Torah from Around the World #298

By: Rabbi Lea Muehlstein,

and Pinner Liberal Synagogue

, Northwood, United Kingdom

Sibling Rivalry

Most of us bear these scars: marks on our
body that remind us of the downside of having siblings. When my sisters and I
were little, my mum used to say: “bis der Erste weint – until the first
one cries.” Despite the great love that Naemi, Jael and I had (and still
have) for each other, we also fought until tears and occasionally blood would
flow. It is a natural thing that sibling love goes hand in hand with sibling rivalry
and arguments – so much so in fact that even the biblical authors seem rather
more focused on describing sibling rivalry than sibling love.

In our Torah portion,


, the
twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, are pitted against one another in a way that
even transcends normal sibling rivalry. This rivalry begins even before the
children are born when Rebecca experiences difficulties during her pregnancy
and turns to God only to be told (Gen. 25: 23):

“Two nations are in your womb, two separate
peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the
other, and the older shall serve the younger.”

In the imagination of our ancient rabbis and
commentators, Esau, the older twin, becomes the incarnation of evil thereby
justifying Jacob’s actions of coercing Esau out of his birthright and tricking
his father Isaac to bless Jacob rather than Esau. By equating Esau with Edom, a
neighboring and hostile people, the rabbis establish a thread that would
connect Esau to Roman oppression and even to Nazi Germany.

I have always felt sympathy with Esau. If we
read our


with an open mind, we note that Jacob is the
real deceiver, with an unhealthy assist from his mother Rebekah.

So why is it that our traditional
commentators rarely, if ever, take Jacob to task for his actions?

Jacob is the insider. He is the ultimate
ancestor of all future generations of Jews – of

B’nei Yisrael

the children of Israel, the children of Jacob. Jacob is just too much of an
insider for later commentators to dismantle his reputation without doing damage
to the entire Jewish people.

Esau on the other hand is the outsider, who
wanders out of the frame of the Torah’s view. And thus he conveniently serves
as the archetype for Israel’s enemies.

Growing up in a Liberal Jewish community in
Germany, I learned to appreciate what it feels like to be the outsider – being
Jewish meant I was part of a tiny minority, being a Liberal Jew meant I was
part of yet another tiny minority within the Jewish community in Germany, where
the default position was that “the synagogue that I don’t attend is orthodox.”

It was thanks to my wonderfully committed
parents that I always felt confident enough in my own Liberal Jewish identity
to not succumb to the pressures of wanting to be an insider. Yet, I vividly
remember how tiresome and offensive it was to be told by fellow Jews who didn’t
observe anything that I wasn’t a real Jew just because I was Liberal
(non-Orthodox). As many readers will probably know first-hand, being a Liberal
Jew often means being an outsider within the Jewish community (outside of North
America) and that is not an easy thing. It comes with a sense of powerlessness
and speechlessness.

Much has changed in Germany since my
childhood, with Liberal Judaism having arrived in the centre of the wider
Jewish community also thanks to the hard work of the WUPJ, and Progressive Jews
around the world, especially thanks to the strength of our movement in the US,
are no longer left powerless nor speechless. This was exemplified by the
strength of the progressive delegation at this year’s World Zionist Congress.
It was a privilege to be part of the ARZENU delegation, made up of the various
Reform, Liberal and Progressive Zionist Organizations from around the world,
and to be able to lend a voice to our progressive Jewish values. Thanks to our
presence, the Congress passed resolutions supporting an equally prominent
egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall) and urged the Israeli
government to offer greater support and protection to the LGBT community.

Despite the successes that we were able to
celebrate, it was sad to witness how Jews talked to and treated other Jews at
the Congress. Rather than listening to the other side, the approach was
regularly to just yell loud enough to drown out the voice of those who

But amongst the yelling there were also
glimmers of hope. While slightly ahead of Germany, the UK is generally far
behind the US when it comes to the acceptance of pluralism. Yet, following the
vote on the Kotel, a member of the right-wing, orthodox Mizrachi delegation
from the UK walked over and proudly said: “Rabbi, I voted in favor of the
resolution.” Despite the shouting and the political divisions, we were able to
transcend our standard narrative about the other and come together.

This is what we can learn from the story of
Esau and Jacob: in order to overcome a rift even within a people, we must
re-examine our narrative about the other. We must see the other anew. First and
foremost, we must remind ourselves that they are human beings just like us and
that they are fellows Jews, each in their own way trying to do justice to their

A little bit of rivalry is a healthy thing,
but we should never forget to also celebrate our strength when we come
together. For as our tradition teaches us: ”

kol yisrael aravim zeh la-zeh

– all Israel is responsible for one-another.” Only if we transcend
denominational boundaries will we able to fulfil our mission to be a light unto
the nations, to break down the barriers between insiders and outsiders and to
help to bring the messianic age ever closer.

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