JACK v RED
Rabbi David Walk
Many of you have probably already figured out that I'm going to discuss the difficult relationship between Ya'akov and Esav. However for me the title contains a very poignant irony. My father OB"M was named Jacob or Jack, but far and away his most popular nickname was Red for the small amount of bright hair encircling his bald pate. He was an amalgam of those dueling twins. His high school yearbook (Chelsea, MA, 1927) entry read, 'Beneath this rough exterior beats a heart of gold.' There was much truth in that pithy quote. My dad was an athlete and a truck driver with a tough veneer, but there was a lot of warmth, care and concern welling up inside. But my purpose this week isn't to eulogize my father, but to analyze the eternal struggle between the twins born to Yitzchak and Rivka, who seemed to be pure embodiments of the opposite traits of tough versus soft.
The Torah informs us that the struggle and competition between Ya'akov and Esav was essential to their very being. That's why their rivalry began in the womb. The verse says that they in some way struggled (also rendered: jostled, wrestled, kicked, shoved, fought or tumbled, Genesis 25:22) within Rivka, and she was very worried. I understand her concern because this is adolescent male behavior, not fetal conduct. Rashi reports to us a famous Midrash: Our Rabbis interpreted this struggling as an expression of running. When she passed by the entrances of the Torah academies of Shem and Eber, Jacob would run and struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of a temple of idolatry, Esau would run and struggle to come out (Gen. Rabbah 63:6). This is characteristic of our great Sages. They explained many textual difficulties in the context of a spiritual dilemma confronting their generation. In later centuries when the main competition to Judaism was Christianity, Esav or Edom became the embodiment of that challenge to our religion. Edom could represent Communism or promiscuity or drug addiction. Take your pick; they all work.
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993, the Rav) takes another approach. He explains in the posthumously published work The Emergence of Ethical Man that the conflict between them was an eternal philosophic one. They were very wise fetuses. No, the embryo thing was just emblematic of the eventual debate. However, although the Rav doesn't say this explicitly, I believe that the true source of the dispute is a later incident. When Ya'akov is cooking his red pottage (I just want to mention that I also love to make my own soup.), Esav returns from the field famished. Their interchange at that moment is crucial to understanding their world views. Esav demands some soup. Ya'akov sees this as an opportunity to acquire the bechora or birthright. The birthright was a privilege of the first born male to lead religious ceremonies for the family. Ya'akov believed that Esav wasn't a worthy spiritual representative for the family of Avraham and Yitzchak. This exchange should not be confused with the later clash over the blessings. The conflict over the blessings was significant to Esav, because the blessings were about the family assets as well as the clan's heritage. Now we must understand Esav's response to Ya'akov's demand of the bechora in payment for the meal.
Esav replies, 'Behold, I am going to die; so why do I need this birthright?' What does he mean by that? Perhaps, the simplest explanation is that he literally feels near death from hunger and exhaustion as a result of his escapades in the wild, and that he assumes that this meal will save his life. It is therefore a worthy exchange. Rashi, on the other hand, quotes a Midrash which explains that many of the services which are the responsibility of the birthright carry a death penalty if incorrectly performed. So, Esav would rather excuse himself from these activities which he would fulfill in a cavalier manner. But the explanation which brings us to the opinion of Rabbi Soloveitchik is that he's not interested in the birthright because its rewards come in heaven and he doesn't expect to get there. Now we're ready for the Rav's take on this last idea.
Avraham and Yitzchak have pioneered a revolution in human thinking. This grand idea is that of covenantal eternity. Our great covenant with God, although renewed many times, was given only once, to Avraham. As the Rav says, 'Our historicity is expressed in covenant constancy and identity. Not only do we remember our past but we relive and re-experience it (p. 172).' This concept is so real to us that we share not only Avraham's historical experiences but his prophetic vision of the end of days. In so many ways we are the reincarnation of Avraham through our historical consciousness. The Rav asserts that this is not a metaphysical reincarnation or a psychological continuity, rather this phenomenon carries a historical duty to continue the covenantal community. Ya'akov bought into it and Esav rejected it totally. This is what he meant when he said that he was going to die. He would die and his life would no longer make any difference. We proclaim that our lives matter because we pass on this covenantal responsibility to our progeny. Again, to quote the Rav, the twins 'represent the eternal conflict between a historical natural reality and a covenantal charismatic mission (p. 179).'
This point of view informs so many of our traditions and practices. We are trying so hard to capture the essence of long gone events so that we can share our beloved forebears' vision of an ethical existence anticipating a glorious future. Avraham got it when God told him that all the great events of his destiny, the exodus and conquest of Israel, would be experienced by his descendants after he goes to his fathers in peace at a ripe old age (Genesis 15:15). He was proud to pass on that legacy to unborn generations. So was Ya'akov, and so, too, should we.