In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, we read about the birth and beginnings of Jacob and Esau. Many of us know the story. Jacob and Esau were twins. When their mother, Rebekah, was pregnant, she received a prophecy from God that the two boys would become heads of nations, and the older would serve the younger. Esau was born first, followed by Jacob, who clutched onto his older brother’s heel.
They grew up to be very different. Esau was the outdoorsy type, enjoying hunting in the field. Jacob, on the other hand, tended to stay close to camp. Jacob became their mother’s favorite, and Esau their father’s.
There are two specifically defining moments in their relationship. Once, when Esau came in from the field, he was starving. Jacob was making food, and Esau sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of lentils. Later, when their elderly father, Isaac, instructed Esau to bring him a special meal after which he would give Esau his blessing, Rebekah tricked Isaac into blessing Jacob instead by dressing him up as Esau.
It seems Esau got short shrift more than once. We know the prophecy foretold that Jacob was to rule above his brother, but did it have to be through manipulation and trickery? Did Esau do anything to deserve this kind of treatment from his family members?
Most of the time, Jewish tradition answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Tradition explains that he was an idolator (Bereshit Rabbah 63:6), one who followed the path of death (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezar chapter 31), and his evil was the cause of Isaac’s blindness (BT Megillah 28a). Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites and the Amalekites, enemy tribes of the Israelites. As the ancestor of the enemy, he, too, was the enemy. The rabbis go so far as to say that Esau is also the ancestor of the Romans, thus definitively equating Esau with those who sought the destruction of Judaism altogether.
But if we look at the story literally, do we really see such evil? And if not, why has Esau become so wicked in Jewish tradition?
Because, of course, we are biased. We are descendants of Jacob, not Esau. So we adopt Jacob’s perspective and champion his actions. We see ourselves in Jacob; thus, Jacob is the hero.
Seeing Jacob as the hero of this story can be tough, though. Jacob manipulated his brother, and then stole from him by deceiving their father and exploiting his age and disability. Who wants to see our forebear, the man for whom our people is named, as someone who would be so cruel to his closest family members? Perhaps, to justify his bad behavior, we conclude that Esau must have deserved it.
Maybe Esau’s villainy, then, is not about Esau as much as it is about Jacob. If Esau is the embodiment of evil itself, then Jacob had to do everything he could to prevail, even act in ways that would be considered negative in a different context. This story of difficult family relationships becomes a story of us versus them, the ultimate struggle between the forces of good and evil. Making Esau evil enables us to make Jacob good.
Now, that is not to say that Esau was perfect or that the story should have ended differently. Rather, it is crucial to recognize the complexity of the story and the characters. Rarely does the world exist in black and white, good and evil. Believing that Esau is all bad and Jacob all good is a means of pretending that it does. And when we do that, we run the risk of excusing bad behavior and ignoring injustices.
As Jacob’s descendants, we have to recognize that Jacob sometimes acted inappropriately. If we don’t, we run the risk of missing the negative impact of similar actions in our own contexts and in our own lives. Looking at this story more honestly enables us to look more honestly at ourselves.
It is a natural urge to justify our actions by vilifying someone else. Let us not create the evil Esau just so we can think of ourselves as the righteous Jacob. Understanding and owning our deeper complexity, our positive and negative deeds and traits, will enable us to actually become more righteous in the end.
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin is a rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.