Wednesday, November 3, 2010

“Being Labelled” and Choice. Blood Red Esau & Truthful/Underhanded Jacob

Labels and roles
Growing up as a Chasidic Rabbi's middle child eager to be a good boy and a good student as well as being a bit more in my head than my body led me to think of myself in this way. Perhaps this helped me do the right thing or it made me timid. An example of this is the fact that I would always play black in chess, preferring to react to the other player rather than take the lead. I also remember the hurt, when my sweet Grandfather casually observed that it was easy to find me in a crowded synagogue, because I was the one with my shirt not tucked into my pants. I was the spiritual-Torah-oriented-unworldly good guy, to some extent I still am. What follows is an exploration of the interplay between labels, roles and the lives we live. 

Taciturn-Hunter-Outdoors-man and the Truthful-Wholesome-Indoors-man
Isaac's twin boys, get bigger (turn 13) and their identities emerge strongly. The red haired and/or skinned Esau, becomes “a man who is a knower of trapping/hunting, a man of the field”, Jacob, “a man, Tam, simple1/wholesome, sitting in tents2”. The knowing-trapping, can mean simply a hunter, but is also associated with deceiving his father3, trapping women from their husbands through seduction or by force4, and strangely a quiet man5 while his being a man of the field is even interpreted to hint at his being a “killer of souls (in the field) as he killed king Nimrod and his son6. The word Tam which describes Jacob, is the same word that describes the simple son at the Passover Seder. It can mean “One not expert in all these things, as is in his heart so is his mouth”, one who is complete, unable to lie and even monogamous7.

The labels are jarring for those of us immersed in a world view that values self esteem, frowns on typecasting children and seeks to see good in everyone.

Jacobs “truth”?
Jacob's Mr. Truth identity, sits uncomfortably with his impersonation of his brother and deception of his father to score blessings, his unusual deal making and breeding practices with Laban's sheep8 and finally setting up an arrangement with his brother to travel slowly then to see him in Seir9 which he had no intention of following through with in his life time.

Esau – good potential?
Esau, would seem to have no chance. His characterization as being born red, is understood to be astrologically related to “Mazal Maadim”, literally red-luck, relating to the planet Mars, which is a strong predictor for blood shed. In fact our sages tell us that if someone is born under that star they should become a Shochet – ritual slaughterer to channel their blood spilling nature. There is the rub, while there are elements of our nature that could be bad, they don't need to be. Esau is encouraged by his father to hunt for food and channel the harsher elements of his nature. In fact our tradition sees Esau as being outstanding in his honoring his father, Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel going so far as “all my days I would serve my father, but I have not served even 1/100th as well as Esau served his father10. R. Shimon explains that while he would serve his parents in dirty clothes but change into clean clothes when going to the market, Esau would put on his nicest clothes to serve his father as a mark of respect. 

Strange Love?- like father like son
Esau who seen as a villain in Jewish tradition, manages to earn at least one of his parents' love, Isaac loved Esau, because he brought game to his mouth, and Rebbecca loves Jacob. Going beyond the simple meaning that Esau simply bribed his father, we are told that “every type loves his type”11. I wonder if this similarity can be partly explained by their both being men of few words, following the commentary above that Esau was a “quiet man”, the word count for Isaac's “speaking parts” is 29 words for his life, except for his dying day (compared to Abraham's 436 words – apart from the last episode in his life story). This fits with the idea that Isaac represented “Gevura” which literally means strength but relates to judgment, harshness but also restraint. This essential nature could have been channeled to positive ends, Esau could not be a Jacob but he could be a brilliant Esau.

Straight shooter learns new tricks
Jacob the man of truth, does a fair bit of deception when he deals with the real world. In fact, he learns the skills of cheating to the extent that he declares, “if Laban comes for swindling than I am also his brother in swindling, but if he is a Kosher man...”

Reluctant Deceiver- hoping to get caught
The puzzle of why Jacob pretends to be Esau is dealt with Brilliantly by S.R. Hirsh. Still, how could Jacob be held up as representing truth? Curiously, when Jacob says to his mother perhaps my father will discover my ruse12, the word is used is Ulai, the more obvious word would be Pen which means lest. This is interpreted as Jacob hoping he would be caught13. The Midrash comments on the fact that Jacob is dressed by his mother with the hairy costume14 (Jacob) went, took and brought it to his mother, forced, bowed and crying”.15 Perhaps Jacob is the man of the truth, because he fought to maintain truth and integrity like no other, with the result not always pretty.

Liberation in surrender?
I think the key here is about choice, while we do not choose the essential elements of our character which perhaps we are born with and that we absorb from our surroundings, we choose how to manage these elements. As Jacob later wrestles with Esau's guardian angel, the angel asks him what is your name?- what is your nature? “Jacob”, he replies. He owns up to the truth about himself 'I am the supplanter, the underhanded one'16. The angel tells him his name is no longer Jacob, but Israel. The champion who strives and struggles with men and the Godly and wins. By recognizing his own nature and admitting it, he is able to transcend it, at least for that moment, only to fall back into old patterns, and rise again. Oh, and more recently I have begun to play the white side in chess, at least some of the time.

2Genesis 25:27
3Rashi, Midrash Tanchuma
4Klai Yakar
5Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel as interpreted by Pirush Yonatan in Mikraot Gedolot, Genesis 25:27
6Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel
7Rashi, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, Klai Yakar respectively.
8Genesis 30:29
9Genesis 33:14
10Devarim Rabba 1, Yalkut Shimoni
11Zohar- in Artscroll Genesis VolII, page 1011
12Genesis 27:12
13Haksav Vkaballa in Artscroll Genesis VolII, page 1025
14Genesis 27:17
15Beresheet Rabba, Toldot, 65
16Insight taught to be by Donna Jacobs Sife, also in Nechama Liebowitz who cites unnamed others


  1. I wonder if we are all called to transcend our nature, to strive towards broadening, against the habitual, to challenge ourselves to 'turn aside and see it more clearly' as Moses did at the burning bush, so that our own position is constantly challenged and prepared to accept something else outside ourselves. It gives me comfort to see Esau in a more forgiving light - I never understood the harsh judgement of him in midrash. In this post,you have turned aside, I think, to see more clearly.

  2. Donna, not much I can add to that :)