Toledot: On Jacob, Esau and healing brotherly rifts

Toledot

Genesis 25:19-28:9

Malachi 1:1-2:7

Once again we read the oh-so-familiar story of Jacob and Esau. But this year the story line is far more painful, the cadence filled with poignant irony.

Rebecca, long infertile, finds herself pregnant with twins. Yet she experiences the presence of twins in her womb not as a double blessing, but as a source of enormous pain. The text tells us that the babies struggled within her, causing so much pain that she cried out, "Why am I here?" It was as if she felt the boys already locked in mortal combat, threatening to literally tear her apart. God responded to her anguished cry, in barely comforting tones, telling her, "Two nations are in your womb; two separate peoples shall issue from your body" (Genesis 25:23).

We are accustomed to hearing echoes of future history in the biblical text, particularly in the mystic family narratives of Genesis. The rabbis loved to read back into these stories descriptions of peoples that the Jews would encounter and struggle with in later times. And, of course, we know how often the biblical, stories, especially the tales of Sarah and Hagar, of Isaac and Ishmael, evoke the future history of Jew and Arab, of Israeli and Palestinian.

But this week's tale is not the tale of warring cousins. The simple sense of this story is that these two are not warring nations but two brothers. This week, uncannily, the Torah brings us a story of two Israelite brothers at war with one another, locked in violent combat from their early moments of life in the womb. This is two Jews struggling with one another, perhaps, struggling to the death.

It was with good reason that the ancient rabbis read these stories as mythic foreshadowing of Israel's encounter with future enemies. Far better to see the story of Jacob and Esau as the story of Israel's relationship with Rome than to recognize that these two are brothers.

For so long, mortal combat between two Jews was utterly inconceivable to us. One Jew even contemplating an act of violence against another? It was completely unthinkable. And even when it happened, we continued to block out the memory. We always believed that fundamentally, no Jew would ever fear violence from another. Until now.

And so the story of the two warring brothers is painfully serendipitous this month, as the Jewish world inches out of deep grief, finding division and alienation and new distrust and separation among us. In one sense, it is a terrible time, perhaps, even a time when some might ask, as our foremother Rebecca did, "If so, why are we here?"

It is a time for the deepest soul-searching, the most painful questions about our people and our tradition, a time when we must thoroughly reconsider our national identity, our national purpose, our national destiny. It is a time of deep pain, presaged by the mythic Torah story.

Yet this week's text also claims that it has the answer to the conflict. First, in the original revelation to Rebecca during her pregnancy, God prophesied that "One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger" (25:23).

It seems to me that the story contains yet another hint of a resolution that is not yet visible to us, in our painful time of war between brothers and sisters. At the climax point of the story, when Esau realizes that his first-born blessing has been given to Jacob, Esau cries out in desperation, "Do you have only one blessing, Father? Bless me, too, Father!" (27:38).

Esau, described in the text and marginalized in the commentary as the hunter, the man of violence presumably devoid of spiritual or familial sensibility, utters a cry that contains a seed of real spiritual vision. Esau knows that in this family, in this culture, a father has the power to bestow but one firstborn blessing. Yet for a moment, Esau hopes for something larger than the reality that he knows, asking how it could be that there is only one blessing to be bequeathed.

Is there not enough blessing to go around? Twin brothers cannot return to the womb, and slain leaders cannot be brought back to life. But from the midst of grief and tragedy and internecine hatred, is it not possible that new blessing could emerge? Is it not possible that could be enough security for everyone, enough justice for everyone, enough grief and determination to birth a new vision of peace?

May it be so, and may we see it soon.