November 1, 2013
Jacob and Esau: One Person Embracing Two Natures
The classic wrestling match in Biblical literature is that between the most dissimilar twins, Jacob and Esau. They began their struggle with each other even before they were born, in their mother Rebekah’s womb; and their battle continued throughout their lives.
Rebekah was so tormented by the intrauterine combat that she pleaded with God to explain her suffering or let her die. God said only that her sons must struggle and that the younger one, Jacob, must win.
The story of Jacob and Esau is a tale of two brothers whose appearances and natures were polar extremes. Their parents’ favoritism ("Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah favored Jacob." Genesis 25:28) didn’t help to forge family harmony.
Isaac preferred his first-born Esau who was a man of the field and a hunter, unlike himself. No reason is given, however, for Rebekah's special love for Jacob. Perhaps she loved him because he was soft and impressionable, or because he was the youngest and more vulnerable.
The Torah describes Jacob at birth as an ish tam that stayed close to the camp thereby spending more time women. He was meek and smaller than his brother and starkly contrasted with Esau who, as a hunter and a man of the field, was covered over with a hairy mantle and whose skin pigment was red and sanguine as if he was ready to kill and taste blood.
Later rabbinic tradition explained that Jacob, who dwelt in tents (Heb. ohalim) spent his days in the house of study. Quiet, thoughtful, settled, orderly, and well-integrated, Jacob, not Esau, understood intuitively the dignity of the birthright and the spiritual implications of his father’s blessing. He strove to protect the future of Judaism and Jewish life even if it meant deceiving his father and brother.
Unlike Jacob, Esau despised the birthright that he should have understood as sacred. Rather, Esau’s belly was his God and his yearning was material. Incapable of deferring hunger he sacrificed Eternity and sated himself with nothing more than a pot of stew.
In Freudian terms, Esau embodies the id, the primitive killer-instinct and lust-hunger that so often threatens civilization. As such, the rabbis regarded him as evil.
Ironically, despite Jacob's questionable ethics, he represents moral and spiritual refinement that is cultivated through prayer and study of sacred literature, thereby assuring Judaism’s future and the continuity of the Jewish people through the ages.
Jacob and Esau are prototypes of our lower and higher selves and strivings. As twins, we might think of the brothers as one person combining two natures doing battle. Together, as one, they are emblematic of the tensions within every human being.
I sometimes think of the Biblical narrative as a dreamscape of the Jewish people and each Biblical character as a projection of each of us as individuals and as Jews.
The good news is that despite Esau’s and Jacob’s misunderstandings, jealousy, betrayal, hatred, and resentment towards each other, this week's Parashat Toldot is not the end of their story. Next week, in Vayetze, the brothers meet after twenty years as older and wiser men. They fall upon each other's necks, weep, Esau forgives Jacob, and they establish peace, at last.
A veritable metaphor for our times!?