Rabbi David Walk
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the Oedipus Complex and the generation gap. I tried to present a picture of Judaism doing its best to avoid enmity between the generations. However, I left unsaid the nasty problem which does haunt the book of Genesis: Sibling Rivalry. Da dum! This violent and vile problem begins with the first set of sibs. Fratricide is our first crime against humanity. So, the pages of our Bible and the annals of human history are replete with horrible example of this phenomenon: Cain/Abel, Thyestes/Atreus, Romulus/Remus, Joan Fontaine/Olivia de Havilland, Peyton/Eli. David Levy introduced the term sibling rivalry in 1941, claiming that for an older sibling 'the aggressive response to the new baby is so typical that it is safe to say it is a common feature of family life.' But this week I'm concerned with the brotherly competition which begins in this week's Torah reading, namely Ya'akov and Esav.
The competition between them is so fierce and so ingrained that the Torah actually records that this antagonism began in utero: And the children struggled within her (Genesis 25:22). The term translated as 'struggled' is actually vayitrotzatzu, which comes from the root ratz, as in run. The Midrash develops a pun based on that term, that when they passed a temple of idolatry Esav tried to run for it, and when they passed a holy site for God, Ya'akov tried to run there. Rivka is so distressed that she goes to seek information from God. Rashi says that she went to Shem to access God, I've always wondered why she didn't consult with her husband, but that's a topic for an article about spousal relations. Anyway, she is informed that there are the progenitors of two separate nations who will compete for supremacy in her womb.
As the boys grow up there are clear differences between the lads. Esav is athletic and expert in the world of hunting; Ya'akov is comfortable at home and in his tent. Very different young men, and they seem to receive encouragement in their chosen paths from their parents. Yitzchak is pleased with Esav's hunting prowess, while Rivka loves Ya'akov just the way he is. It's concerning these episodes that we see the anti-Esav bias emerge from amongst our rabbinic sources. When the verse records Yitzchak's affection for Esav's contribution to the dinner table, the Midrash records that he ensnared his father in his plots just like he trapped his animal prey. Ya'akov, on the other hand, is described as tam (perhaps, innocent), which the Midrash glowingly describes as being without guile. What he said exactly reflected what was in his heart. So, Jewish tradition has staked out its positions, Esav cunningly deceives and Ya'akov is straight as an arrow, even though he knows not how to use a bow.
These rabbinic positions are a bit disturbing, because they seem to be a bit deceiving. We are informed that Ya'akov doesn't know how to deceive, but we then have two troubling stories about him tricking first his brother and then his father. The incident with Esav and the lentil soup is, perhaps, easier to explain away. Esav is paid for the birthright, which he doesn't seem to really want. Because the birthright is probably about organizing religious practices for the family. That's more of an indoorsy, Ya'akov thing. So that deal can be understood as a fair bargain. However, when Rivka convinces him to impersonate his older brother to hoodwink their elderly father into bestowing the preferred blessing, I think that he's crossed a line beyond that image of innocence. That theft, I believe, has more to do with the relationship between Yitzchak and Rivka, and I'm not going to deal with that issue. My real question is: what do we see in Ya'akov that makes him worthy of being the third leg of our national triumvirate?
The answer, I think, is nothing yet. The amazing thing about Ya'akov is that he grows from Caspar Milquetoast to become a super hero. It's really a remarkable transformation and it only begins next week. This idea that heroes are that way from birth (or in Ya'akov's case some say from before birth), just isn't cool. And doesn't give the rest of us hope. The real difference between Ya'akov and Esav is that Esav remains forever who he was at birth while Ya'akov is the caterpillar who later emerges as a Monarch Butterfly.
The names tell the story. Esav has three names: Edom, Seir and Esav. He's called Edom (red) partially because of the lentil soup story, but mostly because he's ruddy at birth. The Seir (hairy) name clearly reflects the verse, 'he was completely like a coat of hair (Genesis 25:25)'. But the most convincing of all is the name Esav, because as Rashi comments, 'They all called him this because he was complete, and fully developed with hair, like one many years old.' There will be no continual growth. He was ready to fight bear while in the crib, take that Davy Crockett. But Ya'akov, on the other hand, was always a work in progress. He had hidden reserves of strength and power that no one suspected until they actually appeared. That's why his first message from God was about ascending a ladder. And he doesn't earn his 'real' name, Yisrael, until after he was old enough to collect Social Security.
That's why we venerate, and, hopefully, emulate Ya'akov. We want to live lives where the best is yet to come, and we're always looking for what's around the next corner. Life is meant to be exhilarating in that way. It's also a little scary and daunting, and that's why God often tells Ya'akov to chill, and not be afraid. Because it's worth it. We eschew the static, and embrace the future. That's what Ya'akov did, and we learn from our Patriarch.