After I graduated from high school, I spent a year living on a kibbutz in Israel. It was the first time I had extensive contact with Holocaust survivors and I was surprised to discover how differently their experiences seemed to have affected them. Some were bitter and angry people, who had no respect for what they considered to be the lesser or trivial suffering of others. Some survivors embodied a deep compassion and care for the vulnerable, committed to the idea that no one else should ever have to go through what they had. Since that time, there has been a great deal of research about how individuals respond to trauma but it remains clear that similar experiences do not always lead to similar outcomes.
Jacob, the key figure in this week’s Torah portion, does not seem to become a better person through adversity. He flees his home in fear of his life after stealing the birthright and eldest son’s blessing from his brother Esau. After experiencing the disappointment of being given Leah, instead of Rachel, as his bride, he remains with his father-in-law, Laban, an additional seven years to earn Rachel as well. But rather than creating a happy family and behaving honestly, Jacob, like so many of us, repeats the patterns he learned growing up. He favors some children over others and oversees a household in which there is competition and distrust. When he is cheated once again by his father-in-law, his response is not to seek justice openly, but to cheat Laban in turn. Once more, he is forced to flee.
In contrast, Esau, who is frequently vilified in Jewish tradition, appears to grow through his experience. He is clearly heartbroken by the betrayal he experiences at the hand of his brother, asking his father, “Have you no blessing left for me (Genesis 36)?” When he realizes that his parents do not approve of their sons marrying Canaanite women, he takes his first cousin as an additional wife. More significantly, when Jacob and Esau finally reunite, it is Esau who makes the first approach. Genesis 33:4 relates, “Esau ran to meet [Jacob], and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” Equally telling is the fact that Esau initially declines the gifts Jacob has brought (presumably to appease him), saying, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself Genesis 33:9).”
And yet, we consider ourselves to be the descendants of Jacob, not Esau. What are we to make of this? One answer is that Jacob had other qualities which were more important, at least to our ancestors. Esau may have learned generosity but Jacob learned how to survive and get ahead. Another way of looking at Jacob is to acknowledge that we are all complicated people, with a mixture of qualities, and yet we are still capable of important, even great things. Jacob’s imperfections may be viewed as a source of encouragement rather than a reason to dismiss his significance.
My teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, used to say, “No one in the Bible is anyone you’d want your child to grow up to be.” Despite what one might expect from a sacred story, none of our biblical ancestors represent perfection. Instead, we have been given the powerful gift of being able to learn from their mistakes as well as their achievements. Reflecting on how Jacob and Esau responded to the difficulties in their lives may help us make better choices when faced with our own
–Rabbi Drorah Setel