A parshah of brotherly love… though it seems not, as the case may be.
Difficult sibling relationships permeate Parshat Vayishlach. Most prominently, of course, is that of Jacob and Esau, and the parshah ostensibly revolves around them, their reunion, and their respective places in the Genesis narrative. But Jacob and Esau are not alone in pushing past the limits of conventional assumptions of (and desires for) “the good family life.” If anything, the brotherly love reflected in the biblical text suggests anything but.
To gain a more penetrating understanding of the brothers, let us turn back to the prototype: Cain and Abel, the first biblical brothers. Much of the time, Cain and Abel are set in opposition to each other. Indeed, the text itself sets them in opposition to each other when Cain rises up against his brother. But before that, we are given to note their similarities, and, in so doing, their relationship.
Cain and Abel both offer from the fruits of their labors. Much attention is given to the fact that Abel sacrifices from the first of his flocks, whereas Cain only brings “from the fruit of the soil.” We learn how to approach God from the fact that God pays no attention to Cain’s offering, while He does accept Abel’s gift. But let us note that Cain is the first in the biblical text to make an offering to God and that he brings his gift from the sweat of his brow. From the nature of the Garden of Eden and the divine preference for Abel’s sacrifice, we may suppose that agriculture is not the preferred line of work — indeed, centuries of working the land have taken an exceedingly hard toll on the environment. That is not to say, however, that the biblical text portrays Cain’s impulse to give of his efforts as any less sincere than that of Abel. At some level, therefore, Cain deserves our sympathy, or at least our compassion. His gift is rejected, and by none lesser than God Himself.
Moreover, if we may assume that Cain knew that Abel’s gift was accepted, then we are left with the symptoms of a powerful sibling rivalry. Small wonder that the Midrash fills in the narrative of the brothers’ “words” in the field with the basics of profound enmity, and not a foolish misunderstanding. That is, Bereishit Rabbah offers three possibilities for the words between Cain and Abel that result in Abel’s death: the division of property (territory), the placement of the Temple (religion), or the heart of a particular woman (a “crime of passion”). Indeed, these three matters of strife are largely responsible for all the wars of history.
Isaac’s preference for Esau mirrors the divine appreciation of Abel. In the latter case, however, the hero of the biblical text is Jacob. Nonetheless, the parental preferences, explicit in the Torah, clearly set these brothers in opposition to each other…as does the contested blessing itself (“heveih gevir le-ahekha” — be master over your brothers), and of course, the prophecy regarding the twins even before their birth (“ve-rav ya’avod tza’ir” — and the older will serve the younger). It would seem that brothers are not supposed to get along.
But the thrust of the parshah’s opening is the hope that bygones can be bygones — and the overwhelming fear that they cannot. Thus, the gift-bearing messengers notifying Esau of Jacob’s homecoming — an attempt at reconciliation. Of course, to call these two “estranged” is to be generous. Last they saw each other (as far as the biblical text reveals, that is), Esau was intent on taking Jacob’s life. And while Esau’s inclination to violence here is surely unnerving in the same way that Cain’s violent act is disturbing, it is, perhaps, understandable.
After all, Jacob has conspired to acquire their father’s blessing for himself — and the fact that the conspiracy is as much against the father as it is against the son is lost to Esau’s angst and rage. A side-point, but let us note the irony of Jacob’s blessing: he does not enjoy its fruits. He is blessed with the best of the land, but he flees the land. When he returns, he cannot relax — his own favorite son has been torn asunder. And even in the wake of that most famous of brotherly reunions (see Parshat Vayigash), Jacob spends his golden years in Egypt to avoid the famine that was then in his land.
Perhaps Jacob’s struggle with the “man” (“ish”) before he crosses the river to remain on its far side reflects the expectation of violence. When Rashi quotes Bereishit Rabbah to tell us, briefly, that this combatant is the “sar shel Esav” — the guardian angel of the nation that comes from Esau, we do not flinch. That Jacob should encounter one with whom he wrestles all night — that is a strange story, and made stranger by the casual way it is introduced in the text. But that the stranger should be a representative of Esau — now, that makes sense. Once the brothers (so to speak) have wrestled through the night, once Jacob is undeterred, the narrative can continue. Esau is ready to be appeased. The subsequent passages make it clear that Jacob and Esau do not emerge from the encounter as best friends. The Torah is not a B-movie, and it does not require that we suspend our disbelief. But they are able to continue as brethren, peaceably.
We might think that this theme of fraternal involvement would have run its course once Jacob and Esau part ways, or perhaps when they bury their father together. Indeed, the chapter of Jacob and Esau closes with the genealogy of Esau, at the end of the parshah. The Torah gives a final nod of recognition to the descendants of Abraham, and then shifts focus to the 12 sons of Jacob — the Bnei Yisrael, sons of Israel, if you will. But the entire parshah and our notion of brotherly love is further informed by the disturbing filial responsibility taken by Shimon and Levi. “Ha-ke-zonah ya’aseh et ahoteinu?!?” they ask. “Would you have us leave our sister as a whore?” The implication of their rhetorical question is that slaughtering the men who (perhaps surprisingly) have carried out their promise of circumcision was not only reasonable but unquestionably necessary. Their sister’s honor demanded it. Jacob does not respond to their passion until he blesses them at the end of his life, yet even then, he appears to remain unconvinced. And though their violence is not directed against the immediate family, but on its behalf, Jacob recognizes the potentially far-reaching consequences of their impulse to action. He should; he has fled from Esau’s reprisal for much of his life.
According to Aesop, familiarity breeds contempt. The biblical brothers (siblings) argue against this notion. If anything, familiarity seems to breed passion. Rambam suggests this point in the Moreh Nevukhim (Guide of the Perplexed), when he maintains that the isurei arayot (laws of the prohibited illicit relationships) are necessary — specifically, the prohibition against siblings playing spouses. Perhaps contrary to modern sensibilities, Rambam’s point is that siblings are not naturally averse to one another, but drawn to one another. Mark Twain, in his Notebooks, takes Aesop’s proverb and turns it on its head, implicitly recognizing the truth of Rambam’s explanation: “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.” The truth of brotherly love is the passion therein. Just as the brothers band together with pride, they turn against each other with fury.
And, of course, the site of the future building of Temple is known as the “field of brotherly love.” The famous story that depicts the generosity of a bachelor for his family-man brother, and of the brother for him, however, may blind us to the more profound relationship among siblings. For while King Solomon’s selection of the field where the two generous brothers met in the middle of the night as the site of the Temple is well-known, the source of that knowledge is a 19th-century work, Voyage en Orient, by Alphonse de Lamertine (1875) — and his source may have been an Arabic translation of Indian literature. Not a Jewish source, that is.
The gentle point of sharing is made well to children, but let us recognize that sibling relationships are often far more complicated than this sweet depiction. The biblical brothers present a more disturbing image of brotherhood, perhaps, but oh, how the bond among siblings is intense. Moreover, it arouses passion. The assumption that the Temple is built upon “brotherly love” is therefore appropriate, though its authentic origins lie with the binding of Isaac, for it is with that passion that we turn to the Divine.