Rehabilitating The Demon Child

“Dad always liked you more than me.”
“Yeah? Well, mom always liked you better than dad liked me more.”

If only lines like these were merely the stuff of comedy shows and satires about the pitfalls of families. Perhaps as early as the book of Genesis, people have looked into the cavernous mouth of sibling rivalry and parental favoritism, seeking to comprehend what propels family members into inflicting such unspeakable pain upon one another at times. The story of the rival twins, Jacob and Esau, for instance, operates on the premise that the competition between these two boys is part of a larger divine plan, in which God overturns the conventional rules about the power of first born sons in ancient near eastern families. Jacob’s experience as the younger twin who defeats his impulsive older brother leads to his Israelite descendants’ growth as a mighty nation surrounded by hostile family member nations, yet nonetheless blessed by God.

However, this is only part of the story. Jacob’s mother, Rebecca may be acting according to divine plan when she and her favored son deceive their husband and father, Isaac and steal the birthright from their son and brother, Esau. Yet the Torah makes clear that Jacob pays dearly for his deceitfulness for the rest of his life. Further, for all of his violent tendencies and rhetoric, Esau is portrayed by the Torah as a victim of his mother’s favoritism and his brother’s lies. God’s larger plan does not preclude Jacob’s supreme obligation to act with moral decency toward his family, an obligation at which he fails.

Later midrashic interpretations of Esau and Jacob’s story nonetheless turn it on its head by transforming Esau into an unrepentantly evil man whose brother was fully justified in acting badly toward him. A well known midrash even places the evil Esau at the mouth of the Machpelah cave, attempting to block his poor dead brother from being buried there, only to be beheaded by one of Jacob’s grandsons, thus bringing him to a well deserved death. These interpretations reflect our ancestors’ justifiable hatred of the Roman empire and of early Christianity which they associated symbolically with Esau and his descendants, the Edomites. Given the Bible’s portrayals of the Edomites as wicked enemies of the Jewish people, we should not be surprised that the rabbis of the Talmud would use Edom’s founder as the demonic paradigm for the occupiers and antagonists who persecuted them.

While historically, this paradigm might have been useful to our people in dealing with powerlessness and victimization, it has its limits when we search our sacred texts for wisdom about everyday life in families. As a congregational rabbi, I have witnessed how families consumed by rivalries, favoritism, pride and spite spin multigenerational narratives that demonize individuals and whole family factions. The results are heartbreaking and tragically unnecessary. Is there nothing in Jewish tradition that allows us to rehabilitate Esau as a family member, which can thus offer us a competing paradigm of wisdom for our own families?

In fact, there is. Given the profound antipathy of Jewish sources toward Esau and his offspring, the prohibition against abhorring Edomites and Egyptians found in the book of Deuteronomy is stunning:

“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were an alien in his land (Deuteronomy 23:8).”

The larger context of this prohibition is a series of rules about who may or may not receive membership in the Israelite community. Likely, this is one reason why early rabbinic commentators understood that the verse prohibits denying people from these backgrounds the opportunity to convert to Judaism. A broader, plain sense reading of this verse is that it prohibits discrimination against Edomites and Egyptians under any circumstances. We must control our impulse to hate Edomites, despite our deep seated mutual animus, precisely because they are our brothers. We come from the same family, and familial obligation trumps bad blood between family members. This is reinforced by the second prohibition against our abhorrence of Egyptians. At first blush, the prohibition makes no sense, for our sojourn in Egypt involved not hospitality but persecution. Further, we have no familial obligation to the Egyptians, so why not abhor them for how they treated us in the past? Precisely because the Egyptians’ ancestors demonized and enslaved us, we are obligated to resist the impulse to demonize their descendants when the tables are turned and we hold all the cards of power. If we are mandated to check our most vengeful impulses against those outside our families, how much more are we mandated to check those impulses when dealing with our brothers and sisters and their descendants.

The Bible and its rabbinic interpreters thus bring Esau and his Edomites back into the family, as it were, howbeit warily. These narratives and laws are really mirrors we try to hold up to ourselves. The hardest thing to do is find the courage to look into those mirrors by asking ourselves the questions with which these sacred texts leave us. Is there or should there ever be an emotional point of no return with family? How elastic should our capacity to forgive and reconcile be? Are the ones we call Esau really deserving of that damning label? How/can Jacob and Esau grow new flesh over the old scars, and begin again?

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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