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01/08/2015 05:19 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2015

Jacob and Esau: Lessons for Israelis and Palestinians Today

The opening paragraph of the Israeli Declaration of Independence not only references the connection of Jewish people to the Land of Israel but notes that out of Zion the world was given "the eternal Book of Books." A book remains eternal for a number of reasons. When it comes to Torah, the Five Books of Moses, there is the depth and wisdom of its pages, a timeless source of meaning and insight. Its words have been examined down the centuries in original and dynamic ways to provide fresh meaning to answer different needs and realities as they arise. The rabbis' exegesis of the biblical text found throughout their discussions in the Talmud and Midrashic collections are a case in point. That potent process continues today.

The story of the twin brothers Jacob and Esau illustrates that enduring dynamism. On face value, the peshat, their story unfolds as follows. Their relationship starts before they are even born; in Rebekah's womb they struggle with one another. They grow up in a state of constant competition and an indifference to each other's humanity. Each is loved more by a different parent. One day Jacob shows no compassion for his hungry brother Esau and feeds him only once Esau has given Jacob his own birthright. Later Jacob will steal their father's blessing from his brother, causing his brother to want to kill him. Jacob flees and is away for decades. During those years both brothers change. Eventually Jacob decides to return home, but he is unsure of the reception he will receive from his brother. He is distressed when he hears that Esau is approaching him with 400 men. The night before he meets his brother he enters the cathartic and transformative wrestling match where he obtains the name Israel.

The next morning, in a moving reconciliation, Esau embraces and kisses Jacob, and they both weep. While the two brothers begin anew, what happened in the past cannot be completely forgotten, so Esau travels southward, and Jacob turns north. The text does not let us know in what ways they remained in contact, but it does tell us that at some point they came together to bury their father Isaac in the Cave of Machpelah.

Their story rings true as a reflection of the complexities of human relationships, particularly those of family members. The power of their story is that they model, even imperfectly, a renegotiated understanding of their relationship, overcoming previous mistrusts and behaviors.

If anything, Esau comes off as the wronged brother who matures into a commanding dignity. That is how we understand Esau on the peshat level. That is not the Esau portrayed by the rabbis of the Talmudic and classic Midrashic period as well as up to today. Using a genealogy of Genesis that connects Esau's descendants with Edom and Amalek, the villainous enemy of the Children of Israel during the time of the Exodus, and later with Haman of the Book of Esther, Esau is branded evil, and all his actions are so understood.

Take, for example, what we are told about what happened when Esau movingly kissed his brother Jacob. In Midrash Rabbah (78:9) we read, "Rabbi Yannai said that Esau didn't come to kiss Jacob but rather to bite him, but Jacob's neck turned to marble; and thus the teeth of that wicked one were blunted. Thus, when the text says 'and they cried' -- this one cried over his neck and this one cried over his teeth." Why the need to turn the noble Esau of the text into a monster? The rabbis writing under the Roman occupation of the Land of Israel needed a coded way to be able to talk about Rome. The jump from Esau/Edom/Amalek/Haman to Rome was easy to make. And why is this important for us today? It provides an insightful example of how, when we decide someone is good or bad, that often becomes the filter for how we process and understand all their words and actions.

It is a cautionary tale for the conflict today between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Both sides have become very adept at viewing all of what the other does as being provocative and mistrusting. And while that can be true with particular actions, both sides have allowed themselves to fall into the dangerous trap of limiting their understanding of the other by such a myopic approach.

Commenting on Jacob's wrestling match the night before he met his brother Esau, John A. Sandford wrote in his book The Man Who Wrestled With God:

To understand Jacob's strange experience, we must use our imagination to reconstruct what must have been going through his mind that fateful night; he must have roamed back through his storehouse of memories to those dark days of his youth and the deceitful deeds he had perpetrated against his brother and father. He suffered the pain of looking at them from the vantage point of his maturity, and agonized over the egocentric young man he had been. He was struggling with his shadow, the dark one within him.

As presented in the story of Esau and Jacob, there is an internal, inward dynamic and as well as an external, outward dynamic. Before Jacob can face his brother Esau, he must wrestle, no matter how painfully, with his own past actions vis-à-vis his brother. Before Palestinians and Israelis can successfully negotiate with one another, they both must come to terms with the pain and suffering they have inflicted on the other. While the resistance to that internal exercise by both brothers is great, it is essential before they can truly look the other in the face.

The external, outward dynamic goes back to how both sides perceive the other. As discussed in the paragraph above, there are very real reasons for both sides to fear and distrust the other, as Jacob did when he approached Esau. As the text tells us on the peshat, Esau welcomes and embraces his brother. It is only later that Esau's good intentions are turned on their head by the rabbis. It is easy for both Israelis and Palestinians to filter all the words and actions of the other in a negative light, and both sides too easily feed that destructive fire for the other.

And both sides will be quick to say that any good overtures they have made to the other have been rebuked. And that is precisely the point. Both sides are angry with the other and will only see what the other does in that beclouded light. In discussing Esau kissing Jacob, Rashi the medieval commentator quotes two opinions from the Midrashic collection, Sifri, which present Esau's actions in both a favorable and an unfavorable light. Within that discussion Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that Esau hated Jacob, but mercy was aroused within him, so he kissed Jacob with all his heart.

That commentary is very real. It acknowledges that inflicted pain, hurt, and mistrust never goes away but can be overcome. For that to happen between Palestinians and Israelis, as the Jacob and Esau story reminds us, both sides need to take responsibility for the pain they have caused the other, as well as not distill everything the other does by way of a resistive reaction.

Israelis and Palestinians have the choice to write their story modeled on the peshat reading of Jacob and Esau, with its incomplete but very realistic and human rapprochement, or write a story "full of sound and fury" written in the key of tragedy.

This piece was first published on the JPost.com blog on Dec. 31, 2014.