Torah | Jacob and Esau: A lesson in what not to do if we seek peace

Toldot

Genesis 25:19-28:9

Malachi 1:1-2:7

Before the birth of my second child, someone recommended that I read “Siblings Without Rivalry.” When some hear this book title, they ask, “Is it really possible?” But my reaction was: “Surely it is too soon for me to be reading this book — my second child is not even born yet! How could my incredible first child even have a slight inkling of sibling rivalry?”

Thankfully, my reaction did not keep me from reading this book. I was so grateful that I did, because I learned that sibling rivalry can truly begin in the womb, with an older sibling already on the family scene. In this week’s Torah portion, we see that sibling rivalry does indeed begin in the womb with twins. If the title of this book, “Siblings Without Rivalry,” is apt for what we try to achieve in our families, then surely this week’s parashah could be titled “Siblings With Rivalry” as well.

We learn that our matriarch Rebecca, feeling the twins struggling in her womb, is told by God: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”

We know that this model of sibling rivalry is not at all what we want to emulate. The way this plays out tragically in the lives of Jacob and Esau is not what we want for our families. And for those of us who have never had sibling relationships, or who have felt the loss of these relationships, we play these real tensions out in our relationships with friends, family members of our spouses and even with our co-workers. Sibling rivalry influences other relationships in our lives. And, when left unchecked, it causes pain and hurt.

Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar, the 18th-century Spanish commentator known as the Or Hachayim, tells us that the meaning of the “one people shall be mightier than the other” is that not only will these nations be separate, but that both will derive strength from the defeat of the other. There is no hope that they will live together in harmony.

Here, Or Hachayim takes sibling rivalry to another level. Not only do we have people who want to position themselves above one another, but they will actually delight in the downfall of the other. One will stand on the back of the other to build a great nation. One will oppress the other to bolster his or her own greatness. Unfortunately, we need not look very far in our world to see this type of behavior playing out on a daily basis.

At the annual Passover seder, we recall the terrible plagues that afflicted the Egyptians. We remove drops of wine from our cups, to indicate that our joy of being freed from Egypt, symbolized by the wine, is diminished by the loss of life that our redemption involved. This symbolic act can help to guard us against craving the kind of dominion that Or Hachayim warned us against. Our greatness and our achievements must not be seen only in relation to the failure of others. We are charged with a better vision: to uplift and rejoice in the other, to respect and to care.

Perhaps this is why “Siblings Without Rivalry” is prefaced with beautiful words from the book of Psalms: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in harmony” — “Hinei mah tov umanaim, shevet achim gam yachad.”

In Jewish tradition, these words are not restricted to sibling relationships only. In fact, we sing these words in Hebrew at communal gatherings, around the campfire. These biblical words embody for us a peaceful world in which all of our relationships are built upon a familial model without rivalry, without dysfunctional, needless jealousy.

The quintessential Jewish value betzelem Elohim, the idea that we are all made in God’s image, is front and center in the words from the Psalms. When we treat each other as if we were all created in God’s image, there is no room for dominion based on the oppression of others. Just say no. Say no to a world in which this oppression exists and say yes to a vision of something greater — a world in which “brothers and sisters dwell together.” Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Susan Leider
is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.