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Parashot Toldot 5779 - "Red State Esau"

November 10, 2018

I have never been hunting.

I have no desire to go hunting.

It is true — I am a meat eater.  I wear leather.  By consuming animals as food and clothing, I participate in their killing.  But of course, killing an animal by bowshot or gunshot is not a kosher method of slaughter.

And I really just don’t get hunting for sport.  Chasing down an animal to kill it just doesn’t seem fun to me.

Am I a better person than a hunter?  Morally?  Do I deserve better?

The first hunter we find in Torah is in this week’s parashah.  He’s Jacob’s brother.  His name is Esau.  Jacob and Esau, as many of us know, are the sons of Isaac and Rebekah — the third generation of Hebrews, fraternal twin brothers.

“Fraternal” sounds like such a nice word.  So, for that matter, does “brother.”  I like to call people “brother” when I see them.  “Hey brother!” 

Except, in Torah, being a brother is not exactly a walk in the park.  Particularly in Genesis — it’s pretty likely that, if you have a brother, you’re gonna hate his guts.

Jacob and Esau actually begin fighting — I am not making this up — in the womb.  Rebekah’s pregnancy is so awful, the struggling happening inside her so painful, that she literally asks God why she’s alive.

And God answers, describing what sounds like the worst pregnancy in the history of pregnancies.  Shnei goyim b’vitnech.  “Two nations are in your womb.”[1]

And sure enough, out they come.  First-born Esau, the hairy admoni, the red-haired hunter.  Jacob, the smooth – and smooth-talking – stay-at-home balabust.

Two types.  Two nations.

The story from there is familiar to many of us.  After a particularly exhilarating but exhausting day of hunting, Esau comes home famished.  He sells his birthright to the all-too-willing Jacob for a bowl of the “red stuff” that the latter has been cooking all day.  And the Torah tells us, al kein kara sh’mo Edom, “that is why [Esau] was called Red.”[2]

Some time later, when Isaac is about to die, Jacob and his mother Rebekah, “cook up” another scheme.  This time, Jacob dresses up as Esau, goatskins approximating Esau’s hairy arms and neck — and the smell of a hunter in the field — and tricks his father into giving Jacob his older brother’s blessing.

Which leads to a lifelong grudge.  Two brothers, two nations at war.

I do not think I am being hyperbolic when I say that — in this country — it feels like we are living in the midst of a painful gestation, in which two nations are struggling for dominance.  Increasingly, we are dividing into a blue tribe and, yes, a red tribe. 

And the divide is increasingly correlated to skin color, gender, and education.  According to CNN exit polls, in this week’s election, women as a whole voted for Democrats over Republicans by a 60-39 margin.  White men without a college diploma supported Republicans, 65-34.  African-Americans, meanwhile, favored Democrats, 90-9.

Meanwhile, any overlap between the blue tribe and the red tribe — political, cultural, even social — is becoming smaller and smaller.

Does our tradition give us a way out? 

At at first glace, not really.  For the most part, the rabbis take sides.  Jacob is the progenitor of the Jewish people, and Esau is… trouble.

For the most part, our sages ignore Jacob’s deception and shift the discussion to Esau’s character — concluding that Esau simply didn’t deserve his status as first-born. 

Certainly, selling one’s birth-right for a bowl of stew is far from admirable.  But our sages do not stop there.  Rashi claims that Esau was at fault because Jacob was actually conceived first.  Sforno claims that Esau’s Torah nickname – Edom, “Red” – is derogatory, as if to say “You are so divorced from normal human values that you can only see food by it’s color – a person like you should be red, like that stew you want so much!”

(The redheads here will be holding a support group directly after services.)

But what does the Torah text itself tell us about Esau?  Is he a bandit, a scoundrel, a deadbeat? 

Remember that Esau was loved greatly by Isaac.  This love is far from unfounded.  Esau the hunter did not hoard the produce of his hunting.  Rather, he used his labor to show his love for Isaac, bringing his father fresh and tender meat.  How many parents here wouldn’t mind your kid bringing you a nice steak dinner every week?

Esau is, on the whole, a good kid.  He even marries who his parents want him to.  Oy is this a mensh!

So why do the rabbis hate him so much?

Well, it turns out that the name "Edom" is used by the Talmudists for the Roman Empire, the empire that destroyed the second Temple and persecuted thousands of Jews.  So every time the word Edom or Esau appeared in the TaNaKh, the rabbis saw Rome. 

Instead of focusing their anger on their oppressors, they could take shots at Esau.  Sometimes, they would even refuse to say the name Esau or Edom.  In some medieval texts, every time the word "Edom" appears, it’s replaced by the word chazzer.

“Swine.”  Yowza.

So, in 2018 Red-and-Blue America, where does that leave us?

As I said before, where you see chazzerai probably depends on whether you define yourself as Red or Blue.

But, since I asked the question, I’ll give you my take.  Meanwhile, I encourage you to keep talking about it. Tonight.  And after tonight.

We’ll start here.  If you’re Jewish, you probably voted for a Democrat.  But not definitely.  Jews went for the Democrats 79-17.  But that means 1 out of every 6 Jews voted for a Republican.  In our congregation, with 280 families, that could mean something like 45 families. 

And we’re still all one congregation.  We’re still all Jewish families.  We’re still all family.

So I want to give each “tribe” something to think about. 

If you’re on the Red team, think about why people are afraid of your side.  Why do women and people of color and LGBTQ folks tend to reject Republican candidates?

Because it’s scary to be those things in the United States.  Because, like the rabbis of the Talmud, they look at the ruling authorities and see danger.  They look to the White House, and the Senate leaders, and they see people who demean their identity, discount their fears, dismiss their struggle.  They smell the smell of Esau in the field, bow in hand, looking for prey.

It’s terrifying.

I invite you to have compassion for their terror.  I invite you to open your heart to that struggle.

And what if you’re on the Blue team?  Think about why people find your side repulsive?

Yes, some of it is propaganda and fake news.  But poor whites don’t like being ignored.  And nor should they.  Factory workers don’t like hearing that their labor is irrelevant, that after decades working in the mill, they “need to learn new skills” for this brave new economy, and that everything will work out in the long run.

Because, in the words of economist John Maynard Keynes, “in the long run, we’re all dead.”

They rightfully distrust people who claim to be looking out for the oppressed and downtrodden, but then turn around and call them hicks and rednecks, who paint them with a broad brush as ignorant imbeciles.

I invite you to have compassion for them.  I invite you to open your heart to their struggles.

Because if I call myself a progressive, especially if I’m a Jew, it means I care about things like fair wages and healthcare.  But not just for people I like, or even for people who are nice to me.  For everyone.  I care about those things for people in Billings as well as in Brookline, in South Carolina as well as in South Boston. 

Not because they vote like me.  But because, as human beings created in God’s image, they’re entitled to it.

Our texts tell us to plead for the orphan, the widow, the immigrant.  To provide sustenance for the poor.

Not the Democratic-voting orphan.  Not the MSNBC-watching poor people.  All people.  Blue voters or red voters or non-voters.  Children from Massachusetts and children from Mexico and children from Mississippi.  The children of Jacob.  The children of Esau. 

All children.

All children of God.

I want to add one caveat.  Right now, Esau is more dangerous to Jacob than the other way around.  Yes, Jacob opens himself up to criticism when he cheats his brother out of his blessing.   He is far from blameless.  But it is Esau who responds, va’aharga Ya’akov achi.  “I’m going to kill Jacob my brother.”

It is the savage logic of far right White Supremacy that consumed 11 lives in a Pittsburgh synagogue, that cut down two African Americans in a Kentucky supermarket, that blithely destroys Latin American families.  Sometimes Esau stops hunting game and aims his bow at human beings.

But far be it from us to answer the dehumanizing rhetoric of one side with more of the same.  We know that, even in those who hold views we find most repulsive, still lives the eternal spark of the Divine.  The light of God.

Both Jacob and Esau grow up to have full lives.  But Jacob lives in terror of Esau until he discovers Esau has moved on.  Moved on from his hate and his resentment, finding space in his heart for light and compassion.

May we all find the love that Esau finds.  The love of a hunter, a man of the field, a brother.

The love of a man who looks into his heart and finds healing and love.  May we all look into our own hearts, and find the love that God has planted there.  Waiting to be reclaimed.


[1] Genesis 25:23

[2] Genesis 25:30

Tue, October 22 2019 23 Tishrei 5780