Writers and visual artists all know a simple truth, conflict begets great art. It is the dynamic tension between two opposing characters that gives us page turning novels and has us gripping the cushions of our seats during great movies.
This week’s parsha introduces the engrossing ongoing drama of the relationship of the twins, Esau and Jacob, and their descendants. From the very beginning of Rebecca’s pregnancy, we are introduced to the two souls struggling within her womb and we learn that “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 25:23)
Our rabbinic commentators heap on comments to further explain that, Esau, despite being the older one, is unworthy especially when compared to his brother Jacob. Each brother will be the progenitor of a great nation, but Jacob’s nation will rule Esau’s nation and will dominate him both physically and spiritually. Esau is a hunter, Jacob was more domesticated. Esau was so hairy and ruddy that Jacob wears a sheep skin to mimic his brother’s physique. Esau was straight forward, brash and demanding, Jacob was more pliable and concerned about his household. This theme of a younger son taking over for the older was also seen in Isaac and Ishmael and will continue throughout the Tanakh. Yet in the end, our text shows Isaac and Ishmael coming together to bury their father just as we will see Jacob and Ishmael reconcile later on in our text.
Despite the significant incidents that caused a rift between these siblings, they overcome them and learn to live alongside each other though their descendants have had problems and controversies that continue to this very day. Tradition teaches us that Esau’s descendants gave rise to the Roman Empire and Christianity. Ishmael’s descendants created Islam and Isaac’s and Jacob’s descendants created Judaism. Rav Kook said, “Just as in the Torah, Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, were eventually reconciled, so will Judaism, Christianity and Islam be in future. They would not cease to be different, but they would learn to respect one another.”
So, while divided by purpose, dramatic plot and historical divisions, the descendants of Ishmael, Jacob and Esau are still here today inhabiting the same planet, living alongside each other, distinct in their practices, but essentially still part of the same messy family from which we all have sprung.
In 2008, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks ended a commentary on this parsha with a phrase that still rings true to us today. He wrote, “G-d is the G-d of all humanity – the Author of all, who cares for all, and is accessible to all. In an age of resurgent religious conflict, these are truths we must never forget.”
May we too learn to respect and love our cousins of all faiths and work together to bring the light of faith, reason and hope to shine on all the world.
Rabbi Paula Jayne Winnig serves as interim rabbi at Congregation Rodef Sholom in Youngstown.