Batya Hefter

A tale of two brothers: Jacob and Esau

How different would the world be today if Isaac's children had supported each other and worked together? (Vayishlach)
Study for the painting, 'Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau,' by Peter Paul Rubens, 1624. (Wikipedia)
Study for the painting, 'Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau,' by Peter Paul Rubens, 1624. (Wikipedia)

Esau, the impulsive son, the coarse hunter, father of Amalek, comes to symbolize evil.  THe sages, following the tradition of the prophecies of Ovadiah and Malachi, view Esau and his descendants as the eternal, arch-enemies of Israel. Thus, the following midrash, describing Jacob’s preparations on the eve of his fateful meeting with his brother, is nothing less than astounding:

“And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids and his 11 children” (Genesis 32:22). Where then was Dinah? He put her in a box and locked her in, saying, “This wicked man has an aspiring eye; let him not take her away from me.” (Genesis Rabbah, Vayishlach76).

The midrash goes on to explain that Jacob was punished on this account because he had kept Dinah from his brother, for she might have led Esau back to the right path; because of this she later fell into the hands of Shechem! In other words, Jacob should have offered Dinah to Esau in an effort to reform him, and his not doing so resulted in a terrible tragedy for the entire family.

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, better known by his work, Sefat Emet, explains that Jacob is endowed with the capacity to draw out the good in people, transforming them and bringing them closer to God. As one who can see the light in darkness, Jacob had the potential to reveal the goodness even in Esau; however, he failed to do so, and for this he is taken to task.

Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, in his work, Ha’amek Davar, and the Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitz, in his Mei HaShiloah, point to the potential good in Esau. According to Ha’amek Davar, this spark of authentic good was apparent for a fleeting moment when Esau genuinely embraced Jacob and they both wept.

He goes on the maintain that this foreshadows a future relationship: “There are moments in history when Esau’s offspring awaken to acknowledge Israeli’s destiny. Then we, too, come to recognize Esau as our brother, just as R. Yehuda Hanasi loved Antoninus …”  In a similar vein, Mei HaShiloah says that Isaac loved Esau and desired to bless him because he understood that given Esau’s exceptional qualities — his strength and his passion — were he to have become refined, he could have been greater even than Jacob.

Drawing on this more positive view of Esau, the midrash implies that things might have turned out differently for Jacob and Esau and for all subsequent generations. It asks us to entertain an alternative possibility and to recognize that things are rarely as black and white as they seem. What could have been had Jacob succeeded in awakening Esau’s better self?  In fact, an alternate narrative does exist in the Torah.  Let us explore a more successful sibling relationship.

Like Jacob before him, Moses must flee his home to save himself. He too meets his wife by the well and resides with his father-in-law, tending his sheep. God appears to him and instructs him to return, and, on the way back, he too encounters his older brother. Exodus 4:27-28 describes their reunion: “God said to Aaron, ‘Go meet Moses in the wilderness.’  He went and met him… and he kissed him.” This echoes the scene in Genesis 33:4: “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and … he kissed him.” The overt literary parallels between the two narratives serve to highlight the significant difference between them.

Moses is the leader, chosen by God, but when God charges him with freeing the Israelites, he feels he is not up to the job. Moses is in need of a partner; someone who can help translate his words, so they can reach all the people.In Exodus 4:16, God responds that Aaron, his brother, will fill this role: “And he shall be your spokesman to the people… and he shall be to you instead of a mouth.”

Esau, redeemed by Jacob, perhaps, could have been a partner fulfilling the blessing bestowed upon him by Isaac; “And you shall serve your brother” (Genesis 27:40). Rather than perpetual rivalry, had Jacob helped Esau channel his energies towards the positive, the two could have joined together as Aaron and Moses did. Imagine the power and influence of Edom (Rome, according to the sages) enlisted in the service of God’s charge. But in order to do this, Jacob would have had to risk placing the future of his family in jeopardy, exposing them to his unrefined brother. Understandably, he chose what he thought was the more secure path, and we will never know what might have happened.

All of us at times stand at crossroads where we need to make difficult decisions for ourselves and for our families. The contrast between the two pairs of brothers reminds us that in our lives too, there is always the potential for an alternative narrative, a different way for events to play out. The intriguing midrash of Jacob and Dinah beckons us to be ever attuned so that we may consider other possibilities; to accustom ourselves, quite literally, to think out of the box.

About the Author
Batya Hefter is founder and Rosh Beit Midrash of The Women’s Beit Midrash of Efrat and Gush Etzion and the founder of the Women’s Beit Midrash of Cleveland. She holds a Masters in Rabbinic Thought from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After being the Executive Director of the Women’s Beit Midrash for 21 years, she is now the director of the newly emerging Transformative Torah Project whose focus is to transmit the teachings and spiritual path of the hasidic masters for the seeking modern Jew.
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