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Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 2 Kislev 5776, 14 November 2015
It’s so reassuring to have a clear-cut point of view that answers any question and colors any person or event in the appropriate hues so that we know where we stand in relation to it. In today’s parsha, Yaacov is the good guy and Esau is the villain, the nogoodnik who deserves what he doesn’t get, the birthright, and then has the chutzpa to want to kill his twin brother who usurped it.
Let me state from the outset that I do not wish to make of Esau a guy in whom, in the immortal words of Stephen Sondheim’s “Gee, Officer Krupke“: “There is good, there is good, there is untapped good, like inside the worst of us is good.” I won’t go that far, but I take exception to the blanket condemnation and vilification of a person who, after all, was the son of Yitzhak and Rivka. There’s got to be some good in him, just as there was in Ishmael, Avraham’s son.
There is precious little in the Torah itself explaining Esau’s actions or enumerating his alleged offenses. If anything, he honors his father and mother, except perhaps in terms of whom he marries, and he has issues with his brother, but that is par for any family.
It is the midrash (rabbinical allegories) that paints Esau as evil. The rabbis concocted this story, that the day Esau came home tired and sold his birthright for a bowl of lentils was the same day that Avraham died; that he venerated Avraham and thought he was immortal. But when Avraham died his illusion evaporated and in grief he went out and killed a man, raped a woman and then returned home tired and famished. I don’t see that anywhere in the parsha.
We can ask why Yitzhak felt closer to Esau than to Yaakov, and get out the penny-psychology books to provide explanations from today to tomorrow: Esau embodied the traits that Yitzhak lacked, Esau was more fun to be around than tent-oriented Yaakov (Yitzhak didn’t want to learn how to clean a tent or bake a cake), Esau reminded Yitzhak of his half-brother Ishmael with whom Yitzhak had developed good relations, Yitzhak did not want to have the same thing happen to Esau that happened to Ishmael – he was banned from the house by Sarah and Avraham. One commentary noted that Esau had an important quality for ensuring the survival of the Hebrews: strength and a willingness to use it. In general, you can’t expect to survive if all you have is a guy sitting around in a tent. But I think Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had the most lucid answer to the question of why Yitzhak loved Esau: because Esau was his child, and loving your child is what a parent does, no matter what.
But there is another approach to the whole question of Esau, which is presented by Rabbi Harold L. Robinson. Yaacov and Esau are twins. According to the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, we all seek to integrate our many sides into one coherent whole, what Jung called individualization.
And here we have two very divergent sides which together can be quite the perfect whole. On the one hand is Yaacov, a sedentary, thoughtful, clear-thinking young man who plans ahead and works toward a goal. On the other is Esau, a rash, impulsive hunter who happens to be very good at what he does. Different strokes for different folks.
Yaacov’s actions, including stealing Esau’s blessing, bring him in conflict with Esau, so that he has to flee. Once out in the world we will see (in the coming two parshot) that he is no couch potato. He is strong enough to roll a stone off a well, when it usually takes three or more men to do it. He whines, but he has the fortitude to stand up to Lavan (after being shoved around), and although he runs away, it is with victory almost in hand.
But the most telling moment comes later, in another two weeks and 20 years. Yaacov is anxious on the evening before he is to meet Esau, and he struggles physically or symbolically with an angel. He is injured, and he leaves the camp limping but he has been rewarded with a new name – Israel. Then he meets Esau, with great obeisance, but nevertheless ready to stand up to him. The integration of his second half, his own Esau, has been completed.
The message that emerges from such a reading is that we – at least as a people – need to be an integration, a combination of both Yaacov and Esau. And we are. We have been smart, calculating and proactive strategically and technologically. But we have also been strong, aggressive and proactive physically. We think ahead, in some areas, we plan and implement the tactical steps that will lead us to where we want to go, and at the same time we have our military available to ensure that our plans are not thwarted by hostile agents.
The truth is that on a personal level most of us tend towards one type or the other. True integrations of the dichotomous halves are rare. But as long as we work together, unified (no easy task these days), we have more than a fighting chance.
Some of our extremist young men have adopted the ugly side of the Esau model and we have seen the results. The tendency today seems to be towards Esau. As I said at the outset, Esau is not rotten to his bones. But if he is not kept under control, he can cause damage to himself and to all those around him.
On the other hand, the idea of enlisting Haredi men in the army can be viewed as an interesting attempt to create the desired integration between the talmid Yaacov and the hunter Esau, and it is a shame that the experiment is being shot down by the Haredi politicians at the urging of their boss rabbis. They are robbing their own pupils of the opportunity to emulate father Yaacov. Their loss, and ours too.