Like most siblings, Esau and Jacob fought. Unlike most siblings, and unfortunately for their poor mother, their struggle began in utero. From the very beginning, these twins were very different from one another. Practically opposites. Esau emerged red and hirsute; Jacob was fair and smooth. Esau was outdoorsy, fond of hunting; Jacob was a homebody. As the Torah tells us, Isaac makes the age-old parental error of seeming to favor one son more than the other. And Rivka responds by showering her affection on the less-loved child.
The result? In interpreting God’s ambiguous statement to her regarding the fate of her offspring (one shall rule over the other, but truly it isn’t clear which!) she decides that Jacob, and not the older-by-minutes Esau, is more worthy of their father’s blessing. Rivka enables the deception of her blind husband, aiding and abetting Jacob in its theft. Isaac is flustered and remorseful; Esau is bereft, and then furious- mad enough to threaten Jacob’s life.
Yet as Dr. Norman J. Cohen observes, these twins are two halves of one whole. Each of them goes through life needing what the other one has. How deeply wise is Torah, to acknowledge the complexity inherent in all sibling relationships!
On a recent Sunday, I was again privileged to participate in the annual Global Day of Oneness interfaith dialogue sponsored by the lay-led Bakersfield Interfaith Group. Our theme this year was racism and prejudice as addressed by the wisdom of our various spiritual traditions. As I reflected on the message of the Oneness of all creatures and creation expressed by all the speakers at our gathering: Hindu, Baha’i, Sikh, Muslim, Christian, Science of the Mind, Native American and Jewish – the lesson of our interconnectedness was reaffirmed for me. Truly, we are all siblings – all children of the Divine, all members of the family tree rooted in the Garden of Eden.
No wonder human relations are so fraught! No wonder there is so much grasping and greediness, as if life’s blessings were so limited that each of us fears we won’t get our share.
Imagine my delight when the Hindu speaker retold a tale of heaven and hell which I have told often myself, having long associated it with rabbinic teaching. In this vision of hell, the guests are seated around a fine and lavishly-set table: snow-white linens, sparkling crystal, gleaming silverware. Plates heaped high with every imaginable delicacy. Decanters full of fabulous wine. The only trouble is, everyone’s elbows are locked. No one can feed themselves. The table quickly becomes a wasteland, the desperate and hungry diners swatting one another as they reach for dishes of food, and plunging their faces into whatever comes within reach.
In heaven, the scene is precisely the same: clean white linens, gleaming cutlery, sparking crystal, the same generous serving dishes heaped high with delectables. Even the diners’ arms are again locked straight at the elbows. But in this high and holy place, the diners reach across the table to feed one another.
At the end of their story, after many years and much fear as they faced their reunion, Jacob and Esau managed to embrace and forgive one another.
If we were so to regard each person, not as a stranger, but as a member of our own family – our large, unruly, complicated and yes, sometimes disagreeable relatives – could we not find it within our power to feed one another instead of fighting, to embrace and forgive each other’s foibles?
May the lights of Hanukkah illumine all that we share in common with our fellow human beings, and inspire us to change the world through acts of kindness, respect, and love.
Chag Sameyach from my family to you and yours,
Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein