Monday, November 11, 2013

Family reunion / Vayishlach

Do you think Jacob and Esau had t-shirts printed up to commemorate their family reunion? If they had, what would they say? Would Jacob’s t-shirt say, “Youngest rule; firstborn drool”? Would Esau’s t-shirt say, “Dad liked me best”? Would the Rabbis have made one for Jacob that said, ““I’m the good one”?

The twin brothers’ struggles throughout life center on the very material aspects of Jacob’s inheritance: who will get the extra portion due the firstborn? Who will thereby carry the mantle of the family and the covenant of God? Deceit and guile have been the hallmarks of their relationship; Jacob’s deceit and guile, that is. It is interesting, therefore, that the venue for the reunion is not a country club, lodge, or even a tent, but in the land of Seir in the country of Edom, out in the open, a place we might associate with vulnerability but more importantly honesty. You cannot hide much out in the open.

Jacob leaves Eretz Yisrael with nothing, but he does not return from Haran empty-handed. Jacob did quite well in Haran; he amassed great wealth. Torah has already told us how he played in futures and schemed to breed Laban’s flocks and herds. 

Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom, and instructed them as follows: “Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now. I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep, and male and female slaves; and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.’” (Genesis 32:4-6)

The entrepreneurial spirit seems to be a family trait. Esau, too, is a wealth man:

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “we came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” (32:7)

Four hundred retainers? Esau has not only wealth but also great power. He has his own army. Not surprisingly, Esau views Jacob’s attempt to propitiate him with 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses (32:16-16) as a nice gesture, but assures Jacob, “I have enough, my brother; let what you have remain yours." (32:9) Only after Jacob pressures Esau to accept his gift does Esau relent. Which brother seems to be the one more attached to material wealth?

From Torah’s account, it is difficult to argue that Esau is all about material wealth and Jacob is all about the spirit, but that is precisely what the Rabbis attempt to do. They go to great lengths to paint Esau a crude and boorish man who seeks immediate gratification and is wholly unsuited to carry the covenant forward. In the rabbinic imagination Esau is the symbol, the stand-in for Rome and is said to have all the worst characteristics of the corrupt, pagan empire and its notorious emperors.

The Torah, without benefit of rabbinic commentaries, does not describe Esau in such unflattering terms. He is attentive to his father’s needs, a loyal son who labors to bring food home to the family, who lives simply (a man of the earth), and who is willing to reunite with the brother who tried to cheat him out of everything, and who does not hold a grudge or desire revenge. He is a self-made man. It’s difficult to ignore all this, yet the Rabbis succeed to a large degree. They go so far as to tell us that the twins’ personalities, priorities, and proclivities were determined even prior to birth. While yet in the womb, before even tasting life in this world, Jacob looked forward to olam ha-ba (the world-to-come) and Esau sought nothing more than the material pleasures of life in this world. Seder Eliyahu Zuta tells us,

When Jacob and Esau were in their mother’s womb, Jacob said to Esau, “Esau, my brother our father has two of us, even as there are two worlds before us—this world and the world-to-come. In this world there is eating, drinking, and the give-and-take of business. But with regard to all such activities, the world-to-come is quite different. If it be your wish, you take this world, and I will take the world-to-come.” Thus it came about that Esau took this world as his portion, and Jacob took the world-to-come as his.

It seems important to note here that Jacob presents this world and the world-to-come as an either/or decision and stakes his definitive claim on olam ha-ba, as if only one of them could prize the world-to-come, and seems to talk Esau into accepting this world alone. It is also important to note that Esau never responds. Jacob frames the choice, decides who gets which portion, and locks Esau into a decision he does not really make. Ever the manipulator. This is not, of course, how the Rabbis intend us to read this midrash. They expect us to understand that Jacob is the righteous brother, the tzaddik, from conception. Esau from the get-go is, well, Esau as we have been schooled to think of him: rough, pagan, unsophisticated, undeserving.

As types, this is a useful dichotomy. It helps us broaden our view and reconsider our own priorities. When are we being Jacob? When are we being Esau?

But this dichotomy also becomes embroiled in the Rabbis’ own contradictions that appear to paper over the text of Torah with hypocrisy, and surprisingly this, too, teaches us something precious and valuable. Midrash Eliyahu Zuta continues:

Now when Jacob came back from Laban’s house and Esau saw that Jacob had wives, children, menservants and maidservants, livestock, and silver and gold, he said to him, “Jacob, my brother, did you not say to me that you would take the world-to-come as your portion and that I would take this world as mine? How, then, did you come to all this wealth—wives, children, money, menservants, and maidservants? Why do you, like me, make use of this world?” Jacob replied, “What few possessions I have are what the Holy One has given me for my use in this world as the need arises.” In that instant, weighing the matter in his mind, Esau said to himself: If the Holy One has given him so much of this world, even though it is not his portion, how much more and more will God give him of the world-to-come, which is his portion!” (Seder Eliyahu Zuta 19)

How easy it is for us to maintain a narrative about someone—their moral caliber, their motivations, their actions, their behavior—and then explain even contradictory evidence to fit the narrative. In the imagination of the Rabbis, Jacob chose olam ha-ba over this material world. He protests he has but “few possessions,” which it is God’s will that he own, and which are for “my use in this world as the need arises.” But Jacob is hardly living at subsistence levels. We have seen him conniving to breed Laban’s animals in order to amass great wealth, and in this week’s parashah, we see him using that wealth to manipulate his brother’s feelings toward him. Remember the impressive roster of animals Jacob sends on ahead to conciliate Esau?

The Rabbis’ insistence that Jacob is spiritually pure and righteous, and their inability to see that their own words contradict the text is more than midrash. Our brains are constructed to notice and lock onto patterns. In fact, brain scientists tell us that our brains are pattern recognition machines. This capacity is largely what has helped the human species progress as it is has. But there is also a down side to this marvelous and unconscious skill. As neuroscientists who study brain plasticity say, “What fires together wires together.” When we observe certain behaviors or events and associate them with our feelings about someone, future behaviors and events tend to confirm and reinforce those feelings. For the Rabbis, Jacob can be seen only as spiritually pure and righteous, just as Esau can be seen only as crude, materialistic, and lacking in spiritual sensitivity. Accordingly, Jacob’s great wealth not only failed to prove that he, like Esau, had a stake in the material world, but even “proved” to the Rabbis the opposite: Jacob only accepted what God ordained he should have. He didn’t really want it, but what could he do?

If we maintain a narrative fixed in our minds we run two risks: First, narratives usually come with value judgments and presumptions. With a fixed narrative wired securely in our minds, we have a strong tendency to see everything a person says or does through the lens of that narrative. The “good” can do no wrong; the “bad” can do no right. And that leads to the second risk: In the case of someone who has exhibited consistent behavior over a long period, we fail to see when the pattern (the behavior) changes. Inadvertently, the Rabbis warn us of these dangers.

I suppose there is a third danger. We all have narratives about ourselves that include who and what we are, what we are capable of, what our limitations are, and more. How often do we make a decision because “that’s the only option for me”—at least, according to the narrative?

We apply such narratives to ourselves, to others in our lives, and to groups and nations around the world. “You know what they’re like…” “The only thing they care about is…” If someone asked us, “Are you prejudiced?” we would reject the very suggestion, yet carrying such narratives (as we all do) is the basis of prejudice: pre-judging.

But good news! Our brains create the ideas that constitute our minds, and our brains are plastic: they can change. Here Dr. Normal Doidge, the author of The Mind that Changes Itself explains neuroplasticity and its the dramatic implications, and here you can hear Dr. Michael Merzenich’s TED Talk on re-wiring the brain and the implications of that. Applied neuroplasticity? Dr. Richard Davidson describes research on neuroplasticity and meditation here. And this barely scratches the surface. (You might wish to begin with this highly simplified illustration of neurpasticity.)

Our Sages were quite correct: we can do teshuvah, we can reshape our minds, and we can change in very significant ways. Perhaps Jacob’s t-shirt should read, “I’m a work in progress and I’m working on me.” Come to think of it, we could all wear that t-shirt.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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