Friday, November 16, 2012

Rebecca mother to both Esau and Jacob, a reflection on violence

We have all seen the disturbing news coming from Israel and Gaza. I have just learned that two fellow Chabad Chasidim (the community I am part of) have been killed by a rocket. One of them was a 25-year-old mother who was involved in Chabad outreach work in New Delhi, India. What a tragic destruction of a life and a family.  The Palestinians who were killed also have names and stories, some of them are civilians and children. Also tragic. It is terrible to be witnessing all this destruction and violence.  I don’t believe all violence is wrong or equal, I believe violence can sometimes be the right thing, or a necessary evil. I will leave it to others to judge and blame. My brief post this week is on a related theme.

I am thinking about “us and them thinking”, an enabling ingredient in conflict. In our Torah reading we are presented with two iconic figures, the twin brothers Jacob “the good son who sits in tents[i]” and ancestor of the Jews and the wicked Esau “a man who understood hunting, a man of the field”. Esau’s hunting prowess is interpreted to be not just about finding food, but also about deceives others, hunting them with his mouth[ii].

The text tells us that after Jacob takes Esau’s paternal blessings, Esau plans to kill his brother. He thinks: "Let the days of mourning for my father draw near, I will then kill my brother Jacob[iii]".  This has been interpreted as Esau thinking ‘Cain was a fool, he killed his brother while his father was still alive, then his father went along and had another child, I will wait til my father dies and that way there will not be another sibling[iv]’. In this version, there is not complexity to Esau’s character, everything about him motivated by evil. Yet there is a more plausible explanation, “As its apparent meaning, “that I should not grieve my father[v]”.  We know from other sources that Esau is regarded as exemplary in his honouring of his father. If we consider that aspect, we have in Esau, a more complex character, a human being with virtues and flaws rather than a monster[vi].

There is seemingly superfluous comment at the end of the story.  At his mother’s instigation, Jacob runs away from his brother. The Torah states that he went to Padan aram, to Laban the son of Bethuel …, the brother of Rebecca, the mother of Jacob and Esau”. The repetition of the fact that Rebecca was the mother of both her sons has a powerful lesson in it. The escape was not just to benefit Jacob by saving his life but also to benefit Esau to prevent him from the soul destroying impact of murder.  This could be what Rebecca meant when she said “Why should I be bereft of both of you on one day?[vii]" If either son was to kill the other, both would be dead to their mother, one literally and the other mentally as any son of hers who committed such a crime would be absolutely lost to her[viii].


[i] Genesis 25:27
[ii] Rashi
[iii] Genesis 27:41
[iv] Midrash
[v] Rashi,.  
[vi] the contrast between the two interpretations and the discussion is taught by Nechama Liebovitz in her studies of Bereshit
[vii] Genesis 27:45
[viii] Em Lamikra, cited and discussed by Nechama Liebovitz in her studies of Bereshit

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