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Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 29th Cheshvan 5775, 22nd November 2015 – “It’s Us and Us”
This has been a week of tragedy and overbearing sadness, with the brutal murder of 4 rabbis in Har Nof, Jerusalem on Tuesday morning casting a pall over everything else. It brings home the fact that another round of terror, senseless murders, mayhem, fear, enmity, mistrust and hatred is building up and threatening to flood our country yet again.
How apt, then, that our parsha reflects an ancestral equivalent of today’s problems, a biblical parallel of internecine strife. The fraternal twins, Esav and Yaacov begin what will be a long period of manipulation, trickery, mistrust, enmity, fear and hatred.
We tend to think of Esav and Yaacov as opposites, not only in their outer appearance and their proclivities – one for the outdoors and hunting, and the other for more sedentary occupations – but also in terms of their character traits. Esav is the quintessential villain, while Yaacov is the good guy. Esav wears the black hat, Yaacov the white.
However, that’s not only an oversimplification, but a distortion of the text, foisted on us by the commentators. For one thing, nobody is all black or all white. For another, the Torah paint box uses as many dark colors when sketching Yaacov as Esav. And don’t think for a minute that I believe Esav was a tsaddik who should have been our ancestor instead of theirs (although that might have given us a one-up on the others in our never-ending struggles). No, he earned his bad reputation honestly.
Let’s review some facts, starting with the famous lunchroom scene. Yaacov is stirring a pot and in comes a ravenous Esav. “Gimme some chow,” he says. “Sure,” says Yaacov. “Just sell me your birthright.” “Huh?” Says Esav. “You just gave me indigestion. What you talking about??” “Birthright. Not the program to bring all the Jewish kids to Israel but the right to double of everything, among other things. You know what, I’ll even throw in a piece of bread.” “Sure, why not,” Esav says. “You gottit.” Very kosher trade right there, birthright for a plate of goulash, and some bread.
Next, the famous trick the old blind father routine, with assistance by none other than the doting wife/mother Rivka. Again, Yaacov stars, wearing sheep’s clothing to imitate the wolf, and it works. He gets the blessing, much to the chagrin of his outsmarted brother, who actually went out to hunt and then prepare food (guess he wasn’t so smart after all…)
But it is at this point that something happens in the parsha that is relatively rare in the Torah. We have emotion. I’ve said it many times before – Hebrew and the Torah especially, are short on emotions. Actions speak, emotions are ignorable. Except here. When the deception comes out, first Yitzhak trembles greatly. He knows. And then Esav, the hunter, the strong man, the heavy – he cries. He cries out, a loud bitter wailing. Have you only one blessing, he asks his father, haven’t you saved even one blessing for me? The words cut us to the bone. This is a man who has been had. Tricked. Made a fool of.
And the rabbis note this, and say, because Yaacov made Esav cry, Esav who is Edom (meaning Rome) made Yaacov (Israel) cry centuries later. And perhaps what’s happening today is a further chapter in the long-standing enmity (which, by the way, was actually eradicated in biblical times, as we will read in a couple of weeks, but a lot of someones seem to have forgotten that).
Does Yitzhak really only have one blessing to give? Rabbi David Segal points out that this is almost the case, brought about by the development of an agrarian society. When people were hunters, no one needed land. They went where the prey was, somewhere out there. Only when animals were domesticated was land needed to grow and feed them, and when a person died, the land had to go to one person – the firstborn – who would work the land to support himself. Because it probably could not support more than one. So yes, the birthright was a zero-sum game: what one person received, the other ones lost.
But Esav asks his father, “Have you only one blessing?” Maybe the land is limited, but certainly not the blessing. And Yitzhak knows that, so he does give Esav a blessing, one that speaks to him: power and wealth. That’s what Esav understands. Yaacov got land and children, which is what he needed to further Avraham’s legacy.
But with all the attention paid to Yaacov and Esav, as Israel and the other nations, I think we are missing something that is right under our noses. There is a fight between us and them, and it will be bloody with no conclusive solution in the short run, but the fight then was between brothers, and it is today too, between us and us. This seems to be a worldwide affliction. The United States government is paralyzed by internal fighting between Democrats and Republicans. One won’t help the other, out of spite. We do them one better. We have six, seven, eight parties, all in the government, all wanting to rule but all of them hell bent on making sure the others don’t get anything.
This, I fear, is what will hurt us more than the Arabs. Our Prime Minister comes out with statements to appease his electorate but with no real action behind them – except to alienate other parts of the population, not to mention the world. We can’t pass a budget because that would be giving in to one party. We can’t clean up the health system because that would be giving in to another party. We can’t fix the railroads because the workers won’t let us. Should we laugh or cry?
So perhaps the message about Yaacov and Esav is only not about us and the Arabs but about us and us. It’s time for us to get our act together and think about OUR future. How will we do it? I don’t know. Everyone in the government says he is acting in the best interests of the country. So they say. What is certain is that what we are doing now, to ourselves, is potentially more dangerous to our health and future than our enemies. It’s time to remember that Yaacov and Esav eventually arranged a reconciliation and lived in peace with one another. And it only took them 21 years. If they could, we can. Yes we can.