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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

Brothers Re-United

Posted by rabbiart on December 10, 2008

This parshah, everyone is exploring the meaning of the second dream and the game-changing, name-changing event where Yakov gets his new name Israel. Not to ignore one of the very few commandments that can be derived from from the book of Breshit – not to eat the gid-hanasheh (aka the sinew of the thigh-vein).  The commandment is itself based on the wrestler touching the hollow of Yakov’s thigh, but the Torah shows some self-awareness, or a later historical voice, in verse 33 where the text relates that the Israelites do not eat the gid hanasheh “even to this day” because the angel/wrestler touched Yakov in that place.  (Google fans might be interested to know that you can -accidentally in my case- type “fid hanasheh” into Google search and it will know that you mean gid ha-nasheh.  Must be some Torah scholars over in the googleplex 🙂 ) Depending on local custom, some communities do not eat the hind-quarter, which contains the sinew, and other communities eat the hind-quarter, but only after the (kosher of course) butcher has removed the sinew.

The business at hand, however, is to see what the text has to say about relationships. Specifically, how our definition of a relationship can drive our behavior, which of course, can affect the relationship for better or worse.

As we return from commercial break (six work-days of the week in between each Shabbes) Yakov has left Laban and his place, and embarked on his journey home.  The third person voice of the text (32:4) calmly states that Yakov sent messengers to Esav his brother. Is that how Yakov thinks of Esav? When giving the messengers their marching orders, he tells them they will speak  לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו  “to my lord, to Esav”.  It is the messengers who, upon their return, speak of Esav as “your brother”.  By verse nine, he is simply “Esav”.    Yakov describes Avraham and Yitzhak as his father(s) but when it comes to Esav,   In verse twelve, it is as if Esav is two different people. When Yakov speaks the aspect of “brother” is separated out from the identity of Esav.    הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי, מִיַּד עֵשָׂו        Save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav.  Esav is one person, “brother” is someone else.  Only when the text returns to a third person narrative (verse 14) is Esav again a brother.  Only once does Yakov refer to Esav as “Esav my brother”, and never does he refer to himself as Esav’s brother.

What else does the text reveal about Yakov’s state of mind and feelings?  He still lives in fear, quite possibly driven by guilt over how he treated his brother, with the added layer of the impending meeting.  Is he interested in reconciliation or just in placating his brother and then staying as far away as possible from him?  Could his gifts to his brother be understood as a genuine attempt at recompense for “negotiating” the birth-right and final blessings?The (un)re-uniting of the brothers presents an interesting challenge to our accepted interpretation of Yakov good, Esav bad.  Who lives in fear and dread of meeting his brother once again?  Who sends gifts out of a need to placate? Yakov.  Who says “thank you brother” I have enough? Who says “let’s travel together?” Esav.

Rabbinic Judaism labored long, hard and successfully to establish that Yakov is the rightful heir, and therefore all his (and his mother’s) machinations were in service of the divine will.  In a world of conflict and persecution the authors of talmud and midrash identified a winner and a loser from among the twin brothers.  Yakov is cherished and Esav is cast out of the tradition.

Unfortunately, we still live in a world of conflict, but perhaps it is time to construct a new interpretation that gives us a model not of mere co-existence, but of living in peace and harmony. (Warning, unashamed plug follows immediately!)

We were fortunate just this past month to see a model and get a taste of the world to come during our Israel bike ride for the Arava Institute. Out of all the possible worthy causes, we’ve “signed up” for this one, in part because we saw “Yakov” and “Esav” not only living and learning together, but forming lasting friendships.  So much so that we’re going back in spring 2010 for another ride. (hint, hint). And hoping to arrange for (local) readers to meet a few of the Arava Institute alums in the coming year.

No one can really rewrite history, but we can imagine a world where brothers live together. To borry from Herzl, if we will it, it is not a dream. Brothers – no matter how different – can live together in peace. If only for a brief time, we saw it!

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