By: Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky,
Beit Shalom Progressive Synagogue
This Shabbat, our congregation will celebrate
the b’not mitzvah of fraternal twin girls. In our small synagogue, we have only
three or four b’nai mitzvah celebrations in a year, so the girls had their pick
of Torah readings, and this was the one they gravitated to. Like other
fraternal twins that I’ve met over the years, these girls are different from
each other, but are also the best of friends. They are each other’s biggest
fans and biggest support. In other words, they are different in every
conceivable way from the stars of this week’s parshah, Esau and Jacob. Yet they
couldn’t resist a Torah portion which tells the story of twins – even if the
story itself is filled with sadness and tragedy.
Even young children can recognise how fraught
this story is from the very beginning. As the two boys grow up and develop
their own individual personalities, their parents Isaac and Rebecca pick
Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game, but Rebecca
” (Genesis 25:28). The seeds of conflict appear to be planted
here, although the text tells us that the two boys were fighting even in utero!
We readers can predict that this story will not end well.
A major problem with the parshah is that it
is difficult to escape the conclusion that Jacob is the villain of this story.
I experience a moment of shock each time I read how Jacob responds to his
brother’s plea for a bit to eat by the insistence not only that Esau part with
his birthright but that he swear an oath that he will do so. The original idea
to deceive Isaac into bestowing his blessing upon Jacob may be Rebecca’s idea,
but Jacob certainly embraces the idea and plays the part with enthusiasm. His
father offers him many opportunities to confess to his true identity, but Jacob
refuses to do so.
Traditional midrash has a very handy way of
dispatching with these concerns: it portrays Esau as an evil man. Why,
according to the ancient rabbis, did the twins struggle in Rebecca’s womb?
Whenever she would walk past a house of learning, Jacob would start to kick.
Whenever she walked past an idolatrous temple, Esau would start to kick. The
midrash also calls attention to the unusual string of verbs that portrays
Esau’s actions as he hands his birthright over to his brother and receives stew
and bread in exchange: “
[Esau] ate it, drank, got up and left and rejected
” (Genesis 25:34). According to rabbinic teaching, each of
these verbs is a code word for a terrible sin committed by Esau. He did not
eat: he raped! He drank: but until he was thoroughly intoxicated! And so on.
Clearly such a terrible man is undeserving both of his birthright and of his
father’s blessing, and so Jacob is doing his family and the larger world a
favour by depriving him of both.
There is a lot to commend this approach. It
enables us to make peace with Jacob, who is, after all, one of the three
patriarchs we regularly invoke. Our minds are set at ease knowing, as the
midrash tells us, that Jacob’s actions towards his brother were entirely
There is a problem with this interpretation,
and that is that it is entirely divorced from how the story unfolds in the
Torah itself. When we read the Torah without the filter of midrash, we see a
story filled with ambiguities and agonising family conflict. It is not a pretty
story. But it is an infinitely compelling one, and it springs to life anew each
year as we rediscover it.
An Orthodox colleague once made the following
comment to me: “I know that you Progressive Jews understand the patriarchs and
matriarchs to be flawed human beings. But that’s not how I see them: to me, they
are the most holy people who have ever lived.” Frankly, I prefer my way of
seeing things. I love that the family conflicts in Genesis are messy and meaty,
and they offer endless possibilities for learning, teaching, and growing. I
also love that they come to an end. We see Moses and Aaron working
cooperatively in the book of Exodus – a lovely contrast to Jacob and Esau. And
while I am reluctant to embrace the midrashic teachings about Jacob and Esau, I
love what the midrash has to say about Joseph’s two sons Ephraim and Menasheh.
The rabbis ask the logical question: of all the great men in the Torah, why is
it that we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe? The reason, they tell
us, is that Ephraim and Menashe were brothers who never argued and never
fought. As a mother of two boys, that is certainly a vision I can joyfully