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The Torah of Esau and Jacob, Gaza and Israel

11/27/2012 05:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2013

Occasionally someone asks me -- or I ask myself! --  why I make connections between Torah and modern conflict, instead of just talking the realpolitik of today. Two reasons: (a) I think there is deep truth in mythic, archetypal stories that have lasted for centuries because they encode wisdom -- if we listen.

(b) For me, the constant reinterpretation of Torah for the sake of justice, peace and healing is the true bloodstream of the Jewish people. The stubbornness and arrogance that the Israeli governments of the last 20 years have called realpolitik is a constant poisoning of our bloodstream. Denouncing it in its own terms cannot heal us. Only renewing Torah can do that.

This coming Shabbat (Dec. 1) of Torah readings completes a three-week saga of the struggle between two brothers: Esau, older, stronger, rougher; and Jacob, weaker, smoother, sneakier, wilier. This is one of the many-times repeated exploration in the Book of Genesis of the struggle between older and younger siblings -- all, I think, to teach the same lesson. In this third week, the Esau-Jacob struggle is resolved in reconciliation.

Ironically, these three weeks are the same three weeks in which we've been suffering the Gaza-Israel War -- its lead-up, its explosion, and its cease-fire. The cease-fire certainly does not mean Israel and Palestine have yet achieved a reconciliation. But the arc of our just-lived history and the arc of the Torah story bear some resemblance. Indeed, the Torah story might teach us some profound truths about the choices being made by the governments of Gaza and Israel.

Jacob, the younger brother by just a few minutes in their twin birth, is constantly clawing at, wrestling with, his older brother. Even in the womb, as birthing brings them toward the broader world, he grabs his brother's heel in his greed to be born first. So he is named The Heel, The Grabber -- for in ancient Hebrew as in modern English, to be a "heel" means to be nasty, grabby.

Then Jacob, through trickery, wins the blessing and the first-born birthright that should have gone to Esau. When he hears that Esau is enraged, he flees his brother's wrath.

In a moment, we will come back to hear what happens next. But first, let's notice: Much of the Book of Genesis is about the difficult relationships of older and younger siblings. Legally, as we learn later in the Torah, the older brother is entitled to a double portion of inheritance. And physically, the older is for years liable to be stronger, more knowledgeable, more capable -- and sometimes, the younger brother never catches up.

Yet despite this legal and physical truth, in every case, in Genesis, God is said to favor the younger, weaker, brother. In every case but one, despite anger, the older brother restrains himself when challenged by the younger one, and ultimately this makes possible a reconciliation.

Back to our Torah portions of Right Now: We are reading about what happens when after decades away, Jacob heads for home. When he does, Esau appears with 400 armed men. Jacob is frightened, and makes some calming gestures.

And then he stays alone -- yet wrestles with a person, a Being, Who/who is simultaneously human and Divine. Perhaps he wrestles with Esau. With his fear. With his guilt. With his anguish that the world is so set up by God that in order to become his truest self he had to cheat and steal. This new kind of wrestle changes his deepest identity. He is renamed not The Heel, but The Godwrestler, "Yisrael." And from this moment arises the name of the People Israel.

In this wrestle, he says, he saw the Face of God. Next morning, he meets Esau face-to-face and greets him saying, "To see your face is like seeing God's Face."

He is transformed. And then Esau is transformed as well. When he sees that Jacob has been transformed, Esau withholds his power. He chooses peace rather than a "legitimate" retribution for the wrong that has been done him. The brothers embrace.

The one story in which the older, more powerful brother refuses to restrain himself is the earliest -- the case of Cain and Abel. It ends in murder by the Over-reaching older, and in his exile. A misdeed that the rest of Torah strives to correct. A warning that the rest of Torah shouts. What is the warning? "Do Not Over-reach; bring self-restraint to the power that you hold."

This teaching is repeated in Torah again and again, in many different contexts -- not just the family:

  • Adam and Chava (Eve) are offered joyful abundance on the single condition that they exercise a little self-restraint: "just not this one tree!" They do not restrain themselves, and the abundance vanishes into poverty and overwork.
  • When one Pharaoh restrains his own power by calling upon Joseph to become his viceroy, the result is greater power for him and salvation for his country. But when a later Pharaoh grasps all dominion and acts with arrogance and cruelty, he and his army are drowned in the sea as the Breath/Wind of God becomes a Hurricane of change.
  • The teaching of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 is that every seventh year we must restrain our domination over the earth, each other, and especially the poor by halting our work upon the land for one full year and annulling all debt. If we refuse to restrain ourselves, warns Leviticus 26, the Earth itself, through drought and plague, famine and exile, will shatter our unrestrained power.
Today, who is Esau and who is Jacob? The State of Israel is far more powerful than Palestine. The Jewish people, which has for thousands of years seen itself as weaker in the world but blessed by God as all the younger sons were, is now in a time of reversal where worldly power is in its hands.

If we were to grasp the deepest teachings of Torah, the lesson to the Jewish people would be, "Do not over-reach! Do not abuse your power!" For those who do may succeed in the short run, but will end up as murderers and outcasts or worse. Those who restrain themselves and seek reconciliation live in joy.

Yet, despite its new-found power, the Jewish people as an organized body, especially in Israel -- not by any means all Jews -- continues to think of itself as victim and pariah. So it is drawn to using its power not only to defend itself but through domination to make it utterly impossible to ever again be dominated.

In the wake of the Holocaust, this over-reaching is understandable. It may even be worthy of compassion. But it is a profound mistake, ethical and practical. For today the Jewish people faces the danger of all over-reachers: the danger that we treat our new power not as a valuable healing from our past but as an idol to be worshiped -- and thus, by over-reach, to bring ruin on ourselves as well as death to others.

As for the weaker "brother," Palestine, it should, like Jacob fearing Esau's 400-man armed retinue, be Wrestling with Reality as well as with God. Either by an ethical revelation or by a practical realization of its weakness, it should be coming to the conclusion that peace is preferable.

Perhaps the government of Gaza was coming to that conclusion before the explosion of violence. Gershon Baskin, an adept Israeli unofficial negotiator, reported that General Jabari, a key leader of Hamas, was prepared after his own wrestle with the reality of overwhelming Israeli power -- that army of far more than 400 -- to choose not fruitless war but a long-term truce.

If that was even a possibility, it is a choice the Jewish people and the government of Israel should have welcomed, rather than assassinating, Jabari. The assassination was a disastrous act of over-reach.

In the wake of the brief Gaza-Israel War, Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas -- in effect, prime minister of the actual government of Gaza -- said in an interview with CNN, "I tell you and the whole world, we are ready to resort to a peaceful way, without blood and weapons, as long as we attain our Palestinian demands: a Palestinian state and the ending of the occupation and the [West Bank separation] wall." (For the full interview, click here.) For Israel to ignore that is another act of over-reach. For the U.S. to ignore it is an act of folly -- worse than a crime, a blunder.

Both "brothers," Palestine and Israel, today need to make the choice that begins with the new cease-fire, but must lead from there to a long-term truce; the truce must give time for compassion to flower where there was fear and rage; compassion must give rise to a firm negotiated peace.

For Hamas, governing Gaza must mean deciding to acknowledge Israel, and negotiate. For Likkud, governing Israel must mean acknowledging that Hamas is a government -- and thus negotiate.

Since Israel is by far more powerful, the greatest danger of the over-reach is in its hands.

Choosing it is an act of deep idolatry. To follow Jefferson in his agonized remark about slavery, today we might say, about the Occupation, "I tremble for my people when I reflect that God is just."

Only the choice of self-restraint can affirm the God Who is the Interbreath of Life, intertwining all peoples, all cultures, all life-forms, requiring of each the self-restraint that gives the others space to live and breathe.

That choice can lead toward a free and prosperous Palestine -- freed from occupation and oppression, freed from fear and rage -- alongside a much stronger, prosperous Israel -- freed of the burden of being the oppressor, freed from the fear of the intermittent fury of its victims, freed from the strain of enormous expenses for occupation and war that are wrecking its once-solid tzedek chevrati, social and communal justice.

In the short run, even while they are trying to restrain themselves, each government, each people, each estranged "brother," may insist on using Egypt as a fig leaf concealing what would be the naked truth that they are talking - as indeed each did in exploring an immediate cease-fire.

But in the longer term, each must give up not only its urge to over-reach, to dominate, but even its desire to hide behind a mask. Each must look at the other, face to face. Must acknowledge, as Jacob said to his brother, "Your face is the face of God!"

Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded (983) and directs The Shalom Center. He is the author of about 20 books on Jewish thought and practice and on public policy. The most recent, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman, is 'Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness across Millennia' (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011).