Thursday, November 25, 2010

Pitfalls for the Influential, Favoured & Handsome & the Walk & Talk of Joseph

Success and influence are often associated with evil or greatness, both can be correct. Hong Kong's richest man, Li Ka-shing was called “the real devil” by a priest speaking out against “rapacious property developers”, an apology followed1. Humility, good judgement and not being self absorbed are some of the qualities we respect in successful people, Joseph's life is filled with insights about this.
17 year old Joseph seems like a winner, his dreams predict greatness with his brothers bowing before him. Joseph is father's favoured son and is good looking to boot. He is described as vain fixing his hair, touching his eyes and having this unusual affected, slow, arrogant2 walk that made his heel appear like it was suspended in mid-air3. His father makes no secret of his preference for Joseph, giving him a coloured or stripped coat as a blatant symbol of this.

Joseph acts unwisely4 when he fails to consider the impact on his brothers, or his relationship with them, of his telling his father every bad thing he thinks his brothers are doing5. Commentary relates his 'evil reports' to accusations that the sons of Leah called the sons of their fathers concubines, slaves while Joseph insisted that they were his equals and even served them6, and having their “eyes on the daughters of the land7 as well the poor quality of their work as shepherds8.

Joseph fails to give his brother the benefit of the doubt on any of the accusations9. His accusation that the brothers see the sons of the concubines, Bilha and Zilpa, as slaves may have been based on his high standard of emphasising equality and spending time with them which his brothers did not do. Joseph assumed that this was because they saw them as slaves and this was for him as if they had called them slaves. Their interaction with the daughters of the land was purely commercial, but was seen by Ultra-holy Joseph as having impure meaning10. For this talk, Joseph is said to have been punished with 12 years of prison, while Jacob was deprived of the divine 'holy spirit' for 24 years for accepting Joseph's reports as true11.

Joseph also tries to persuade his brothers that his elevation to the top is “right”, by telling them of his dreams which would prove he is destined to rule. They don't want to hear of it12, but he insists and pleads with them to listen. It is tempting get others to see reason by providing proof that you are right is great, but does it achieve anything? At a seminar for Yeshiva students, I asked them to raise their hand if they ever changed their mind because they lost an argument. None of them did.

The combination of factors made it all worse. If Joseph was not favoured by their father, they could argue with him and reproach him about his tale-bearing. Being openly favoured , father knowing that his sons knew about this, there was no possibility to resolve the issue because Joseph will always be seen as right13. In addition, if the brothers talked to Joseph at all, in spite of the accusations he made against them, that would imply that what he is saying is true. If they maintain the conflict they could hope that their father might dismiss Josephs's reports as stemming from the hatred between them14.

The hatred the brothers felt for Joseph was so intense that when they decide to throw into a deep pit, in spite of their desire to just remove his special coat, they did it with so much anger and great hatred and with such cruelty that they tore all his clothes and he was left naked15. Then they sat down to eat bread, there was no sense that what happened was wrong16.

The handsome young man was transformed instantly, his face turned green because of his dread of the snakes in the pit. When the brothers tried to sell him, they could only get an offer of 20 silver coins for the green faced wretch. When they started to bring him out of the pit his good looks returned, so the brother asked for a better price, the buyers agreed to throw in some shoes on top of the 20 coins. This was later referred to by the prophet, “selling a righteous person for silver, and a poor person for shoes17.

Joseph appears very humble and devout at this point in our story. God was with Joseph, His name constantly coming out of Joseph mouth as Joseph prays for this and thanks God for that. His master, Potiphar asked him what all the mumbling is about, are doing witch craft on me? Joseph replies, “no I am praying that I find favour in your eyes18

Joseph's prayers are answered and he finds favour in his masters eyes, becoming manager of Potiphar's house, just as he had been his fathers favourite. Of course there is a big difference, he is a slave now and his father is devastated by his absence, but Joseph sees himself as a “ruler”, and his appearance becomes a focus again, curling his hair and enjoying his food19. He is so handsome, that Potiphars wife invites women to the house, gives each a knife and a fruit, then asked Joseph to enter. As he enters the women as so struck that each of them cut their hands20. He is soon seduced by his masters wife, according to one view he had decided to succumb to her before changing his mind and withstanding the temptations, staying to true to his principles.

Joseph's capacity to see things from another person's point of view is much greater at this stage of the story. He speaks convincingly to Potiphars wife about the proposed act from the perspective of Potiphars rights and his obligation to Potiphar. “indeed, my master does not know anything that is with me in this house, and everything that he has he has placed in my hand21(because he trusts me). “There is no one greater than me in this house, and he has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife, and how can I do this great evil”, only after all that adding “and I will have sinned to God”.

For his integrity, he is falsely accused by this wicked woman who twists the story and is imprisoned. He rises in prison to a leadership role. Still, after all he has been through he could have been angry with the whole world, but instead we find him caring about his fellow prisoners22. He is alert to the needs of others and so notices sadness on two prisoners faces , he asks “why are your faces bad today?” and focused on their problems. Vigilance, modesty, with-holding judgement and caring about others are all called for from all who are favoured to whatever extent.

1Sydney Morning Herald, 23 11 2010.
2Matnot Kehuna, commentary on Beresheet Rabba 84
3Beresheet Rabba Perek 84
4Seforno on 37:2
5Genesis 37:2
6Yelamdenu, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1392
9Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh commentary on Genesis
10Etz Yoseph, commentary on Beresheet Rabba 84
11Pirkey Rabbeinu Hakadosh Pirkah DrArbaah 24b, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1396
12Ohr Hachayim Genesis 37:5
13Ohr Hachayim, Genesis 37:4
14Klei Yakar, Genesis 37:4
15Ohr Hachayim, Genesis 37:23
17Sifsei Chachamim Genesis 37:28, also citing Amos 2
18Midrash Tanchuma Vayeshev 8
19Gensis 39:6
20Yelamdenu, cited in Torah Shelaima, Genesis p. 1490
21Genesis 39:9
22The Lubavitcher Rebbe, as I heard it retold by Rabbi YY Jacobson.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Shame, Pride & Striving: the case of Reuben Jacob-son

There seems to be a little of Prince Charles in the Torah's Reuben, in that he is destined for greatness1 but never seems to get there. 
He is conceived, not in an act of love between his father and mother, but in a case of mistaken identity2 in which his father loved his aunt Rachel and thought his mother was her sister.
Just after he is born his mother named him Reuben, which literally means “look (in the plural) a son!” Because she said, “because God saw my pain, as now my husband will love me3. There seems to be something tragic in the only comment a mother makes about her baby son is about his potential to help her with her loveless marriage. Her desperation for Jacob's love and deep sadness about this is expressed in the names of her 2nd, 3rd and 6th children born in Reuben's formative years, Shimon: “because God heard that I was hated”, Levi “now, this time my husband will be attached to me”, Zebulun, “this time my husband will dwell with me”.
His name is also interpreted as his mother declaring 'look at the difference between my son and the son of my father in law (eg. Esau, the son of Isaac)'. Esau sold his birthright (status of being first-born) to Jacob but then hated him, whereas my son had his birthright taken from his against his will and given to Joseph yet he was not jealous of him and on the contrary he sought to save him from his brothers4. While Leah takes pride in her sons moral character, it is stated in relation to his being her son as he compares with that of her father in law.
Reuben is next encountered bringing some type of plant called “Dudaiim5 (mandrakes or Jasmin) for his mother. One reason given for this offering was that Reuben saw that his mother was upset that she stopped giving birth (after her fourth child) so he brought his mother this plant which was believed to be either a fertility drug or an aphrodisiac6. The Dudaim, are requested by his aunt Rachel and leads to an argument between his mother and her sister. “is it a small matter, your taking my husband, now you will take these Dudaiim of my son7?” A deal is struck in which Jacob will sleep with Leah that night instead of Rachel. At what point does Reuben leave the scene?
Reuben's next big moment as the oldest of his brothers, one would assume, would come in the brother's response to the rape and abduction of their sister Dina. Jacob, takes a back seat to his sons who violently deal with their outrage about it. Reuben is not mentioned in this story, instead it is Shimon & Levi who lead and drive the terrible drama.
Instead, Reuben appears in a cryptic incident following Rachel's death and Jacob moving his bed from its permanent place in Rachel's tent to his concubine Bilha's tent. “When his father lived in that land, Reuben went and slept with Bilhah, his father's concubine”. There are arguments about whether this is to be taken literally8,  one view being that he merely interfered in the sexual life of Bilhah, by removing his fathers bed from her tent and putting it in his mother's tent to claim his mothers embarrassment as being a secondary wife. Other views are the Reuben merely put egg white on her Bilha's bed to make it appear that something more happened, but Jacob saw through the lie or alternatively that he slept in Bilha's bed9.
Reuben was filled with great remorse about whatever happened with Bilhah and fasted many fasts. This well intentioned fasting, leads to one of the saddest cries of Reuben's life. Biblical, Reuben, intends to save Joseph but does not challenge the 'group-think' of his brothers that Joseph must die. He works within the consensus, suggests a compromise, hoping to fix it later. He then goes off, occupied with his sackcloth and his fasting for the his sin (relating to Bilha/his father). Only to return to see that Joseph is gone. “and I, where will I come?” He will never feel at home again, haunted by his timid choice. (For anyone who read The Kite Runner, think of the deep shame and guilt of the main character).
In later years Reuben offers his two children should be killed if he fails to protect, Benjamin who is Rachel and Jacobs only remaining son. His offer is rebuffed by Jacob. It is interpreted as if Jacob is saying “an idiot of an oldest son he is, he says to kill his sons, are his children not my children?!
In his last 'speaking part' in his life's tragic drama, Reuben castigates his brothers for selling Joseph “did I not say to you, do not sin with the boy and you did not listen, and now his blood is being demanded (we are being held accountable for it)”. He might have wanted to say that, it seems clear that he certainly meant to say that, but he did not quite tell them that. Compare his record of what he told them with his actual words at the time, “let us not kill his soul, do not spill his blood, throw him into this pit in the desert (filled with snakes and scorpions10) but do not send send your hand against him”.
On his fathers death bed, he is criticized for his impulsiveness and the incident with Bilha.
For me, there are three elements. There is something here about the damaging effect of excess shame and guilt. Reuben would have been more use to Joseph, if he beat himself up a bit less, believed that God has forgiven him out of His abundant forgiveness and lived more joyously11. Leah's almost tragic focus on her terrible situation makes me think more about Jacob's and men's responsibility than hers. I can barely imagine what it would be like for a woman in a polygamous relationship to feel unloved by her husband. There is clearly a message here about men communicating and nurturing a loving relationship, as our tradition warns men about the significance of the tears of a woman. How this would apply to women, I will leave for female scholars to articulate.
Finally the story is about Reuben's inherent decency in spite of his failures and flaws. Not all of us need to be the hero in some real life adaptation of a Hollywood movie, 'riding in to the town on horseback having shot up all the baddies'. Not every life, is about a man overcoming his inhibitions to find greatness and glory. What matters more is recognizing our own flaws and striving to correct them, but also manage and contain them and the sadness and shame they evoke within us and just be a decent human being. In this Reuben succeeds.

1Midrash Beresheet Rabba chap 99.
2Based on Rashi on Beresheet 49:2, Beresheet Rabbah, Zohar, Bereshith, Section 1, Page 176a, cited by Rabbi Ari Kahn, .
3Beresheet, 29:32
4Talmud, Berachot 7b.
5 for more about this plant and opportunity to buy dried Dudaim seeds.
7Beresheet 30:15
8Talmud, Shabbat 55a.
9Tosaphot, Hadar Zekainim, quoting Midrash, and a manuscript of Rokeach both cited in Torah Shelaima, Beresheet p1360-1361.
11Tanya Chapter 1 & 26.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Violence of Silence! v.s. Golden Silence - Rebuke in Vayetze

Ipswich, QLD has not always been known for its tolerance, this was the area that was represented in parliament by Pauline “we will be swamped by Asian's”- Hanson MP. It is argued that the fact that Hanson was not strongly repudiated by the Prime Minister of the day signalled to bigots that it was ok to discriminate and contributed to increased prejudice in the community. Yesterday I was in Ipswich for bridge building work alongside Mr. Shayne Neumann the local Member of Parliament, and while grabbing some Kosher lunch in the local supermarket I got a call about yet another Government decision that would limit religious freedom, mainly impact on Muslims and I fear will send another signal that the “real-White” Australians are taking back “their country.” How should I respond? More broadly, the following is a general (but incomplete) consideration of the issue of rebuke, especially as it relates to the section of the Torah being read this week.

Do not rebuke the scoffer, lest he hate you, rebuke a wise person and he will love you1.

Problems with silence and with speaking out
If we are silent in the face of apparent injustice, we could seen as complicit in it. Talking about our grievances, might result in resolution, or at least give us the feeling that we did what we can. The negatives of silence, need to be considered against the problems arising out of speaking out. In some situations, our critique can be ill-informed, driven by unconscious and unsavoury motives, cause unnecessary embarrassment, or fail to achieve anything apart from defensiveness, hostility or even escalated offending behaviour and “push-back”. The Talmud comments about the people in it's own time2, there was no longer anyone with either the ability to offer or accept criticism3.

Style. Wording, tone, privacy/audience etc.
It's not what you say, but how you say it”- is a view that I don't think is true all the time, but it does have some merit. The commandment in Leviticus (19:17) to rebuke, rebuke your fellow4”, is followed with a caution “and do not bear sin because of him” which is interpreted as demanding concern, in some circumstances, about humiliating the person being criticised.

Motive- "uhn negl" (no fingernails) & Permission
Chassidim have a tradition of offering criticism to each other. This would usually be done in the context of a “Farbrengen”, an informal group sitting together, eating herring, pickles, drinking vodka (usually but not always in strict moderation), for the purpose of storytelling, singing and reflection. The setting and the fact of the participants sitting down together already provides implied permission for being given negative feedback. An important principle for the critic was to ensure he did not do it with “fingernails”, meaning he had to search his own heart to see if there were other motives at work, eg. Anger, hostility, desire to put the other down, rather than pure desire to help the listener improve.

Being wrong – asking a question
If we approach what appears to be a problematic situation with a recognition that we might not have all the facts, we can carry our responsibility to stand up for justice without judging other unfairly. Jacob, sets a friendly tone and uses the approach of asking a question of a group of shepherds that seems to be workers, idle on the job. “My brothers, where are you from?” Jacob begins, after some small talk he observes “The day is still long, it is not time to gather the flocks, give your sheep some drink and go take your sheep to pasture5.” They explain explain that they are unable to carry out their next task without more help because there is a big stone on top of the well, that can only be moved when their colleagues arrive so they can all give water to their sheep. No harm done.

Unresolved issues- One cost of silence
A sad, but rarely discussed episode in the lives of the biblical Rachel and Leah occurs when their brothers and father (Laban) become resentful of Jacob's prosperity. Their brothers are heard saying to anyone, but the accused party “Jacob took (stole) everything that belonged to our father , and from what belonged to our father he created all this honour6”. Jacob notices, Laban's face, “and it is clearly not the same as it was yesterday, and the day before that”. He had accepted the slander (Lashon Harah- evil tongue) against Jacob7 without bothering to check with Jacob about his side of the story. The opposite of “when a man sins against another man, he should not hate him and be is a Mitzvah to notify him and say, why did you do this to me?”8

Jacob and his wives, Rachel and Leah discuss the need to leave the employ and town of Laban over his on-going financial mistreatment on the part of their father. The two daughters/wives reply, “Do we still have any part or inheritance in our fathers house? Did he not consider us as strangers to him, selling us and eating our money”. I find it very significant, that neither sister ever said anything to Laban about their hurt feelings or anger about being sold to Jacob. Jacob also does not talk to Laban about his complains about the financial dealings, instead explaining only to his wives that Laban changed “my wages, 10 times”.

Unlikely to be heard
To rebuke someone involves some hope that it might help. The Talmud states that just as we should say words of rebuke that will be heard, it is a Mitzvah (Commandment) not to say that which will not be heard9. As Shayne Neummann pointed out to me yesterday in Ipswich, it is hard to imagine Jacob having any confidence in talking to Laban after he substituted his beloved Rachel with Leah. Especially, considering that when Jacob first protests to Laban “Why did you deceive me”, instead of an apology, Laban attacks Jacob cleverly saying “it is not done thus in our place, the younger before the older”, implying like you who usurped the right of your older brother Esau. Clearly, Laban's rebuke of Jacob is driven by an ulterior motive, seeking to justify his own wrong doing. On the other hand, in cases where our silence can be seen as acquiescence, we need to consider the wider audience, not just the perpetrator.

Judging too favourably
While avoiding a rush to judgement is generally admirable. There are times when there is a need to speak out in defence of justice. As the saying goes, “If someone is spitting in your face, don't say it's raining”. A talmudic story about the gangster-turned sage Resh Lakish travelling with two rabbis to see the process for deciding whether to add an extra month to a particular Jewish Sabbatical year, when the land was not meant to be worked. On their way, they repeatedly see members of the priestly clan, the Cohanim, first ploughing, then working in a vineyard. Resh Lakish is outraged but his companions, rationalise it with various excuses. When they arrive to the attic where the meeting was to be held, they offered Resh Lakish to go up the ladder first, then promptly removed the ladder stranding him upstairs. They held the meeting downstairs without him, obviously frustrated with his unwillingness to turn a blind eye10. The funny thing is that the two other sages have been forgotten, while Resh Lakish is still greatly respected today.

There are more sources and further evidence that I have not included in this. I think on balance, there are times for speaking out and times for silence, in the case of the Government decision today, the right thing to do is to speak out about religious freedom and the need for responsible leadership giving no support to bigotry. Anyone who could have stopped another person from committing a sin by rebuking but failed to do so is held accountable for that sin.11

1Proverbs 9:8
2The content of the Talmud was developed between approximately 100 bc to the year 300 CE.
3Arachin 16b. Also discussed on
4The commandment in Leviticus (19:17) to rebuke, rebuke your fellow, and do not bear sin because of him
5Genesis 29:7
6Genesis 31:1
8Mimonedes, Yad, hilchot Deot, 6:6
9Talmud, Yevamot 65b)
10Talmud Sanhedrin, 26a. For the rest of this story,
11Maimonedes, Yad, Laws of Deot, 6:7.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Purity is over-rated! On leaving “moral home”: Vayetze

I found the Australian Peter Slipper drama really interesting but I am not game to comment on that. More broadly it is an opportunity to discuss  questions about integrity. Here are my thoughts.

To compromise my beliefs and values, even for a good aim is wrong, is dangerous and would destroy me. Keeping faith with those who trust me is a matter of the highest priority and a religious obligation. Yet, there are low-priority spiritual preferences and ideals that I  think I should sacrifice. I was raised on the Chabad2 idea of leaving our spiritual home neighbourhood to reach out to less religious Jews. In my current role, I had a school principal tell me that  she would be more impressed with our message of harmony3  if “it wasn't a business”, clearly if no money was involved our moral message would be purer, for the small number of people who hear it. However, by accepting money for my educational work, I am able to devote all the time I would need to spend on feeding my family to the noble cause I care about. Less pure, but more practical and more benefit created.

Jacob, the wholesome man, dragged “crying and bent” by his mother into his first act of deception, leaves the holy land, his holy parents' home and ventures out to badlands of Aram. First he stops and prays4. He surrounds his head with rocks, either to protect himself practically, or it is suggested to set hard boundaries around his mind, to protect it from getting too involved with matters threatening his spiritual purity5. Then he dreams, of divine angels, and wakes up to declare, wow! God was in this place, and I did not know it. He learns to find God in this most unlikely of places6. He further tries to protect himself, making a deal with God and erecting a tangible rock monument of his commitment. Then he plunges in.

His step is light, he is said to be carrying his legs7, confident in God's protection, clear in his purpose, spirit in the pilots seat, unlike people facing uncertainty where their “legs carry them”.

He puts up a good fight. On arrival he speaks out against shepherds who seem to be cheating their employer, “the day is still long, it is not time to gather the flocks, give your sheep some drink and go take your sheep to pasture8.” Overflowing with enthusiasm, he works for 7 years for the right to marry the beautiful woman he loves, but it feels like a few days in his love for her9. The shine starts to come off, when he is duped by his uncle Laban into marrying Leah, the sister of his beloved. He is then given a verbal kick by his cruel uncle/now father-in-law, “it is not done this way in our place, to give the younger before the older”. Laban's implication is that 'we are not like you, the younger brother, who usurps his older brothers Esau's blessings', we are better than that 10. Jacob must work another 7 years to marry Rachel in addition to Leah.

We are told that Leah was “hated11” by Jacob, perhaps he suspected her motives in deceiving him when he saw signs of barrenness in her.12 His anger, eventually flares up with Rachel after she is jealous of her sister having children, and she demands “give me children, otherwise I will die”. A 13th century commentator, suggests that Rachel talked “in the way of longing of beloved women to scare him with her death13”. Jacob tells his wives, Laban's daughters, that he was swindled by their father Laban “changing the work agreement ten times”. He engages in creative practices to try get a fair deal, and eventually runs away from Laban, who pursues him and heaps more criticism on Jacob, “what did you do?!...leading my daughters as captives of the sword14.

Yet, Jacob, later named Israel, succeeds in the end, raising a family with 13 children loyal to his values and way of life, he even keeps faith with Laban whom he serves loyally and with great integrity, as he tells Laban "by day scorching heat consumed me, and frost by night; my sleep drifted from my eyes" in his work caring for Laban's sheep. Jacob ends his life with his best days surrounded by great grandchildren and his descendants are known as the “children of Israel”.

"It is not the critic who counts:
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles
or where the doer of deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,
who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again,
because there is no effort without error or shortcoming,
but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions,
who spends himself for a worthy cause;
who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement,
and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls
who knew neither victory nor defeat."
Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

2 Chabad, is a Jewish religious movement and tradition that encourages adherents to leave religious enclaves for the purpose of promoting Torah generally, it's spiritual teachings and related practices.
4 Rashi on Genesis 28:11
5 The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi MM Schneerson (1964), Likutei Sichot Volume 1, Vayetze p.61.
6 Michelle, M. Parent of a girl with Cerebral Palsy, in remarks celebrating her daughters successful Bat Mitzvah.
7 Genesis 29:1, Rashi and Seforno
8 Genesis 29:7
9 Genesis 29:18
10 Nechama Lebovitz
11 Genesis 29:31, following literal text, Oonkelus, Ohr Hachayim, Seforno, Targum Yonatan “she was not loved”
12 Seforno
13 Ramban (born 1194- 1270) on Genesis 30:1
14 Genesis 31:26

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