Jacob and Esau take a journey with relevance today


In this week’s Torah portion, Toledot, the narrative begins with the origins of Isaac and Rebecca’s twin sons, Jacob and Esau. Isaac pleads with God on behalf of Rebecca who, like her late mother-in-law Sarah, is unable to conceive.  God hears Isaac’s prayer, and shortly thereafter, Rebecca is pregnant with twins. But in contrast to past sets of brothers in conflict – Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael – Rebecca’s boys are scrapping inside the womb, wrestling for domination and control even before they are born. 

As she endures a difficult and uncomfortable pregnancy, Rebecca seeks an answer from God. God explains that she is giving birth not just to two boys, but to two separate nations. One nation will be more powerful than the other, and the elder (the one who emerges from the womb first) will serve the younger. And while God’s explanation is certainly, on its face, correct, we must explore whether it actually addresses Rebecca’s question.

Rebecca’s question, “Im kain lamah zeh anochi,” “If this is so, why am I this?” could not possibly be more ambiguous. Based on God’s response, it appears that God believes that Rebecca’s question relates to the pain in her womb. The meaning of the word “this” is her physical suffering. But certainly another, perhaps more plausible interpretation, is that Rebecca’s “this” refers to a much more profound, existential inquiry: if my womb is just an arena for fighting and misunderstanding, then what exactly is the point of all this? 

If the two nations, represented by Esau and Jacob, seem predestined for conflict, how will we survive? Whether we are battling it out for physical space (“this is our land, not yours!”) or psychic space (“we own the moral high ground, not you”), the history of our civilization seems to be encapsulated in this moment. Instead of sharing the world, we divided it up.  Instead of sharing resources with our neighbors, we kept them for ourselves. 

Indeed, as we read the news today, we seem more determined than ever to divide ourselves into separate nations.  We may refer to these divisions as “bubbles” or “silos” or “echo chambers,” but our nation seems to be following the examples of Jacob and Esau at their impetuous, youthful worst: trading short-term relief to satisfy our immediate needs (a bowl of lentil soup), for long-term needs that will impact us for generations to come (the family’s birthright).

We also seem committed – like our ancestors – to a strategy of deliberate deception to enhance our power. In the Torah, Rebecca and Jacob work together to fool Isaac so that he will give Jacob his blessing instead of Esau. Although this moment will create years of enmity and bitterness between the brothers, Rebecca (and God) achieve the result they desire. In this circumstance, the end justifies the means.

We know, of course, how our ancestors’ story turned out. Jacob became our patriarch, Israel, the acknowledged leader of our people, and after 20 years of not seeing or speaking to each other, Jacob and Esau reconcile, hugging and weeping for all the time they had lost. The end of our story, however, remains a mystery. 

As we live through these times of division and rancor, we seem to have forgotten – like Jacob and Esau – that we are brothers. We have forgotten that dishonesty and distrust can lead to grave consequences.  We have forgotten that demonizing the other side, no matter how righteous we may feel, can only extend the chasm between the camps. And we have forgotten that Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation – however tentative it was – may have been an anomaly. 

Our history and experience teach us that harsh words – especially those directed at our brothers – may not be easily forgiven. And though we have come through difficult times as a nation before (just 50 years ago our political and cultural divisions seemed to be utterly irreparable), in this moment we need to call upon our best selves to restore the collective trust that appears to be eluding us.

Let us remember that after all those years apart, Jacob and Esau found each other in the desert, but they could have easily taken another path.  One, or both, could have avoided the encounter and simply moved on to their next destination.  Instead, they remembered that they had once shared a womb, a home and a family. They remembered what they shared, instead of what they did not. And with courage and conviction, they walked toward each other and embraced. May we have the courage to do the same: to see our brothers and walk toward them in the spirit of unity and healing.

Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Providence.