It began with the first two human born into this world, the world's first brothers.
In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil. Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell (Genesis 4:3-5).
How did Cain know? The offerings are placed upon the altar. As each is set aflame, the smoke rises. How can one possibly ascertain that God accepts one and rejects the other? No, here the Torah tells us something deeper -- not how it really was, but how it appeared to Cain, the world's first aggrieved brother. In my fantasy, Cain crosses the field to his brother. "Say Abel, show me how you did that." But alas, when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother, Abel, and killed him (Genesis 4:8). And so it began.
Sigmund Freud proposed that the dynamic of human personality is shaped in the Oedipal complex -- the young boy's adoration of his mother leading to conflict and ultimate identification with his father. The Torah, as well, locates the primal human drama within the family, but in a different relationship -- in the struggle among brothers. The Torah itself is structured around a set of tense brother stories: Cain and Abel; Noah's sons; Abraham and his brother's son, Lot; Ishmael and Isaac; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers; Moses and Aaron. They struggle for position, power, priority, but most of all, they struggle for their father's blessing.
When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son, Esau, and said to him, "My son."
Esau answered, "Here I am."
And Issac said, "I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die" (Genesis 27:1-2).
Esau, faithful but thick, is supplanted by his trickster brother, Jacob, who hides his smooth skin beneath his smooth words to seduce the father into granting him the family blessing. Esau returns with the hard-won venison and prepares his father's dish, only to discover that his blessing has been taken.
When Esau heard his father's words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing and said to his father, "Bless me, too, Father!"
But Issac answered, "Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing."
And Esau said to his father, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:34-35, 38).
For the first time, we can feel sympathy for him. Crude, violent, impulsive, there is nevertheless something genuine and good in Esau's ferocious loyalty to his father. And something moving in his vulnerability. So into his mouth is placed the Bible's harshest critique of its own monotheism: Have you but one blessing, Father? Who told Father Isaac there was only one blessing to split between two sons? Must one God imply only one blessing, only one birthright, only one way, only one truth? Does God accept only one brother's offering and reject the other's? Is there room for only one brother in this land, in this world? If so, teaches the Torah, we are doomed to reiterate an endless cycle of fratricide, generation after generation.
The Messiah will not arrive, according to an old tradition, until Esau's tears are exhausted. Redemption comes when Father Isaac and all his descendants find in the infinite heart of God a fitting blessing for Esau -- a place for the other brother. Redemption comes when the ehad (oneness) of monotheism is read as the most inclusive of theologies. Only then will we fulfill the prayer of the Psalmist, "How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together" (Psalms 133:1).
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