December 4, 2009
Hope and Fear
I’m giving a d’var torah (in Hebrew!) tomorrow morning. Here’s an English version of what I plan to say.
This week, we’re reading the third third of Vayishlach, which deals almost entirely with the generations (read: descendants) of Esau. The parsha also begins with Esau, and Jacob’s preparations for meeting him again after so many years apart. In between, we have Jacob’s nighttime encounter with the angel, the story of Dina and Shechem, the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel. But the parsha begins and ends with Esau.
Reading the story of Jacob and Esau’s reunion always melts my heart a little. Jacob is so frightened of what might happen that he does a whole series of things in order to protect his family and his property – he splits them up, prays about it, sends gifts ahead of him to appease his brother’s imagined anger – and in the end Esau runs to greet him, embraces him, and kisses him with what I can only imagine is joy. Jacob tells his brother that seeing him again is like ‘seeing the face of God,’ and towards the end of the parsha, Jacob and Esau bury their father together, just as Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury Abraham.
But for most of the rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, this story is not such a heartwarming one. The very last phrase we read reminds us that Esau is the father of Edom – the nation identified in the Talmud with the Roman Empire. Esau is the ancestor of our oppressors and our enemies, and so the rabbis aren’t looking for reconciliation and family togetherness.
A midrash on Jacob’s words, “seeing your face is like seeing the face of God” illustrates this.
“For seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10) Jacob mentions the name of the Holy One of Blessing to Esau in order to frighten and scare him.
What is this like? Like a man who invited a friend over for a meal and realized that he (the friend) wanted to kill him. He said to his friend, “Y’know, this dish tastes a lot like the dish I ate at the palace the other day.” His friend said to himself, “He knows the king.” He got scared and didn’t kill him after all.
It was the same for Jacob. When he said to Esau “for seeing your face is like seeing the face of God,” Esau the evil one said to himself, “If Jacob has earned the respect of the Holy One of Blessing, there is no way I can take him.”
This midrash turns my imagined happy family reunion completely upside-down. Esau is evil, not loving or joyful, and Jacob mentions God not because he sees in his reunion with Esau a moment of connection with the Divine (or even because he sees in Esau a reflection of the Divine inherent in us all) but because he wants to threaten and frighten him. Esau wants to kill Jacob, and Jacob wants to protect himself, his family, and his stuff from Esau.
For the rabbis, it is important to reinforce the evil-ness of the ancestor of their Roman oppressors, and along the way to highlight the uniqueness and privilege of Jacob’s connection to God. For me, and for many more contemporary commentators, it is important to see the possibility for healing human relationships, even after years of pain and distance. To see a story that tells us forgiveness is possible and that we don’t always have to be afraid.
All of us are reading the same set of stories, and yet we come out of them with such different conclusions. What stories of their own do the rabbis bring to the text, that lead them to raise Jacob up and push Esau down? What stories of our own do we (do I) bring to the text, that we seek reassurance, family connections, hope for healing?