Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Esau - The Eternal Enemy ?

In last Shabbat's parsha (weekly Torah portion) – Vayishlach – we read about Jacob's re-meeting his estranged brother Esau after 20 years "abroad". Jacob had originally fled the Land of Israel to avoid the wrath of Esau, over Jacob's having tricked him out of their fathers blessing.

Now, as he returns home, he is full of trepidation about what Esau might do. He sends messengers (some say spies) to Esau. When they report back that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men, Jacob's trepidation turns to outright fear. He prays to God. He devises elaborate stratagems to win Esau's favour with a carefully planned succession of gifts. He divides his camp in two, lest Esau attack at night. When he finally does meet Esau, he puts the women and children at the rear, and his most favourite Rachel and Joseph dead last.

But Jacob's fears turn out to be for naught. Esau runs toward him, hugs him, kisses him, and weeps. Esau initially declines the gifts Jacob has offered saying "I have enough; my brother." - Not a sign of anger or jealousy. – Esau offers to travel together with Jacob to his home in Mt. Seir. But Jacob begs off, promising to come to Mt Seir as soon as he can. Esau offers to leave some of his men with Jacob's party, to protect them and help them in their journey. Jacob begs off again saying: "There is no need". Finally, Esau departs, fully expecting Jacob to meet him in Seir in a few weeks. But Jacob has no intention of doing that. Instead, he settles down in Sukkoth, we are told.

This is the "pshat" - the simple story. In it Jacob appears to be a paranoid. Someone who simply cannot take "Yes" for an answer. He assumes, that because he had cheated his brother, that his brother would be forever angry with him. Even when his brother acts toward him in a perfectly brotherly way, saying in effect "let bygones be bygones, offering to travel and live together with Jacob, Jacob acts as if its all a trick. He avoids Esau like the plague. He treats him like the enemy. He can't accept that Esau might ever get over the harm Jacob did him. He assumes nothing can change, and that Esau must remain his eternal enemy.

In the Rabbinic imagination – the midrash – Esau, of course really IS evil. It all really IS a trick. What's more, Esau morphs into the eternal powerful Other – associated first with Rome and later the Catholic Church – cruel, powerful, eternal enemies of the children of Jacob. Thus Jacob was right to worry and scheme and to avoid Esau's faux offer of partnership.

But there is one Midrash that bucks this interpretation.

Genesis 32:23 tells us "[Jacob] rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and passed over the ford of the Jabbok." – Eleven children? the rabbis ask. But at this point Jacob had twelve children: eleven sons and his daughter, Dina (Benjamin had not yet been born.)

Rather, according to this midrash, Jacob had hidden Dina in a large box, lest Esau be struck by her beauty and wish to take up with her (this was before uncle/niece relations were considered incest.) Thus, though Jacob had offered Esau many gifts, he denied to his brother what he truly valued.

Had Jacob allowed Esau to meet Dina, says the midrash, they would have indeed married, and her good ways would have softened and redeemed the evil Esau. Thus all the evils that befell Israel at the hands of the Roman's would have been avoided. But Jacob was consumed by his own fear, and by his possessiveness for Dina. And this fear and possessiveness has been the cause of so much Jewish suffering over the years.

And on a the personal level too, it was a tragedy for Dina, Jacob, and all their family. The next story in the Bible, is that of the rape of Dina at the hands of Chamor of Schem, and the ensuing slaughter of Schemites by Jacob's sons, an act that make the clan of Jacob unwelcome with the surrounding peoples. The midrash explicitly attributes all this as the punishment for Jacob's hiding of Dina from Esau.

I like this midrash very much. How much courage and faith it must have taken in the midst of the Roman oppression for one brave rabbi to say, perhaps our fear and cynicism are not always justified, perhaps sometimes one needs to test the "evil reality" to see if it might change, perhaps sometimes, by being optimistic and generous, we might indeed change our fearful reality into something better. If only we can see the opportunities, overcome our fears, and act bravely and smartly. Or, we can continue acting fearfully – as did Jacob - and assure our fears become self fulfilling.

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