December 11, 1997
Parashat Va-Yishlach (Genesis32:4-36:43)
Pity Esau. One moment of weakness, one moment ofimpulse, and his birthright is gone. He goes out to fulfill hisfather's dying wish for a savory meal of game, and while he's outhunting, his mother and brother conspire and rob him of his blessing.Returning to his father with the feast, expecting at last to gain hisdue position as head of the clan, he is met with his father's emptyexcuses. And so Esau cries: "Have you but one blessing, Father? Blessme too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:38). Tears ofbetrayal, of pain, of rage, of broken dreams.
Two brothers. One blessing. But who told FatherIsaac that he had but one blessing to bestow upon his sons? Who toldhim that blessings must be hierarchical -- setting one brother overthe other, declaring one the victor and the other a loser? Why can'the see where this leads? Has he no sense of the bitterness andturmoil that will come of this? Is his spiritual imagination so smallthat he cannot find a unique blessing for each of his sons? Is thisthe blindness that afflicts him?
Two brothers, one blessing. This is the darkunderside of Genesis. Cain murders Abel. Abraham must separate fromhis brother's son, Lot, because there can be no peace between them.Ishmael is cast out of the family to make room for Isaac. Jacobdeceives his blind father and steals his brother Esau's blessing.Joseph's brothers sell him into Egyptian slavery. Beneath theenchanting tales of Genesis, the charming Bible stories we love toread to our children, lies this legacy of hatred, rage, estrangement,murder and pain.
More than the stories of our dysfunctional family,Genesis is an alarm -- a plea, a warning -- against the humanpropensity to think in binary terms: Us/Them. Our People/ThosePeople. The Good Brother/The Evil Brother. The Children of Light/TheChildren of Darkness. This calculation always yields the sameproduct: The Other. Who is The Other? We call him by many names, buthe is always the same. Cast out for his unrighteousness. Undeservingof blessing. Evil. Dark. Alien. Excluded. Estranged.
Why do we human beings need The Other? Whatemptiness within our soul does it fulfill? What comfort does it giveus to identify, to isolate, to castigate, to scorn The Other?Politicians love him. Demagogues thrive on him, for there is noeasier way to the heart of a people than through our fear, ourdisgust, our rejection of The Other. Just listen to theirrhetoric.
But remember Genesis. Who is The Other? He is ourbrother. Ignore him and watch as his rage consumes everything we holddear. We will never have peace, and we will never be whole until wemeet him and make peace with him. Be careful. His rage is potent. Butif we have the courage to confront him, to meet and embrace him, wewill find him ready to receive us.
"Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by400 men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the twomaids, putting the maids and their children first, Leah and herchildren next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He himself went on aheadand bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near hisbrother. Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him, falling on his neck,he kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33:1-4).
Again, Esau weeps. But this time, different tears.For the years consumed and wasted in rage, hatred, bitterness andfear. For the brokenness endured until each brother realized that hecould have his own, unique blessing. And for the generations of theirchildren who will yet live by dividing -- believing in theirblindness that there is only one blessing. For those who have yet tolearn the ultimate lesson of Genesis.
Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.
All rights reserved by author.
Joseph is drawn from the pit.
Photo from "The Jewish People: A PictorialHistory."
Read a past week's torah portion!