D’var Torah: Parshat Vayeshev – Esau Wasn’t Bad and The World Isn’t Black and White

I grew up learning that Esau = bad and Jacob = good. The Torah said so. Esau was violent, sold his birthright for a pot of porridge, vowed to kill Jacob and bit into his neck upon meeting him years later. Jacob was studious, hardworking, and wrestled with the angels. The only problem with this narrative is that this description of Esau is either not actually in the Torah or has a lot more context. The rabbis, adding their midrash (stories of explanation), choose to vilify Esau and exonerate Jacob of any wrong doing. They did this because, I believe, they were uncomfortable that Jacob stole the birthright and wanted to justify it. In this particular case, I think the rabbis are doing us a disservice by painting in black and white where the Torah actually speaks in full color. This has become a big issue in our society. We like to feel really good about what we believe or do, and want to absolutely claim people who do or think differently, are totally wrong. The truth is that most everything is way more complicated than that, and we would be better served recognizing that it is better to give others the benefit of the doubt and keep in dialogue with each other, than hate those we disagree with.

If you just read the Torah account, Esau comes across as a pretty good guy. Yes, he did vow to kill Jacob immediately after finding out that Jacob stole his birthright. But, he never did it.  In fact, Esau met Jacob on his return with tears, kisses and the offer of help. When the possessions of the brothers proved to be too much for the land they shared, it was Esau who moved away. Esau was also known for greatly respecting his father, hunting for game that he loved, and even married a woman because his father disapproved of his Cannanite wives.

Jacob, although possessing many great traits, also withheld food from his famished brother to buy his birthright, and also practiced gross fraud to steal the blessing from Esau. Jacob also played favorites amongst his sons and wives, which caused incredible pain and the near murder of Joseph. In actuality, if you read the whole story, I do think that Jacob grew a lot and became a much better man throughout his life, and probably merited to be the patriarch over Esau. It is precisely that he was imperfect and grew that makes him a great role model for us, who also are all imperfect.

This brings us back to the rabbis who felt the need to destroy any ounce of goodness from Esau’s reputation, and apologize for each and every one of Jacob’s shortcomings. I believe they did this because they were very uncomfortable that we Jews became the people we are only after Jacob stole the birthright. The rabbis also mostly wrote at times when Jews were powerless and persecuted. I think that a better argument that Jacob deserved to be Israel is that he merited it, and that birth order should have no standing in how blessings are bestowed. The Torah leaves the story with both brothers being very successful. As Jacob’s descendants, we can feel good about ourselves because we built on Jacob’s legacy, and after brutal slavery, accepted the Torah and built a belief system that values every single person. I just think we should have a soft spot in our hearts for Esau too. He wasn’t perfect, but he was very loyal to his father and generously forgave Jacob. His destiny was just on a different mountain. We don’t have to make one brother better than he is nor one brother worse than he is just to feel better about how things turned out. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah.