Long before there were Jews, there was a special people known as Hebrews or Israelites. Their legends are recorded in the first eleven chapters of the Book of Genesis. Some are disturbing such as the sodomy of drunken Noah by his grandson while the old man slept. Or the men of Sodom who tried to break down Lot’s door in order to bring out the male guests for homosexual relations with them. Or the tale of Lot’s two daughters, bereaved of their husbands in the catastrophe which fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah, who took turns getting their father drunk so they could have sex with him “in order to preserve life upon the earth”.
But the chapters which disturb me most are found in Parshat Toldot, Genesis 25 and 27. Jacob is a home-dweller whereas his twin brother Esau is a hunter. One day, Esau returns home from hunting in the fields and he is famished. He sees his brother Jacob cooking what appears to be a lentil porridge and he says to him “let me have some of that red stuff before I faint from hunger”.
Does Jacob, the good brother, pour out a portion for Esau to eat and to quench his hunger? No. He tells his brother he can have some of it if first he gives Jacob something for it. You want my food? What will you give me for it? Is it a question which a loving brother asks of his brother? Instead of saying “here, dear brother, have a bowl of this porridge; you must be tired and hungry after a long day of hunting”, Jacob tells Esau, the first-born twin, “First sell me your birthright”. And Esau replies, “I am almost dying from hunger; what good is the birthright to me?” Jacob responds: “swear it to me” and Esau swore to him and sold him his birthright. All for the sake of a bowl of steaming lentil porridge.
Their old father, Isaac, was close to death and wanted to give his blessing to his elder son, Esau. He asked Esau to hunt for venison and prepare a meal for him and thereafter he finished eating, he would bless his son Esau. Rebekah, the mother of the twins heard it and wanted the blessing to be given to Jacob, her favorite son. She conceives of a plan whereby Jacob would receive the blessing. She instructs him how to deceive an old and blind father lying on his death bed.
Esau is hairy and Jacob is smooth skinned. She takes the skins of two kids from the herd of goats and covers Jacob’s arms and chest, and then she prepares a meal for Jacob to serve his father. When Jacob brings the meal to Isaac, the old man is suspicious. How did my son go hunting and return so soon? He needed to be convinced. “Come and kiss me”, he said, and reached out to touch Jacob’s hands. The mother had dressed Jacob in Esau’s clothing so they had the smell of the field. Yet something still did not convince blind Jacob.
“The voice is the voice of Jacob but the hands are the hands of Esau”. He asked him “are you my son, Esau” and Jacob replied, “ani”…I am. So Isaac sat up in bed and gave his blessing to the wrong son.
When Esau, who was beloved by his father, returned with the cooked venison stew, Isaac realized that he had been deceived. And Esau knew that he had been twice cheated… first the birthright and now the paternal blessing. And in his anger, he vowed to kill Jacob after Isaac had died.
The story is an extremely painful one for me. On one hand, how can a brother deprive his brother of food when he knows how hungry he is, how can he blackmail his brother and steal what was not rightfully his? On the other hand, how can a mother conspire to deceive a blind and dying husband and convince her son to be a cheat and a thief? And how can Jacob agree to participate in the plot?
Traditional Jews may say that it was the will of God who intended the inheritance for Jacob rather than for Esau. Jews with conscience may accuse, as I do, Jacob of being a deceitful and inhumane brother and son.
Esau becomes Edom, the red one, and his ancestors the Edomites (Arabs) become sworn enemies of Jacob (Israel). Arab hatred of Jews may originate in the sad tale related in Genesis. Jacob the Hebrew is a naughty, naughty thief.
Hundreds of years pass. Jacob and his sons go down to Egypt because there was a famine in the land of Canaan. His son, the beloved Joseph, son of Rachel, is the viceroy of Egypt, second only to a pharaoh, who, after his death is succeeded by another pharaoh who is less kindly to the seed of Jacob. The Hebrews in Egypt become slaves for 430 years.
At one propitious moment in time, a leader named Moses prepares them for the exodus from Egypt and a return to their ancestral land. As they were fleeing from Egypt, Exodus 12 relates that they took from their Egyptian neighbors “jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment…. And they despoiled the Egyptians”. Rashi comments that “they emptied” the Egyptians. Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, the Rashbam, added that “they stripped the Egyptians of their richly ornamented garments”.
Again, Traditional Jews regard it as an incentive for the Hebrews to flee in haste. After the plagues brought upon them, the Egyptians were anxious to see the Hebrews leaving Egypt. And therefore, they “willingly” surrendered all of their gold, silver, jewelry and fineries.
Common sense tells me that while the Egyptians may have given some of their good possessions to the Hebrews to enhance their flight, normal people would have hidden the best of their possessions in order not to become impoverished.
The stories of Jacob and Esau, the theft and the deceit, the despoiling of their Egyptian neighbors, are not pleasant ones. They lack what centuries later became known as Jewish morality. And the enemies of the Jewish people even today describe them as thieves. Including modern Palestinians who accuse Jews of stealing land for which the Jews paid over and above the asking price.
When the Cave of Machpela was offered to Abraham as a burial place for Sarah by Ephron the Hittite, Abraham refused it as a free gift and insisted upon weighing out the money at full value. Four hundred shekels of silver.
The land of Eretz Yisrael was purchased by the Jewish National Fund and became the inheritance and property of the Jewish people through hard labor and the sweat of the brow.
The once-upon-a-time naughty, naughty Hebrews became a moral, ethical example to the world. Today they are called Am Yisrael… the Jewish people, the people of Israel.