All in the family

All in the family

Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9

“Hafokh ba, v’hafokh ba,” our sages teach us — turn it, and turn it again, for all is in our Torah.

More than the ritual laws and ethical precepts that form the basis of our religious tradition, the Torah also has much to teach us about human nature and family dynamics. These latter elements figure prominently in this week’s parsha, Toldot. Our patriarch, Jacob, and his twin brother, Esau, are at odds with one another even while still in the womb. As they grow up, the rivalry grows as well. We read that Esau becomes a “skillful hunter,” while Jacob was a “simple man.” (Genesis 25:27) However, for all his skill, Esau is driven by his carnal passions more than by reason, and Jacob turns out to be quite clever in exploiting his brother’s weakness. And so, Jacob takes Esau’s birthright and their father’s blessing through guile.

However, when we look at the bulk of the classical commentaries, Esau is presented as the prototypical wicked enemy of the Jews. Why?

When I was in rabbinical school and had my first contact with critical biblical scholarship, my teacher always reminded us to be aware of both what the text says and what it means. The text of our parsha says nothing about Esau’s wickedness; to be sure his choice of wives is not to his parents’ liking, but this is understandable considering the alienation he must feel from his family heritage. The meaning attributed to the text is not Esau’s fault. The rabbis needed a proxy for their polemics against Rome, since they could not openly criticize the ruling power. In this regard, Esau became the fall guy, since he was already presented as a rival to our patriarch.

The tensions and rivalry that are inherent in the relationship between Jacob and Esau is because they are brothers, not in spite of that fact. Only someone close to us, who knows us intimately, can arouse such heated emotions within us. But we must never lose sight of the fact that we are still family.

Indeed, there is an important lesson here as we examine our relationships with other Jews and with outside communities. Throughout our history, Jews have lived in many places, and have developed different customs and cultures. Consider the differences among Jews from France, Germany, Poland and Russia, to say nothing of the differences between Chasidim and Litvaks or Ashkenazi (European) and Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews. To go a step further, consider the similarities between Jews from each of these places and their non-Jewish neighbors. These relationships have been more or less cordial depending on time and place, but Jews have always incorporated local cultural elements into their food, music and so forth.

 Just as we know that Jacob and Esau will reconcile (even if their relationship will be best nurtured by maintaining a certain distance), we must always seek to build peaceful relationships with other Jews as well as with outside communities.

Shabbat shalom.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)