We Have Met the Esau…

And he is us.

As I was studying this week’s Torah portion with a friend of mine, our conversation wandered to that most revealing of all Torah commentaries, the original series of Star Trek.  In one of the classic episodes, “The Enemy Within,” which was broadcast during the 1966 series of the show, a transporter malfunction causes Captain Kirk to return to the Enterprise split into two personalities, his “good” side and his “evil” side.  The moral message of the episode is pretty truistic stuff: that both sides of Kirk, like both such sides of ourselves, have to be integrated to make him truly whole, is a very important idea, yet it is hardly original.

We drifted off into this bit of “Star Trek Torah” because of a teaching we found in the Hasidic Torah commentary, Netivot Shalom, written by the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Beresovsky.  Rabbi Beresovsky deals with this same theme of personality integration in this week’s Torah portion, Toledot, specifically the brief segment about Rebecca’s existential turmoil which is brought on by her painful, turbulent pregnancy:  (Genesis 25:22-23)

But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?”  She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her:

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.

Rebecca is suffering so much pain and discomfort that she begins to question the value of being alive.  The classic comment on this biblical scene comes from our teacher Rashi, who explains that Rebecca’s pain was the result of her twins, Jacob and Esau, struggling to leave her womb when she would pass by the places for which each boy was predestined.  When she would walk near a house of idol worship, Esau, the evil first born twin, would kick her fiercely, out of his desire to worship idols.  When she would walk near a house of Torah study, Jacob, the good second-born twin, would kick her fiercely, out of his desire to learn God’s Torah.  Both boys would also fight one another over who would inherit the riches of this life and the next life.  Rebecca had no idea this was the meaning of her suffering, so she despaired that she had ever prayed to God for children.  Rashi’s imaginative comment emphasizes the ways in which Jacob and Esau were viewed over many centuries as the paradigms for the Jewish people and our enemies, specifically the Christian world.  We children of Jacob might be oppressed and persecuted, but we worship the one true God and God’s Torah.  The children of Esau might be more powerful and numerous, but they are spiritually corrupt idolaters whom God hates.

Netivot Shalom removes Rebecca, Esau and Jacob from the realm of mortal fraternal conflict and transforms them into symbols for our inner struggles with yetzer ha-ra and  yetzer tov, our warring evil and good impulses.  Rebecca’s ordeal becomes a physical manifestation of her inner turmoil, which is the result of her “Jacob impulse” and her “Esau impulse” fighting with each other.  They are also warring within each of us whenever we are forced to choose between our better selves and our baser instincts.  In Netivot Shalom’s symbolic reworking of the story, every human being is like Rebecca, daily giving birth to these two “children.”  When God tells Rebecca that “the older shall serve the younger,” God is actually promising her and us that our inner Esau can be subdued and subjugated to our inner Jacob.

This is a pleasant — but also somewhat clichéd — moral reinterpretation of our early biblical narrative concerning Jacob and Esau.  Yet what I find refreshing about Netivot Shalom’s comment is his willingness to depart from more standard interpretations and to redirect the Esau-Jacob conflict inward.  He challenges us to not take the easy way out in our understanding of what that conflict has to teach us today.  Our ancestors read our battles with Christendom and later, by extension, with Islam through the lenses of the two brothers’ pre-natal battles.  According to the rabbis of ancient times, Esau symbolized the Roman Empire, and later, Christianity.

Later medieval rabbinic thinkers in Muslim societies linked Esau with Yishmael, Isaac’s brother, the founder of Arab culture, as a kind of dynamic duo of oppression.  They used these stories of Jacob, Esau, Isaac and Yishmael, to give Jewish suffering some kind of redemptive spiritual meaning, in order to reassure their fellow Jews that God was with the Jewish people, especially when we were being persecuted by Christians and Muslims.  Yet Esau as a symbol is too easily used in our times as a facile, convenient excuse to assume that anyone who is your enemy can never be anything but your enemy, forever.  This fatalistic posture allows us to ignore our own Esau dimensions, the darker parts of ourselves that we might defensively dismiss in the course of protecting ourselves from the genuine enemies who seek to destroy us.  Also, by idealizing Jacob, who was himself not always innocent throughout the story of his life, we further warp our capacity for self-criticism, resulting in a moral myopia that prevents us from looking at and taking responsibility for our own breaches of good conduct.

At the end of the Torah portion, Rebecca urges Jacob to leave their home before Esau tries to murder him. She says, “Why should I be bereaved of both of you in one day?”  Using Jacob and Esau as religious paradigms to reinforce rigid lines of us versus them makes us blind to the real people residing sometimes behind enemy lines and to the enemies sometimes residing within our own safe physical and emotional boundaries.  Won’t this kind of thinking ultimately lead us into the worst kind of bereavement possible?

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.