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Jacob & Esau The Model Family by Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

The Model Family? Esau and Jacob Fight it Out

Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina

“The other night I ate in a real nice family restaurant. Every table had an argument going.” George Carlin

The Bible teaches us that all families are complicated. Whenever I read the stories that are the basis of our faith and identity, I marvel at the imperfection and suffering of our founding mothers and fathers. Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden and forfeit paradise. The first brothers are disappointing, one is killed and as a result, the other one becomes a murderer.

Abraham never settles down in one place and is forced to banish one of his wives, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael, from his tent. His other son, Isaac, suffers the trauma of nearly being sacrificed by his father. Isaac brings up twin sons who are opposites, and they become mortal enemies.

Why do I marvel at these stories? In my mind, these stories are the models for our lives, and I read in wonder at the Torah in “telling it like it is.” Should we not expect that our Biblical models be perfect people who live perfect lives in a perfect world? Why does Scripture go out of its way to tell us the details of family dysfunction, broken relationships, sibling rivalry and hatred, and communication breakdowns?

One answer is that these are the stories of OUR lives. We parent children. We make mistakes. Sometimes we learn from the mistakes, sometimes we do not. Sometimes we have control of situations, sometimes we do not. This is the mess of life. Our Bible wants us to understand that these stories are about us, and that the challenges in our families serve a purpose.

When I was pulpit rabbi and engaged in family counseling for members of my congregation, it was always my practice to ask about family history: Grandparents, Relationships, Childhoods, Upbringing. It is possible to learn about a family from the intergenerational family patterns. In other words, if you want to understand Jacob and Esau and the eventual struggles between Jacob’s twelve sons, begin with Abraham.

We learn the good and the not so good from our parents. Isaac’s brother, Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, are banished by Abraham. Even though we know that Abraham struggled terribly with this decision, and only makes his peace with it after God tells him that this is part of the plan, Isaac does not. The influence of seeing his father make such a clear statement of favoritism leads Isaac to favor Esau over Jacob without any apparent qualms. We are not given insight into Rebekah's family to understand how her background explains her willingness to choose one child over the other. We do know this parental split leads to the breakdown of Jacob and Esau’s relationship.

Let us look more closely at the text.

"But the children struggled in her womb, and she (Rebekah) said, ”If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord answered her:

Two nations are in your womb, Two separate peoples shall issue from your body, One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger." (Genesis 25: 22-23)

The Torah makes it clear that the struggle between these two brothers begins before they are born. While it seems to be in their “DNA” to wrestle with one another, the behavior of their parents surely exasperates the struggle. By each parent favoring one son over the other, the stage is set for generations of family difficulty and conflict. This pattern of favoring one child over the other, set by Abraham’s banishing of Ishmael, will be played out many times among his offspring.

Isaac is unlike his wondering father. He settles down and creates a permanent home. He has a chance to correct his father’s mistakes and nurture his son’s equally. Alas, this is not to be. Jacob and Esau are pitted against each other, competing and wrestling from before they are born, and continuing to their adulthood. The struggle plays out in dramatic scenes described in the Torah.

The first scene takes place in the kitchen. Esau comes in starving, begging to be fed. His twin refuses until Esau gives him the birthright. All Esau cares about at that moment is to eat, so he agrees.

The story continues with another food scene: As Isaac feels that he is about to leave this world, he asks Esau to go and hunt and prepare him his favorite dish, and get ready to receive the blessing of the first born. Rebekah hears the conversation and takes the lead, orchestrating the next level of brotherly struggle. She prepares Isaac’s favorite food and sends Jacob to his father’s bedside, and instructs him to pretend to be Esau in order to receive the blessing.

The words uttered by Isaac are immortal. In Hebrew vernacular the expression has come to describe deep deceit and untruth:

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:22)

The drama plays out and the blind Isaac blesses Jacob with the irrevocable blessing of the first born. Of course, Esau is devastated to learn that he lost his blessing, in addition to having given up the birthright years before. We can imagine his cries, as he receives a second rate blessing from the father who favors him.

In his pain Esau vows to kill Jacob the moment the mourning period for Isaac is over (Everyone thinks Isaac is about to die at this point in the story). Rebekah hears of this and goes into action. She goes to Isaac and brings up the subject of their mutually hated daughters in-law, the wives of Esau. After being reminded of these two women who embitter his and Rebekah’s lives, he immediately bans Jacob from marrying a local woman like his brother did. He sends Jacob away to Haran, to the home of Rebekah’s brother Laban. Rebekah orchestrates things so that Jacob leaves quickly, before Isaac dies, out of reach to Esau.

We are then in for a surprise. Esau is the first to make a positive move towards redeeming a broken situation. In response to the hatred of his parents towards his Canaanite wives, and to their banning of local women for Jacob, Esau decides to marry a daughter of his uncle Ishmael, rather than a Canaanite woman. This act brings the story of family dis-function full circle, towards a positive outcome. The daughter of Ishmael, the son banished by Abraham, becomes the catalyst of healing. Esau takes the first step towards reconciliation. He desires a better relationship with his family.

Jacob, on the other hand, has a lot to learn.

After Jacob leaves for Haran, the brotherly relationship is on hold as we enter the story of Jacob’s life in Haran.

While Esau flourishes in Canaan and amasses a large clan and many lands and possessions, Jacob’s life is one of turmoil. Over the course of 20 years, Jacob is fooled into marrying the wrong sister, sets up a family dynamic that leads to much pain, as he favors Rachel over Leah, and lives a life of toil and uncertainty, working for his uncle Laban. Jacob barely escapes his indentured servant life, but eventually he succeeds in leaving Haran.

The brothers meet again. The story of this fateful meeting is high drama, filled with intrigue. Jacob is sure that Esau wants to harm him and his family. At the same time, he struggles with terrible guilt concerning his wrongdoing towards Esau. Before the encounter, Jacob prepares many gifts for Esau and he prays to God for deliverance. Jacob spends the entire night before this fateful meeting wrestling with the angel of God. Transformation happens. The result of this wrestling match is that his name is changed to Yisrael, “he who wrestles with the divine and with humans, and prevails.”(Genesis 32:28). He wrestles the divine, he wrestles with himself, and the terrible guilt he carries concerning Esau. Jacob also walks away with physical damage, a limp. He gets hurt. There is lasting damage.

The tension can be felt as Esau comes to meet Jacob upon his return, with an army of people. The outcome is not clear until Esau falls upon Jacob’s neck and they both cry in emotional pain. Esau has moved to the high country to make room for his brother’s family and livestock. Esau and Jacob reconcile.

When Isaac eventually dies, the Torah is clear: Isaac was a hundred and eighty years old when he breathed his last and died. He was gathered to his kin in ripe old age; and he was buried by his sons Esau and Jacob. (Genesis 35:28-29) The sons have made peace and stand together at their father’s grave. At the end of the road, the brothers mourn their father together. Though we meet the brothers struggling before birth, we find them here, after conflict and journeys, and after guilt and forgiveness, united in love and respect for their father.

This is not the end of the story. Despite the love the two brothers eventually demonstrate, the challenging family patterns continue in the next generation. Ultimate redemption and reconciliation is still far away.

In our own families, we all face difficulties and struggles with those we love. As we live together, we must remember that these struggles contribute to a meaningful life. In actively choosing to strive for shalom bayit, Hebrew for “peace in the home,” we move our personal family story towards redemption and reconciliation. It is important to remember that sometimes this is a task that only begins in our lifetime. Its completion then becomes our progeny’s opportunity to move towards redemption.

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