By Rabbi Howard Siegel
Source: Faith and Reason
In 1996, Bill Moyers, then host of the new MSNBC program Insight, convened a group of Jewish and Christian theologians, authors, poets, and philosophers to discuss the Book of Genesis in a television series called Genesis: A Living Conversation. The result was a 21st century understanding of the ancient underpinnings of monotheism, the belief in the One God.
A resource guide was written to accompany the television series. Chapter 8 is entitled: “Blessed Deception: The Story of Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob.” Regarding the relationship of this biblical family, the guide’s author writes, “Isaac, Rebekah, Esau, and Jacob-they are one of the most difficult families to understand in the whole of the Bible. Just stop for a moment and consider: Esau and Jacob are twins, but they don’t look or act like twins-or even like brothers. By the end of this part of the story, Jacob has deceived Esau, stolen both his birthright and their father’s blessing, and has fled; Esau, in turn, has sworn to find and kill Jacob. More than twenty years will pass before they see one another again.”
This particular portion of Torah is about many things, but it is all linked to the destructive nature of sibling rivalry. Like throwing a stone into a pond, there is the initial splash, but it doesn’t end there. Then comes the ripple effect. So, too, when siblings-in this case twins-are compelled to compete against one another for their parents blessings and approval, their actions of deceit and resentment affect not only them, but generations yet unborn.
Noam Zion, a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, writes: ”Just as Jacob successfully diverts the blessing for his benefit, many “descendants” of Jacob have used the story to justify their triumphalism over contemporary rivals. In ancient Israel, it was the biological children of Jacob who claimed priority of blessing and of land over Abraham’s less favored posterity-Ishmael, father of the Arabs; Lot, father of Moab and Amon; and especially Esau, father of the Edomites and Amalekites. The Jews read a thousand years of acrimonious relations with their Semitic neighbor, Edom (offspring of Esau), into the sibling rivalry of Jacob and Esau.”
Ripples from the contentious relationship of Esau and Jacob in biblical times continue in our day with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our ancient ancestors were fraternal twins with differences in physique and nature. Yet, as brothers, they still possessed the possibilities for reconciliation. These thousands of years later, amidst what often appears as insurmountable obstacles, a common brotherhood still holds out the hope for reconciliation between Israel and her Palestinian Semitic brother.
Zion concludes, “When all the biological and spiritual descendants of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar learn that the pain of our brothers and sisters cannot be taken lightly-even when we believe divine destiny is on our side-then reconciliation may become a real possibility.”
After twenty years, Jacob’s love for his brother Esau proved stronger than his fear of him. Esau’s familial bond to Jacob overcame his emotional desire for revenge. When the two met, they embraced. With courage and understanding, the ripple effect of that ancient embrace might also be felt, again, in our time.
Rabbi Howard Siegel is Director of the Jewish Information Center (JIC) of Houston. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the JIC or Interfaith Houston.