As we read parashat Toledot this week, the parasha that tells the story of Jacob and Esau’s sibling rivalry issues, what R. Jonathan Sacks calls Jacob’s “mimetic desire” to BE his older brother, to HAVE what his brother had, we read with great sadness of the ongoing violence in Israel. Continual rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel, with too little time to run to the bomb shelter, with the hope that the rockets would miss again. And now the violence on both sides keeps escalating.
And we read of Israel fighting back with assassination of the leader responsible for most rocket attacks, as well as the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, which also resulted in the “collateral damage” deaths of an infant and 7 year old. And then we read that it was that same kidnapper who made sure that Gilad Shalit stayed alive, recognizing that this was his life insurance policy.
R. Sacks noted that he believes that sibling rivalry, this mimetic desire, is the source of violence in our world. The rabbis of the Mishnah tell us, “The sword comes into the world because of the suppression of justice and the perversion of justice, and those who misinterpret the Torah.” (Pirke Avot 5:11) Our sages were not excusing violence; after all they had seen what happened to Jewish life and culture with the destruction of the Second Temple, at Masada and finally at the end of the Bar Kochba revolt. They saw violence as a curse. Their teachings were focused on directing their people to resist the impulse to do evil. Yet they understood that in the real world, we are all so often victims first, perpetrators later, because we learned hatred, we learned fear, we learned how our family thinks the world works.
Reading the sections of Toledot that involve the interactions of Isaac and Rebekah, and their twin sons Esau and Jacob, we see a family in which favoritism and indirect communication and deceit play major roles. With Rebekah’s limited involvement, she sought to actualize the prophecy for her sons. As a woman, one with little power, she had limited means to accomplish this, and so trickery, showing how well she knew her husband, may have been her only recourse. The woman who threw herself wholeheartedly into the adventure of moving from the land of her birth, who went for herself, much like her in-laws, threw a veil over her face upon meeting her betrothed. Was she also putting a veil between their communication, between their parenting goals? Isaac loved her (Gen. 24:67), but he was quiet and reserved. They were unlikely to be a marriage of equal partners.
The brothers were also quite different: Esau a man of action, a hunter, a man of the outdoors, while Jacob was an ish tam—a quiet, simple man of integrity, according to the definition of tam, who dwelt in the tents. Some early commentators, and those who reflected on them, including Rashi – and G-dcast, explained or justified Rebekah’s actions through midrash that paint Esau as an evil seed. The Torah text has no such explanation. When we can’t explain behavior or actions in a way that does not cause cognitive dissonance, how often do we project evil intentions on the other?
In light of what is going on in Isaac’s land at the moment, the ability to look at our reality, our responsibilities, our strengths and weaknesses, and not to cast blame unless it is clear, is imperative. Responding to rockets, not allowing our people to be terrorized is essential. But what that response is, and what the occupation’s role plays in the greater context, and above all, finding a way to a livable peace that lasts longer than a few years, is the task ahead.
This is a very difficult time for our families in Israel, for our friends in the IDF, for our Palestinian neighbors who live near Hamas targets and thus in harm’s way… Let us pray for peace, let us act for peace, let us remember to hold our loved ones close tonight.
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Marian Blanton says
Your sermons continue to inspire reverence for learning, for profound thinking outside the box, as often as they follow dictates of previous criticism. Thanks for sharing.
Meredith Cahn says