Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Toldot 5776

Cantor Gershon Silins
13th November 2015

 

“Just as Isaac finished blessing Jacob … his brother Esau came in from his hunt. He too made tasty dishes that he brought to his father and he said to his father, “Let my father get ready to eat of his son’s game, so that you can give me your heartfelt blessing.” But his father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” So he replied, “I am your son, your first-born, Esau!” Isaac now began to shudder – a shuddering exceedingly great – and he said, “Who then hunted game and brought it to me and I ate of it all before you came? I blessed him – and blessed he will remain!” When Esau heard his father’s words, he broke into an exceedingly loud and bitter howl and said to his father, “Bless me! Me too, Father!” But he said, “Your brother came with deceit and took away your blessing!”

Esau’s loud and bitter cry echoes through the ages. The Torah itself clearly presents and names the deceit that leads to it, but does not comment on Isaac’s refusal to ameliorate it. The text assumes that the blessing, once given, is irrevocable, and not even Esau thinks it can be rescinded and given to him, the real first-born son, a terrible betrayal.

The story is predicated on the fitness of Jacob, not Esau, to receive the blessing of the first-born. Jacob’s character is refined, and he exhibits none of the rebelliousness and crassness of Esau. Even if Isaac himself does not realize that Jacob is the right one to inherit, Rebecca does, and takes a daring step to bring it about. But it is inevitable that there would be consequences to doing this; this inheritance is a zero-sum game, and for Jacob’s destiny to be fulfilled, Esau must be betrayed. The immediate consequence of this betrayal is the enmity between the brothers, which forces Jacob to leave home. Subsequently, Jacob himself will be subject to multiple betrayals, which our Sages saw as a retribution for his own act. The two brothers become reconciled, but only after Jacob wrestles with the angel and, perhaps, his own guilt, and is given a new name to replace the one which symbolized so clearly the supplanting of his brother. But reconciliation does not rewrite the past, it can only acknowledge it. And the past has power over the future, as it does here.

Our Sages saw a parallel text in the book of Esther, when Mordecai “cried with a loud and bitter cry” when he heard of the edict to exterminate the Jews, who were, in that story, ultimately granted relief. If we hope for justice when we cry out, we must take note also of the tears shed by Esau; he may be wicked or simple, but he can still suffer pain and humiliation, and he, too, deserves to be heard. In a speech in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” We, too, must ultimately wrestle with the reality of what we do and the consequences of our deeds. These deeds may be on the scale of the interpersonal, but they may equally be in the realm of the political and social. In any or all of these arenas, we may believe that we are right and have made the best and only decision we could have made, but so do those who stand against us, and even if the consequences of a decision cannot be annulled, we can nonetheless begin by allowing a scintilla of doubt to enlighten our certainties. That doubt and self-examination about the righteousness of our positions is the light that might allow us to see a vision of that moral arc and where it might lead.