But he also cares about his father’s blessing and lineage. He wails and sobs wildly when he finds out that his brother has stolen it.
Jacob is smooth skinned. Mild in manners, reflective. He is clever and knows how to manipulate his stronger older brother. He is a more fitting vessel for his father’s blessing according to the Torah but he is also the one who deceives his own father. Who must flee his brother’s wrath.
In the eyes of the Torah, the conflict is unavoidable. There is but one prize and both seek it out. The Torah uses these founding stories to explain the strife between nations and different people. With Yishmael, the father of all Arab nations. With Esau the father of Edom, the ancient kingdom that no longer exists but that was an old rival of Israel’s and that, in time, our tradition associated with Rome and later Christianity. It is a way of stating the reality that our differences are not just cosmetic. They run deep. They go back to initial stories of twins, of opposing warring brothers.
Jacob and Esau’s struggle in the womb continues throughout their lives as they vie for their father’s blessing and inheritance. What is by right Esau’s is stolen furtively by Jacob, with the help of his mother. If people war, our tradition is telling us it is because they are almost ontologically different, opposites.
We look across the divide and the person that we see is other.
We can all imagine how Jacob saw his brother Esau. A wild big brother who was undeserving of his father’s misplaced love and of the family blessing. A brute who did not care for the family traditions. Who was willing to sell them for a bowl of soup. Not many of us venture into Esau’s eyes. But we can imagine what he saw too. A younger brother who did not respect him or follow in his footsteps. Who cared not for him and their father’s love of game. Who retreated in the tents without taking a stand for the family and tribe. A younger brother forever plotting to take what was not his by right.
We easily side with Jacob because he is the heir of our tradition. And with the others, Isaac, Abel…
We see in Jacob the strengths of our people. Smart, favoring the life of the shepherd over the life of the hunter. Immersed in learning. Understanding of people. Deserving of God’s blessing.
We see that the differences between them are vast. The commentators say they were destined to be two peoples, nations, even religions.
One blessed, one cursed.
But even at the end of our parashah, even as Jacob is fleeing, there is a verse referring to Rebekkah that calls “‘her mother of Jacob and Esau.” Even with all going on she still loved Esau. Even though she did favor Isaac, there was never a moment when she did not love her older son. She was still his mother. He was still her son.
In our greater moments, our tradition also sees it and the midrashic tradition teaches: The Messiah will not come until the tears of Esau have stopped.
There is a recognition that the tears of Esau might not be our own but the messiah will only come when his and his descendant’s tears, and hurt at all the injustices against them will – also finally stop.
There is a recognition that the pain at the center of our universe is the pain of brothers and sisters hurt.
Though we may instinctively take a side, be part of a side, because we think differently, we look differently. We are hairy where they are smooth, or smooth where they are hairy. We stole their blessing, we believe in good faith. They believe in outright theft – we are still brothers, sisters…
The messiah will only come when the tears of Esau also stop. When the tears of the other also stop. When their injustice is understood and addressed.
Though we may not see it, we are all children of the same father and mother. Even in the most difficult moments, we are still children to them.
There is a Chassidic interpretation of the midrash about Esau. It asks the question –The messiah will only come when Esau’s tears have stopped? What if the tears of Israel continue? What if they are still weeping and weeping? Then the messiah will still come? It cannot be!!
It answers that the tears of Esau are not just the tears of the other. Of the despised enemy. They are the tears of all human beings. What unites us all is that we are all crying –for the loss of the closeness of the Divine Presence, the loss of unity that we experienced in the garden that led to the first murder. To the first struggle between brothers. We all – at one level – are the hurt brother. We all feel like our blessing has been taken away from us. All of the hurt and conflict in the world stems from that wound. The struggles of the opposites who are brothers, even twins, is a symbol for the innate brokenness of the world. Whether we are on one side or the other, we are both Esau.
Our weeping is natural. It is because of the pain we are suffering –so we demand a better life for ourselves, less conflict, better materials goods, more opportunities. But if we weep for another person, for their pain, for their suffering, for what they have gone through in their lives… We come a little bit closer to restoring the Divine Presence. Restoring the bond. Repairing the world. Realizing that wholeness will only come back when the two halves are once again united. When we can finally see that their heart is our heart.
I would like to invite all of us to spend one-minute thinking in silence about a person, whether real, or a typecast, someone you argue with in your mind, whom you believe is your opposite, and try to enter their hearts and shed a tear for them.
How good and pleasant it is
That brothers dwell together in unity.
It is like fine oil on the head
Running down onto the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
That comes down over the collar of his robe;
Like the dew of Hermon
That falls upon the mountains of Zion.
There the LORD ordained blessing,