The God-Wrestler

The God-Wrestler: Track II Diplomacy

Parashat Vayishlach Genesis 32:4−36:43

by

Howard Adelman

We know, at least if the reading of the Torah that I adopt has any relevance, that Jacob is a schizophrenic individual – one who is born a Yeshiva bűcher, one destined to be a scholar lost in reading, reflection and thought, but one born clinging to the heel of the first-born twin, Esau, the hunter, a man of skills in acquiring the material goods of the world, a man who belongs in that physical world and disdains abstraction and reflection. Jacob grows up envious of his brother’s practicality and superiority in mastering the ways of the world, his sheer physicality.

Rebekah, Jacob’s mother, recognizes not only his otherworldliness, but the necessity of gaining mastery in this world if one is to survive and prosper. While Jacob could on his own easily and without much effort get Esau, who disdained relying on another for his success in the world, to trade his birthright for a bowl of hot soup, the abstract victory was meaningless unless Jacob knew what to do with it. Jacob still had to actually learn to be Machiavellian, to learn cunning, to learn the ways of the world. In fact, unlike Esau, he would have to be cunning to survive.

Rebekah thought she could teach him the cunning needed to succeed and contrived a scheme to win Isaac’s blessing as well as the birthright which he had obtained on his own. She would have Jacob trick his father by pretending to be Esau. But Isaac, though he was also a man of reflection, a man of tents rather than a practical survivor, who survived and became who he was only because God intervened and prevented his being sacrificed, was a man of irony, who perceived the world with a wry eye, who saw through the ruse, but went along with it.

So Jacob wins both the entitlement and his father’s blessing to have a rich and successful life in this world. Would he lose his own soul in the trade off? After all, in dealing with his father-in-law, Laban, he had to use trickery in the end to really outwit the old man, the father of his beloved. But it really took him two decades to learn the lesson, to acquire the wealth and learn how to keep it.

In the encounter that takes place in this portion of the tale, he meets his third test – the one that would complete his winning the birthright and his father’s blessing. It was to be a test in the real world and bring him back to his birth clinging to the heel of his brother. The outcome of the encounter is adumbrated in the section when Jacob wrestles with “ish” in that very enigmatic tale and then in his actual encounter and meeting with Esau after a separation of twenty years.

But the section has two other stories in addition to the tale of Jacob wrestling with “ish” and Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau. First, there is the awful bloodthirsty and morally repugnant story of Dinah, the murder of all the men of Hamor’s tribe when they were incapacitated by Simeon and Levi, the rape and the revenge extracted under the leadership of Reuben, the eldest brother. Then there is the story of the birth of Benjamin and the death of Jacob’s truly beloved, Rachel, in childbirth. In order to understand and unravel the meaning of the first puzzling story of Jacob’s wrestling match, and Jacob’s reconciliation with Esau, I want to work backwards from the meaning of the birth of Benjamin and the death of Rachel.

“Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labour. When her labour was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, ‘Have no fear, for it is another boy for you.’ But as she breathed her last — for she was dying — she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. Thus Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Ephrath — now Bethlehem.” (Genesis 16-19.”

Thus, the four following tales will be discussed in reverse order:

  1. What does it mean for Jacob to wrestle with “ish”?
  2. The Meeting of Jacob and Esau
  3. The Rape of Dinah and the Sack of Shechem
  4. Birth of Benjamin.

I have already told my readers that the latest book of my daughter, aptly named Rachel, just came out. An inscribed copy just arrived in the mail several days ago. Chapter 9 of The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception & Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible is entitled, “’Passing Strange’; Gender Crossing in the Story of Joseph and Esther.” In her book, Rachel argued, as illustrated in the case of Rebekah teaching Jacob how to win his father’s blessing intended for Esau concerning his future prosperity, about the central role of the feminine ruse to history and realpolitik.

Rachel begins the chapter with a quote from Act 1, scene 3 of Shakespeare’s Othello:

My story being done

She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.

She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,

‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.

She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished

That heaven had made her such a man.

It is the story of how Desdemona became so enchanted by Othello. She came again and again, driven by a prayer of her earnest heart, to hear Othello’s story of his pilgrimage through an adventurous life of a military commander, tales which Othello used to “beguile her of her tears” as he told of his painful encounters as a youth and a man who achieved greatness in the world. Desdemona confessed that, “’twas strange, ‘twas passing strange, ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful” as she expressed her envy and admiration for such an adventurous life.

Rachel (my daughter, not the biblical one) in the previous chapters of her book argued that deceit was a particularly feminine art of subterfuge, an art that allows the weaker “sex” to seize the reins of power from her counterpart. Jacob was an effeminate man who had to learn from his mother, Rebekah, the wiles of women in order to win power and wealth in this world. In the construct of sexual politics, Jacob:Esau = woman:man. He was passive but incorporeal, emotional but also calculating. Rachel’s chapter is about both Joseph and Esther, the descendent of Jacob’s last-born son, Benjamin, as feminine figures, a story which began in the internal struggle between Jacob’s feminine and his masculine side.

Rachel outlines all the parallels between the two stories of Esther and Joseph:

  • In a hierarchy of political power, both are “other,” strangers in a foreign court;
  • Both aim to please;
  • Both use the art of discretion to hide their identities to save their people;
  • In the process, the feminine side molts into the masculine as it once did with Jacob.

Both are stories of subterfuge, as has been and continues to be the tale of Jacob. Just as Isaac, as I interpreted the text, “saw” through the subterfuge of his son, Jacob, Jacob too would adumbrate the character of Joseph who could resist the entreaties of the wife of his boss, Potiphar. I do not intend to go through the parallels that Rachel draws out. (Read the book yourself.) Suffice it to say that Esther must not only use her feminine insights to unveil Haman’s ambitions and destructive behaviour, and thereby save her people, she also has to construct the revelation such that Haman will destroy himself and all the power that accrued to his retinue and family. She needed total victory. For she was in a battle with absolute evil.

As a true child of her forefather, Isaac, the book of Esther is weighed down in ironies. For it is a tale of how a Barbie doll became the power behind the Persian throne just as the story of Joseph was about how a dandy became the power behind first the Egyptian throne and then the onward success of Israel. But that whole process depends on the self-transformation of Jacob into Israel and the lesson that will be transmitted from parent to child through the descendents of Benjamin (or Benjamim, spirit man), the youngest son of Jacob. But how did Jacob learn that lesson and what was the lesson?

Before we move back to the story of Jacob’s wrestling and his meeting once again after a long absence with his brother Esau, we take up the story of sex and extreme violence that follows. Dinah, like Desdemona, is enthralled by adventure. She is more akin to her Aunt Rachel than even her own mother. At a very young age, she leaves the safety and security of her father’s home to travel to the land of Canaan, not to find a boyfriend, a man like Othello, but “to see the daughters of the land.” (Genesis 35: 16-19) But instead of seeing the daughters of the land, she meets up with Shechem, the son of Prince Hamor the Hittite, who “saw her, took her and lay with her, and violated her.”

In the Shabat morning study with our rabbi, I have had to revise my interpretation of the story. Rabbi Splansky suggested that it might not have been a rape. The word itself can be translated simply as “diminished”. Further, there is no mention that Dinah did not participate willingly. Further, she remained in Shechem’s house and did not return to tell her family. We are not told how Jacob came to learn of what happened to his daughter, but hear he did. Shechem says he loved her, not a usual feeling towards the victim of a rape. The sexual intercourse may have been consensual. But she may have been underage. Further, given the norms, Shechem should have asked permission from her father first.

What we do know definitively is that Shechem fell in love with Dinah, wanted to marry her. That, after all, was the honourable thing to do at the time, but especially true if he loved her. But when Hamor asks Jacob to allow his son to marry his daughter, Jacob asks for time to think about it and talk to his sons. We do not know how he actually responded to the request.

The sons, particularly her two full brothers, Simeon and Levi, are enraged that their sister was supposedly raped or even perhaps seduced by a tribe not approved by the Hebrew elders. But they agree to make a marriage contract. It seems clear that the contract was made in bad faith. It contained a very strange and unusual condition – that Hamor, his son Shechem, and all the men in that tribe, be circumcised prior to the marriage. Hamor and Shechem agree. They are circumcised as are all the men of the tribe of Hamor. And when they are circumcised and incapacitated by the pain of an adult circumcision, all the men are slain by Reuben’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, the latter the very one from whom the tribe responsible for maintaining the Temple would descend. Talk about tricks! This was the ultimate in subterfuge. But the substance is much worse – men who convert to the precursor of Judaism are all slain when they are helpless. Revenge is meted out, not just to Shechem. Genocide is committed against the whole tribe of Hamor, presumably by the argument that it takes a village to produce a rapist. Talk about punishing the innocent! Talk about collective punishment for the purported misdeed of one!

And how terrible a misdeed was it. Dinah was young. She was a virgin. He did not obtain her father’s permission first. But he clearly wanted to make amends and to share the lands of his tribe with Jacob’s tribe and all the herds and flock he had brought with him. As far as one can read, the offer seemed sincere, as evidenced by adult males being willing to undergo a painful circumcision.

This is a tale of deceit, negotiating in bad faith, a tale of guile that, even if it was rape, would not justify the response and especially the cowardly way it was carried out. All the other brothers – Jacob is not mentioned – participate in the pillage and seize the spoils of “war”. Not only the flocks and herds, but the sons of Jacob took the women captive and raped them. God never reproves their behaviour. This is in spite of the fact that it was also a deep misuse of the covenant central to Judaism. To use the brit milah, so sacred and central to the whole religion, to perpetuate this horrific act of revenge, turns the whole tale into a triple evil, evil of the worst kind of deceit, evil of the worst kinds of acts – murder, abduction and rape – and evil of the greatest betrayal of one’s relationship to God, a misuse of the central covenant linking Jews to their God. And Simeon and Levi would be punished.

Just before he died, Jacob blessed each of his sons in turn. However, he cursed Simeon and Levi together rather than singly.

49:5 Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.

49:6 O my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united: for in their anger they slew a man, and in their selfwill they digged down a wall.

49:7 Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

And scattered they were. They were the only two tribes that did not get their own land. Just before he cursed them and denied them their own land, he had cursed Reuben, not for instigating and masterminding the atrocity, but for sleeping with his concubine Bilhah.

49:3 Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power: 49:4 Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.

Reuben was more like his uncle, Esau, but with a greater sense of his own honour as well as strength. But he did not know how to manage it, how to control it, how to direct it. He was like Michael Corleone’s eldest brother in The Godfather, Santino (Sonny) Corleone.  Just after they perpetrate their great crime, Jacob admonishes his sons, but it is not for the evil they perpetrated, but for spoiling his reputation as a man of integrity and honour. “Ye have troubled me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land.” This suggests Jacob’s motives in the whole affair. Shechem, the rapist hopelessly in love and losing all his defences, turns into the ultimate victim. This tale of treachery, deceit, cruelty and evil is hard to stomach. And it is not clear whether Jacob is much better for he seems only to care about how he is regarded by others.

But as we will learn from the stories of Joseph and Esther, how one appears to others is critical to political success, critical to having your way in the world. So there are two sides to Jacob’s reaction, his seeming indifference at the time to crime was committed to the enormity of the evil, though this is misleading for at the end of his life he reveals the second side and clearly seems to comprehend how evil their actions were.

Dinah means judgement. Is there any possible way such horrific judgment can be justified? Right-wingers might do so, arguing that when facing evil, and rape is an evil and a rape culture is an even greater evil, then you have to get your hands dirty. I accept the need to get your hands dirty. But not that way. Further, it is the brothers who consider what happened as tantamount to rape. So why does God not reprove the perpetrators of this crime?

Put the story that follows, the birth of Benjamin, with this one. Benjamin is no Benjamin Netanyahu. Benjamin is the only son of Jacob actually born in Canaan and not Aram, and the only one of his children who remained innocent and without sin. Benoni means “child of my pain” and refers to the pain Rachel suffered in giving birth, the pain so grat that she died in giving birth, the pain of not being able to see her second son grow up, and the pain her death inflicted on Jacob at the loss of his beloved Rachel when she died in giving birth to Benjamin. However, the name that stuck, the name that meant “son of the right (south) side,” a son both born in Canaan and a child that was not to be sinister (from the left side), indicated that Benjamin was an individual of extraordinary virtue.

So we go from the bottom of the pit of evil to the pinnacle of purity that will lead to Esther who has to be able to offer just the right combination of cunning and innocence to pull off the most magnificent example of espionage in Jewish history if not the history of the world. Esther is not obsequious even as she conforms to the outward practices of obeisance to the Persian ruler. She operates with subterfuge in a way that the lesson was learned traced back through Jacob and Rebekah. But the tale of Benjamin follows from members of his own family, Benjamin’s brothers committing a heinous crime in the name of the proverb used by zealots against doves; “He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.” Esther won her victory by using her beauty, by using her wiles, to allow Haman to destroy himself.

Now we can return to the tale of Jacob wrestling with “ish” and meeting up with his brother, Esau, after a separation of twenty years.

Jacob has left the land of his father-in-law with an abundance of sheep and goats, four wives, eleven sons and a daughter and servants galore. He has learned how to get what he needed in the material world from his scheming father-in-law. But when Laban chased him, God had to intervene to save him from Laban’s wrath at being bested by this son-in-law that he regarded as a schlemiel. Now he has to meet up once again with his twin brother who vowed to murder him for the theft of his blessing. As it turns out, Esau did not really need it. He had grown wealthy as well.

Once again, when Jacob camps beside the Jabbok River before crossing, he prays for God’s intervention to save him from Esau as he was rescued from the wrath of Laban. “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. Yet You have said, ‘I will deal bountifully with you and make your offspring as the sands of the sea, which are too numerous to count.’” (Genesis 32: 12-13) Instead he is accosted by a stranger, the mysterious “ish,” often referred to as an angel. But before he does so, in his new cunning, he sends his twin brother “200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 16 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses.” Esau had to be overwhelmed, not only that his shmedrick of a brother had become so wealthy that he could give away that many animals as gifts, but that they were the best of the best. They were “select” class. But he did not send them all at once. He sent them in a series of droves to build up his brother from being just impressed to being in awe, telling each drover in turn to tell his brother that Jacob was just behind. In any Machiavellian maneuover, the mode of delivery is as important as the substance.

Then he sent his wives, his concubines and all his children across the river and he returned to remain on the far side from his brother all alone. Why alone? In fear of Esau attacking him? Was it a self-protection measure of a coward? Did he intend to desert as the Rashbam, Shmuel be Meir, the grandson of Rashi, argued? We are not told. What we are told is that when Jacob was alone,

a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. 27 Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 28 Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” 29 Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” 30 Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. 31 So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, “I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” 32 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping on his hip. 33 That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle. Genesis 32: 26-33)

Had the cunning he acquired deserted him when he had to come face-to-face once again with a brother bent on revenge? Is he unable to escape this trap? Where is the God that promised to save him? He does come face-to-face with God. Unlike in the ladder or ramp dream, God may no longer stand beside him, but he can directly confront God. The other reality: he is on his own this time. He confronts the other side of himself who no longer recognizes the other whom he has become. Has he lost being Jacob, the man of the book, and become Esau, but only on the surface, a poor replica without Esau’s skill and daring and at the cost of his original scholarly instincts?

He wrestles with his alter ego and comes to a stalemate, but not before that alter ego, that spirit of Esau that he had incorporated within himself over the years, injures him in the hip, crippling him and ensuring that he will definitely not be able to take Esau on physically, but also that he will never be able to run again. At the same time, God is not present to intervene to save him. Instead, Jacob had learned to wrestle with the divine spirit within, with the contradictions that can incapacitate, and to carry the wound from the fight physically just as he is healed spiritually. In the morning, even crippled, he is now ready to fight Esau if he has to. He is now Israel, one who wrestles with God rather than one who simply follows God and depends on divine intervention for survival. He becomes the God-wrestler.

He divides his group in two phalanxes. The text and interpreters suggest he did it to allow a remnant to escape (Nachmanides). But he is no longer the coward he once was. He is now Israel. He is now an intelligent military commander. If he has to fight Esau, he will do so using a pincer movement, the very same traditional military maneuover that Paul Kagame used to win victories over and over again against the extremist genocidaires in 1994 in Rwanda, the very way an inferior equipped and manned army can defeat a stronger and better gunned enemy. This is a military maneuover not inconsistent with saving a remnant if that becomes necessary. But it seems clear that he is expecting a battle. Going to battle and planning one half of your side to escape if the battle ensues, seems moronic.

Precisely because he is willing to fight, he does not have to. His brother hugs him on their reunion. There will be no final battle between the twins. They are reconciled. And Esau asks Jacob to share the land between them.

But the new Israel is still also Jacob and not simply Esau. He was able to foresee that this would mean trouble. And he neither wanted to nor could wrestle with his brother again – for wealth, for a birthright, for a blessing. The only way he could remain Israel, the one who was both Jacob and Esau, was by clearly saying that he could not keep up with Esau on the physical front. So he agrees to follow Esau, but falls behind.

“And [Esau] said, ‘Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.’ But he said to him, ‘My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; if they are driven hard a single day, all the flocks will die.  Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.’” (Genesis 33: 14-15)

Esau is Lord. Jacob refers to himself as his servant. Is this an act of distasteful obsequiousness? Or is it rather a way of avoiding an unnecessary future confrontation, For Jacob now knows he is Israel, the progenitor of a great nation, and does not need to win any victories over Esau. The servant will eventually become master of his own realm without the necessity of defeating the other, without the necessity of squashing Shechem and his tribe, without the necessity of becoming a regional or certainly a world power. As Joseph and Esther eventually do, he will live by his wits, by his intelligence and be quite happy to serve the masters of the physical universe, to live in booths when necessary, to celebrate Succot, so long as the nation is preserved. He will have learned the basic lesson of diplomacy, discretion and keeping some things hidden.

 

Jacob’s Dream and Jacob’s Children

Parshat Va-yetzei: Genesis 28:10 – 32:3

Jacob’s Dreams and Jacob’s Children

by

Howard Adelman

Family is important. Jacob stopped to rest en route from Beersheva to Haran, also known as Paddan-Aran. Haran was the dwelling place of Terah, his three sons, Abraham, Nahor and Haran, from which Abraham, then called Abram, left the family homestead and went on to Canaan. In Haran, Abraham’s two brothers – Nahor and Haran – along with their children and grandchildren, lived. Among those grandchildren was Laban, grandson of Nahor and brother of Rebekah.

Haran (the place, spelled with a chef versus a heh) comes from the Hebrew word, har, meaning “mountain,” but the word can also mean “parched,” an unlikely association of the place name given how the flocks and sheep and goats under Jacob’s care flourished during his courtship of Rachel. En route to Haran, Jacob stopped to rest where he had his famous dream of the ladder between heaven and earth and the angels ascending and descending the ladder or staircase. Jacob would name the place Beth-el, God’s abode, after he had that dream.

Family and diachronic relations are not the only items of primary importance in the Torah. Each specific place (makom) and its name, the synchronic reference, always rivals the account of descendents, the diachronic dimension of the Torah. Parshat Va-yetzei, the departure, or, more precisely, “he went out,” is the place of the home of Jacob’s father and his brother, Esau, the place from which he fled. Perhaps the section is as much about the place that he left as the place he stopped to rest or the place, Haran, to which he travelled. Between the two, the place he grew up in and now feared, and the place in which he placed his future hopes, was the place he named Beth-el, which means house of God, God’s abode, where God is first worshipped in one place. Beth-el was where Jacob received his first revelation directly from God in the form of a dream.

The importance of that place is stressed, as usual, by repetition. Since in a few sentences, macom is used six times, Beth-el is clearly a very important place. It is where Jacob’s famous dream takes place of the stairway to heaven or the ladder joining earth and heaven with angels ascending and descending those steps or the rungs of a ladder.

He had a dream; a stairway (more accurately, a sulam, probably a ziqqarat or ramp though I will continue to use the tem “ladder” as that is how the dream is best known) was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. 13 And the Lord was standing beside him and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring. 14 Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. 15 Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. (Genesis 28:12-15)

The Lord God was standing beside him or, in an alternative translation, at the top of the ladder in the dream. God directly promises Jacob, first that the land on which he rests and that He promised to Abraham, will be the land of Jacob and his descendents. Second, God promised Jacob that his descendents will be like the dust of the earth, settling everywhere, east and west, north and south. Third, God promised that all nations will be blessed through the nation founded by Jacob. Fourth, God promises Jacob protection until he returns to his homeland.

This is more or less the same promise that Jacob received from his father, Isaac, nine verses earlier, before Jacob set out for Haran. There were several significant differences however. Isaac never included the third promise that other nations would be blessed as a result of the nation that will be the product of Jacob’s loins. Second, Isaac never promised Jacob that God would protect him until his return. Third, the order of the first two promises is reversed. The promise of being fruitful, of having many progeny and becoming a congregation of peoples, precedes rather than comes after the promise of ownership of the land.

God Almighty bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of peoples; and give you the blessing of Abraham, to you, and to your seed with you; that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham. (Genesis 28:3-4)

This blessing was very different than the one Jacob supposedly tricked his father into giving him when it was presumably intended for Esau. That blessing promised enormous wealth and prosperity. That blessing promised, not that other nations would be blessed through the mediation of Jacob’s descendents, but that nations would serve and bow down to Jacob. Other nations who curse the house of Jacob would be cursed. Other nations that bless the house of Jacob would be blessed.

God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.2 Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brethren, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you. (Genesis 27:28-29)

In the third of these three blessings, the only one given directly by God, promises for the future are clear. But what was the meaning of a ladder or staircase joining heaven and earth? What is the meaning of the angels traipsing up and down? And where precisely was God standing in the dream? To the last question, there are three answers. God was at the top of the ladder. God was on the ground beside Jacob. Third, the meaning could be equivocal and suggest that God was in both places at one and the same time. I suggest the second answer as the clearer meaning. God was on the ground beside Jacob.

Generally the dream is interpreted as angels, servants or messengers of God, running up towards God and down to mankind as intermediaries. But that is odd because the very sense of the dream is that God is talking to Jacob directly and not through any intermediary. Further, angels are not always intermediaries. Before God gave the Torah to Moses, the angels in heaven, according to the Talmud (Shabbos 88b) evidently protested, insisting that angels are better designed to honour and cherish it. But Moses took up the challenge and insisted that since they (the angels) had neither children nor parents, they could not follow the mitzvah of honouring parents, The Torah was, therefore, meant for humans because humans had progeny.

However, if those traipsing up and down are literally angels, why would they need a staircase or a ladder or, for that matter, a ramp? They can fly up to heaven and down to earth. Yet virtually every commentator I have read insists they were actually angels. The debate is over the meaning of the ladder or staircase, some interpreting it diachronically as representing progressive stages in history, others interpreting the ladder as representing different stages in the rise to spirituality from human degradation where, after the so-called Fall, man was a “vessel of shame and disgrace, empty and wanting.” In either case, then those running up and down cannot be angels because they do not have ethical lives on earth that can be improved and they are not characterized as having higher and lower degrees of spirituality.

Rashi interprets the dream as having a strictly earthly and synchronic dimension, in keeping with the repetition of “place”. The ladder stood on the boundary between Eretz Israel and the diaspora. Most commentators, however, take the hierarchy of spirituality approach. Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed (I.15) argues the angels are the prophets who serve to translate the meaning of Torah to the rest of humanity. God then is not standing beside Jacob on the ground, but at the head of the ladder. He is the unchanging constant, the stabilizer and reference point for humanity in terms of which we can measure the development of our rationality in true Aristotelian style in reference to the Unmoved Mover that is God. The Torah is not in service to man, but casts man in the role of a servant to God in strong opposition to the view that humanity is dearer than the entire world, even real angels.

A Chassidic disciple of the Vilna Gaon agreed that the ladder represented different stages of spiritual development and stressed, not human reasoning or even thought more generally, but deeds, deeds that try to be more worthy of God. In the Zohar, the ladder is not actually on the ground but is anchored in heaven where spirit (ruach) and the soul (nefesh) are united and can then descend into the hearts of man.  At least the Torah is seen for the benefit of man rather than seeing man as only put on Earth to worship God as mankind aspires to move upwards towards God. In the latter view, man is base and must overcome his evil ways.

Is the Torah God-centered or human-centered? Are intermediaries needed? As I reflected on these and other interpretations, I grew very tired. As most people know, I get up very early. But I do not usually go back to bed for a nap until after breakfast and I have finished my blog. This morning I became overwhelmingly tired. I lied down and instantly fell asleep. That instant sleep is common. Most unusual, however, I had a dream. I even remembered it.

The angels were my angels, my six children and all their offspring. They were my children and grandchildren, some going up to heaven and others descending from heaven. They were angels with legs not wings. And all of them belonged to both worlds, heaven and earth, idealism and the practicalities of everyday life. And all of them at different stages of their lives were traveling in one direction or the other, sometimes towards aspirations, at other times to more practical concerns – getting an education, finding a partner, earning an income, finding a house. But every one of them was involved in both to different degrees at different times. Children and grandchildren traipsing up and down are the gateway to heaven. The abode of God is within the family, in having a place for that family and in having children. That is where God lives among humans. The gate of heaven is on the ground where it meets earth, not at the top of the ladder. It is the place where a frightened fugitive, a refugee from his own home, has to swap the comforts of that home for a stone as a pillow.

This is perhaps a mundane rather than esoteric interpretation, different but akin to Rashi’s, but it made total sense to me. Further, I understood not only the dream, but the meaning of the story that followed in a way I had not understood before.

The story that follows is straightforward and virtually everyone knows it. At the well, Jacob falls in love with Rachel, Laban’s daughter, who is shapely and beautiful. Jacob works for Laban seven years to win her as his wife. But Laban tricks him and sends in Leah, the older daughter, into his marriage bed, just as Rebekah once sent Jacob into Isaac to get the blessing ostensibly intended for Esau. To win the beautiful Rachel’s hand, Jacob has to work another seven years. But he has worked fourteen years for no material benefit and has only wives and children to show for it. (More on that in a minute.) So he makes a deal with the very tricky Laban. By then, Jacob had 11 sons and one daughter, 6 sons by Leah, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah (Levi and Judah constituting the priestly and political/military class of the House of Israel and Judah), Issachar, Zebulun, the latter two and a daughter, Dinah, only born after Leah uses a mandrake to get Jacob once again to make love to her. Rachel is the one who willingly gives her place in bed to Leah for the mandrake root that Reuben, Leah’s eldest, had found and collected and which allows her at last to bear the first of her two sons, Joseph. As Jacob once traded a hot pot of soup to Esau for his birthright, Rachel now trades her place in bed for a right to give birth.

Jacob then turns the tables on Laban by learning, via the lessons of his mother, Rebekah, and also his wife, that if you are to gain anything on this earth in terms of wealth, you have to be wily, though not dishonest. He tells Laban not to give him wages, but to give him “every speckled and spotted animal – every dark-coloured sheep and every spotted and speckled goat – as his wages. Such shall be my wages. In the future when you go over my wages, let my honesty toward you testify for me: if there are among my goats any that are not speckled or spotted or any sheep that are not dark-coloured, they got there by theft.” (Genesis 28: 32- 34) Laban then tricks Jacob once again by having his sons remove the spotted and speckled and mottled animals. But Jacob is by now onto Laban and turns the tables by breeding spotted, speckled and mottled goats and sheep, leaving the feebler uniformly coloured animals for Laban. Before Jacob’s time was up and he had served another six years, Jacob snuck away with his wives, his concubines and his servants, just as Laban had snuck away and left his sons to steal away the spotted, mottled and speckled members of the flock when he first made his deal with Jacob.

There is one more tale of trickery. Rachel steals her father’s household idols. When Laban chases Jacob in flight with all his animals and household staff and catches them in what is today Jordan, the hill country of Gilead, he is warned by God not to begin a conflict because God is there to protect Jacob. Laban changes his mind in his intention to wrest what he considers his animals back from Jacob. Laban says that he only chased Jacob and his family because Jacob did not allow Laban to send them off with a proper goodbye.

However, when Laban demands the return of his household idols from Jacob, who never knew that Rachel stole them, Rachel sits on them hidden under a camel pillow and claims she is sitting on her pillow because she is having her period (with the implication that she is unclean). Jacob then turns the tables a second time and ends his role as a supplicant. He remonstrates Laban for his false accusations, for his trickery, for his deviousness and cheating Jacob of all he deserved over the past two decades.

Laban then says: “The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine. Yet what can I do now about my daughters or the children they have borne? Come, then, let us make a pact, you and I, that there may be a witness between you and me.” (Genesis 31: 43-44) The real wealth Laban had lost was not the sheep and the goats, but the love of his daughters and his grandchildren. Laban made a pact of peace with Jacob. And we have been taught that the real wealth of life is the children who climb up and down the ladders between idealism and practicality. So when Jacob leaves the camp to finally head home, he once again sees angels and Jacob recognized that where he had made that compact was God’s camp and he named it Mahanaim, just east of either the Jordan River or the Jabbok River.

Was it named “two camps” because the place represented the location where the two camps of Laban, the wily trickster greedy for wealth, and Jacob, who took twenty years to master the ways of the world, finally made peace? Or was it named two camps because the place represented the site where the camp of God met the camp of Jacob. I believe the name was given because it was the place where the camps of idealism and the camp of realism, the camp of striving for perfection and the camp of necessary guile, first met and agreed that Israel was to be founded on the complementarity of both rather than exclusion of one by the other. Instead of wisdom and judgement as the perfect balance between reason and compassion, the balancing act requires hard-headed strategic thinking married to ideals. The balance is not an equilibrium constant but is constantly shifting and requires us to shift with the requirements of a situation. Steps and rungs are not stages but mechanisms for going down as well as up, and going down is often a virtue.

Christians often cite the passage in John (1:45-51) where Jacob’s dream is cited and interpreted and where Jesus greets Nathaniel and says, “Behold an Israelite in whom is no guile.” The response from Jews must be, “A human with guile is not without ideals, but he has gotten rid of his naïveté that in all others who are less ‘pure’ becomes the root of hypocrisy.” We must travel back and forth on a highway between Haran and our homeland, between realpolitik and idealism. Jews do not need a leap of faith to accept inherently contradictory positions. Nor do they require steps or rungs or stages to reach a higher level. Jacob acquires that wisdom through experience in the rough and tumble of life.

I regard the view of Jacob as someone who seeks to overtake Esau as mistaken. He needs to hang onto Esau until he can cope on his own because he is a naïve dreamer. His first effort gets him an empty birthright without any guarantees. His second effort guided by Rebekah only gets him a blessing which promises only wealth. In his subsequent efforts, he is the one who is tricked until he learns to turn the trick on the one taking advantage of him. Jacob is akov, indirect, not because he is a deceiver, but because he has not yet found his way. When that route is completed, he will become and be renamed Israel

Jacob and Esau: Part II The Prize and the Deception

Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9

Part II: The Prize and the Deception

by

Howard Adelman

In the last blog, I described the character of the two brothers. In this blog, I depict how the dynamic of their relationship works out in Jacob obtaining Isaac’s blessing.

Recall, there are three, rather than two blessings. Actually, as we shall see, there are four, for there is even one referred to before the first, but it is given no descriptive content. The first fulsome blessing, as distinct from the one without any content, was ostensibly meant for Esau; Jacob receives it. “May God give you of the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, And nations bow to you; Be master over your brothers, And let your mother’s sons bow to you. Cursed be they who curse you, Blessed they who bless you.” (Genesis 27: 29-30)

Then there is the one given as a substitute to Esau, as a consolation prize.

“See, your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth And the dew of heaven above. Yet by your sword you shall live, And you shall serve your brother; But when you grow restive, You shall break his yoke from your neck.” (Genesis 27: 39-40)

In both blessings, each gets rich. But in the first, one emerges as a ruler.  In the second, the individual will live as a samurai, by his wits and by means of his sword. And never remain willing to be a serf to any other. Esau is too much of a free spirit.

Then, in the next chapter, comes the third blessing given directly to Jacob whom Isaac recognizes as Jacob. “You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women. Up, go to Paddan-aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father, and take a wife there from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother, May El Shaddai bless you, make you fertile and numerous, so that you become an assembly of peoples. May He grant the blessing of Abraham to you and your offspring, that you may possess the land where you are sojourning, which God assigned to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:1-4)

Look at the difference between the three blessings. Only in the third does Isaac guarantee that Jacob will be the direct heir to the lineage of Abraham, that Jacob will become the don of this family. Like Isaac before him, Jacob is commanded to travel back to the family homestead, to travel back to the equivalent of Sicily as it were where he will both be safe from the wrath of Esau and obtain a wife from his own tribe, by marrying a cousin, a daughter of his mother’s brother, Laban. Then and only then, only on this condition, will El Shaddai, bless him. Not Isaac, but God Almighty Himself will bless Jacob. And the fallout from that blessing – ownership of the promised land assigned to Abraham.

Contrast this with the first blessing. It is not a promise, but a request. “May God give you…” And what does he get if God blesses him – abundant rain, rich crops from the earth. Supremacy and power over other people, including his own brothers. Most of all, it is a blessing for others, not Jacob, for people will be blessed who recognize Jacob’s worth – an irony for the interpretation that Isaac did not recognize who his son really was. Others will be cursed who curse the Hebrews, the direct and rightful heirs of Abraham.

This could not be a blessing intended for Esau. Esau was not a farmer, but a hunter. Why would he want abundant rain and rich soil? Further, as is clear from the rest of the story that follows, neither brother wants the other to bow before him, even when, each in his own way, seeks reconciliation with the other. Esau is not in search of power over others. However, coercion is the only way Esau knows how to survive. He could become a gunslinger, a lone lawman, a Wyatt or Virgil Earp, a Wild Bill Hickok or one of the less known Western marshals such as Johnny Behan. Jacob will get power inadvertently as people come to respect Jacob for who he is, not because he lords over the people with coercive force. Those who respect and comprehend the worth of Jacob and the people descended from him will he be blessed.

Now look at the second blessing that Esau does receive, the consolation prize. He too shall be a farmer with good rains and abundant soil. Not exactly a prize for a great hunter and adventurer. But Esau is condemned to live by the rule of the sword, through might rather than right. And though condemned to serve his brother, he will grow restive at being a servant and break the yoke that holds him in the position as a military commander and, possibly, a settled farmer. Thus, his energy, his might, his self-assurance, will all be of benefit to him. For Esau will not end up in service. But he is also not destined to win the respect of others, for, unlike Jacob, he will not be recognized as a righteous man, but he will be respected as the fastest gun in the West, a loner in defence of the law. Both Esau and Jacob will receive the blessing that is truest to their character and their role in history, the blessing of liberty, different types of liberty, but, in each case, one favoured by God.

Now I believe we are in a position to understand what happens when Jacob supposedly tricks Esau in receiving the first blessing. Recall who is bestowing the blessing, an old, blind father who was born as a late-life gift to both his parents, but grew up to be a passive character following his father willingly and quietly, ready to be slaughtered simply on the command of God. He was probably most likely traumatized by the effort, a man who weds a beautiful woman who is as wilful as he is not. She falls in love with him at first sight (or, as someone suggested to me, fell off her camel because she was so distraught at the impulsive and wilful (wrong) choice that she made). Isaac follows the pattern of his father and pretends Rebekah is his sister, not his wife, to Abimelech. Isaac is quickly caught and embarrassed, but Abimelech becomes his protector. And Isaac, working hard, makes a go of it and becomes wealthy.

However, when the Philistines challenge him, he does not fight back but moves on to find new wells, or, rather, to restore the wells his father once used. He is clearly not a fighting man; he is passive and perhaps a coward. But Abimelech protects him and God blesses him and promises him many heirs, but not because of who he is and for what he does, but for the sake of his father, Abraham. Isaac, the child born of joy, of laughter, has turned out to be a nebbish. And look who each parent favours. The wilful, independent Rebekah favours the passive, obedient and reflective child. The male parent, the introvert and scholar, favours the elder who is adventurous and can also supply him with wild game to eat.

Suddenly we jump years. Isaac is old. He is blind. He calls to his eldest. Esau replies, “I am here.” Isaac asks Esau to hunt the game he so loves. After that, after he eats the meal prepared from the game, he promises he will give Esau his innermost blessing. Is the promise of abundant rains and rich soil and crops, the supplication of other nations and rule over others, his innermost blessing? Or is the second fulsome blessing the one most suited to Esau, the one innermost in his thoughts, rather than the first, so unsuited to Esau’s personality? Perhaps Esau wanted Esau out of the house and delayed for awhile so he could secretly bestow his blessing on Jacob.

Here, I have to introduce a sidebar on Isaac. Though passive and somewhat of a nebbish, his name is laughter. But we have not seen much of it, certainly in the commentaries or character of Isaac as interpreted by most bookish commentators. They seem oblivious to the lightness of being. But irony and a twinkle even in a blind eye goes a long way to understanding Isaac. Isaac’s character must be read with laughter, with jocundity in mind. One is helped if the story of Jonah is understood as a satire and if one understands Hegel’s or Kierkegaard’s or Northrop Frye’s writings on irony. The misreading of Isaac’s character is akin to Plato’s misreading of Socrates. Aristophanes understood Socrates for he, like Isaac and Jacob, live in The Clouds.

As Kierkegaard wrote:

There is an irony that is only a stimulus for thought, that quickens it when it becomes drowsy, disciplines when it becomes dissolute. There is an irony that is itself the activator and in turn is itself the terminus striven for. There is a dialectic that in perpetual movement continually sees to it that the question does not become entrapped in an incidental understanding, that is never weary and is always prepared to set the issue afloat if it runs aground—in short, that always knows how to keep the issue in suspension and precisely therein and thereby wants to resolve it. There is a dialectic that, proceeding from the most abstract ideas, wants to let these display themselves in more concrete qualifications, a dialectic that wants to construct actuality with the idea. Finally, in Plato there is yet another element that is a necessary supplement to the deficiency in both the great forces. This is the mythical and the metaphorical. The first kind of dialectic corresponds to the first kind of irony, the second kind of dialectic to the second kind of irony; to the first two corresponds the mythical, to the last two the metaphorical—yet in such a way that the mythical is not indispensably related to either the first two or the last two but is more like an anticipation engendered by the one-sidedness of the first two or like a transitional element, a confinium[intervening border], that actually belongs neither to the one nor the other (Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, 121).

In the first story of Jacob so easily getting the birthright, seemingly the most important reward, from Esau, we have an example of irony that sets up the action, that serves as a stimulus for reflection, that belongs to the sphere of the mythical, that allows the reader to anticipate and the writer to adumbrate what happens in the seemingly more serious competition for Isaac’s (and God’s) blessing. In the mythical part of the parsha, the action is almost over as soon as it starts. In metaphorical irony, in irony focused and derived from the real interplay of characters, that belongs to plot rather than character portrayal, the stress seems to be on performance, but the meaning is about the suspension of belief, about the suspension of any simple resolution about what is taking place, about preventing any simplistic understanding, and, thereby, about resolving mis-understandings.

Look at how the trickery proceeds. First, it is Rebekah’s idea, not Jacob’s. Second, she tells Jacob that she overheard Isaac tell Esau to fetch him some game. Not a lie. I want, Rebekah says to Jacob, you to take advantage of the long time it will take before Esau hunts down some wild game and prepares a meal to just grab a couple of baby goats and she, Rebekah, will prepare them into a delectable meal. You, Jacob, take it into Isaac to get his blessing.  Did Isaac deliberately send Esau on a task that would take some time? Did Isaac know that Rebekah, just as Sarah overheard God’s messengers in discourse with Abraham, was also standing in the doorway overhearing Isaac’s conversation with Esau? Was Isaac aware or unaware of his wife listening to his conversation with Esau?

However, to understand the second metaphorical irony, we must understand that it consists of negation, of denying what is first put forth on the surface, of the trickery in obtaining the birthright. Getting the blessing, getting the guarantee, not a verbal transfer of a phenomenal prize in exchange for a cup of hot soup, is where we will find the real action. The second tale explicates the meaning of the first.

Jacob objects to Rebekah’s initial proposal. He does not say, “I do not even sound like Esau.” He says, in anticipation of his father feeling his arms, that he lacks Esau’s hairiness. Jacob is smooth-skinned. ‘If my father catches me, I will be revealed as a trickster,’ he tells his mother. Rebekah reassures him that it will work. Anyway, if Isaac finds out, the curse will be on her head for she is the initiator of the ruse, not Jacob. There is no explanation of why the trick will work, why Isaac will be taken in by someone who sounds like Jacob, why simply wearing Esau’s clothes, and hence smelling like Esau, why covering his arms with goat skins, will suffice to trick Isaac.

Initially, it seems that Isaac is onto the trick. Who are you? “Which of my sons stands before me?” (Genesis 27:19) Then Jacob tells an outright lie. “I am Esau, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Pray sit up and eat of my game, that you may give me your innermost blessing.” (Genesis 27:20) It’s unbelievable! Unbelievable that Isaac will be taken in with such a simplistic scam. It is even unbelievable that Jacob would tell an outright lie to his father, even on the direction and command of his mother. Isaac is now even more suspicious. ‘How did you hunt down the game so quickly?’ he asks. Jacob lies a second time. “Because the Lord your [not my or our, but your] God granted me good fortune.” (Genesis 27:21) Even more suspicious, Isaac tells him to approach. He feels his arms and find them to be hairy. He is perplexed. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis 27:23)

Why did Isaac not check Jacob out further? Why did he not call on Rebekah or a servant to verify who stood before him? After all, the person before him sounded just like Jacob and any blind person depends on his ears much more than his sense of smell or touch to decide who or what is in front of him. It was not as Isaac he was about to die. He was in no real hurry. He still had lots of time. Even after he blessed Jacob, he retained his doubt. “Are you really my son Esau?” (Genesis 27:25) Jacob lies a third time. “I am,” he replies.

Talk about identity theft! Isaac then asks for the food and smells his son’s clothes, really Esau’s clothes, and then offers him the first blessing, which is really the second one for the first is given before he eats, but it does not have any content.

Let me ask a number of questions. When did Jacob become so unscrupulous? It seems totally out of character. He is the good son, the obedient son. Jacob’s eldest son will deceive him about Joseph’s death.  That could be excused, for Jacob’s eldest son wanted both to save his own skin (literally) and spare his father pain at the loss of his favourite. But to lie directly to your father and tell him you are the older brother just to get a blessing! For it is clear that he would get a blessing in any case. And why is Isaac literally so unbelievably naïve? And why does Rebekah concoct such an outlandish and virtually preposterous ruse?

I suggest a possible answer. Jacob is the one really being tricked. For what was it all for? Not to supplant Esau to inherit the right of primogeniture. For the blessing he does get, after the empty vessel of the first one, is one of riches. Nations will bow down in gratitude, as the nations do that go to share in the wealth of Egypt thanks to Joseph’s foresight. But those nations do not bow down in servitude, but in appreciation. The only mastery Jacob, and, via Joseph as well, that Isaac will obtain is mastery over his brother.  And even that will not last. For Esau will break the yoke of servitude.

But no nation will bow down to him and his progeny even in just gratitude unless he smartens up, unless he loses his naiveté, unless he learns somehow to become a Machiavellian. As Rav Kook wrote in a commentary on this parsha, “Even negative character traits have their place in the world. Ultimately, they too will serve the greater good.”  And if Jacob can learn to lie boldly to his father, admittedly under Rebekah’s direction, if Isaac is in on the trick and recognizes that Rebekah is correct in her prescience that Jacob is the only choice for the future of the family, then, like Michael Corleone, Jacob must switch course, or be made to switch course, but not as in the case of the Corleone family, by external circumstances, but through the guidance of the parents, primarily Jacob’s mother. He must, as Michael does, learn to acquire the koyach, the strength, the guts, the determination, the will-power, to become the don. Jacob has to learn to be a heel. Bad ways must be aufgehopt to serve a higher purpose. Isaac has to be in on the trick. He may be blind, but he is not stupid. But Jacob is not in on the trick. There is no indication that he recognizes that he is the true spiritual heir, for all he demonstrates is reluctance and his own father’s passivity under the circumstances. But in the process, he learns to tell three very bold lies.

Isaac knows full well that taste and touch and smell cannot be the primary methods of confirmation. Either hearing or sight is needed, and, as well, we recognize that hearing is often, it not always, a better tool for recognizing another’s identity than sight. Isaac knows full well that Jacob will not supplant Esau, except as the don, but he must do it so that the family can continue and thrive, but do it in his own way consistent with his character, but also through a degree of character transformation.

The irony of the story is Isaac’s self-perception, his critically activist role while appearing as a passive dupe. After all, Abraham cannot pass the baton to Jacob except via Isaac. If the key to such a transfer is understanding the positive role of deception, if it requires understanding how getting a birthright cannot simply be accomplished by blackmail, by trading a cup of hot soup in return for becoming the heir to a nation, but requires connivance of a very serious order, connivance which Jacob clearly has to acquire and which we, as Isaac’s progeny, must understand. If the game was as simple as it first appears, then we are the ones who do not understand the sophistication of trickery and its importance, and therefore how we need to proceed as a light unto the nations, as the expression of the lightness of being, by hiding our light, by being seemingly blind, by appearing as a fool and a dupe and, therefore playing the role as one of the wisest of our forefathers.

We will have to see in future blogs whether this interpretation becomes more plausible as we go forward.

Jacob and Esau: Part I Personalities

Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9

Part I: The Character of the Two Brothers

by

Howard Adelman

The Godfather, the original 1972 movie, not the sequels, is a Francis Ford Coppola academy award winning film (for best picture, best actor – Marlon Brando as Vito, the Godfather – best adapted screenplay). It tells the story of a mafia family. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the son evidently chosen not to end up a criminal, but destined for academia or a profession, though he initially appears in a marine uniform that adumbrates that he is not just an ethical and upright person, but one who has the koyach (koach in Hebrew), the strength, the guts, the determination, the will-power, to become the don of the Corleone family.

Michael has an older brother, Sonny (James Caan) who looks like he is an Italian redhead. He is the eldest and presumed heir of Vito, the underboss. He is very tough, but also very rash and not very reflective or calculating. He has an explosive temper. Courage, as Aristotle taught us, is a balance between being rash and being cowardly. Sonny was hot-headed. That characteristic gets him killed by a rival mafia family. (The other brother, Fredo (John Cazale), is the cowardly one who eventually betrays the family when he falls under the wing of Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), in real life, Bugsy Siegel, a Jewish mobster and Las Vegas manager of a gambling casino that he runs in partnership with the Corleone family. The tale is not only a story of a crime family, but an account of the politics of a family in rivalry with other crime families in a world that is “nasty, brutish and short.” Making it long and leaving a legacy requires cunning as well as physical strength, intellectual calculation as well as brute force.

Esau did not have it. His father may have loved him for his courage, for his dashing presence, for the fact that “his hunt was in his mouth.” But it is this very last trait that made Esau unsuitable for the responsibilities he would have to undertake. He did not have the power of speech. For what is important for a leader is what comes out of his mouth, not what he puts into it. And Esau, like Sonny, is too much of a womanizer. In the film, when Sonny speaks out of turn in a meeting with a rival mafia family, Vito rebukes him and suggests his affairs have made him soft.

Jacob is to Esau like Michael is to Sonny, only even closer. On the other hand, though, on the surface, the personalities of each of the pair seem to be similar, key differences in both the characters of each of the brothers and the nature of the relationship are crucial in understanding both the similarities and differences between and the two stories. Sonny saw himself as the protector of his smarter younger brother. But Jacob and Esau are not just brothers, but twins. Further, the struggle with one another supersedes any struggle with rival tribes. As is foretold to their mother, Rebekah,

“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)

One might think that the older one serving the younger would depict the older as the weaker, not the mightier. But the possibility is that the mightier will serve the weaker. So hold your judgement. Esau is the older, and Esau will end up serving the younger. But, as we shall see, Esau will remain the mightier, the one who lives by the sword. But the sword will end up in service to the savant.

Tol’dot is the parsha that tells how that came about. And the story starts with the struggle of the two twins in the womb and then their birth. “When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first one emerged red, like a hairy mantle all over; so they named him Esau. Then his brother emerged, holding on to the heel of Esau; so they named him Jacob.” (Genesis 25:4-26) Esau seemed to be like Sonny, rash, impulsive, all strength without the brains to match. Jacob seemed, to a greater extent, akin to Michael Corleone. But similarities can be misleading.

Jacob had his hand on his elder, fraternal rather than identical, twin’s heel. Instead of emerging from the womb after some interval, Jacob is usually portrayed as struggling to supplant and replace his older brother even when in the womb. But that seems to be at variance with the character of Jacob who is portrayed as bookish, retiring and very uncompetitive. In fact, the whole idea of Jacob supplanting his brother comes from their mother, Rebekah, not from Jacob. Jacob’s hand is on Esau’s heel because he will be the one in the end, best able to control and manipulate the passions. (As Rav Kook writes, the heel represents instinctive nature, for the Hebrew words for ‘foot’ and ‘habit,’ regel and hergel, share the same root.) Jacob will be the one able to calculate like his mother, able, as in Plato, to bring the wild horses under the control of the brain through the mediation of real courage.

Jacob means someone who follows at another’s heel. To follow at another’s heel is not the same as following in another’s footsteps and certainly not taking over those footsteps. Some have suggested that the meaning refers to Jacob as “heeled,” that is one who overreaches through cunning. But, as I will try to show, Jacob is initially anything but cunning. Calculating and cautious, yes, but cunning, no. Rebekah is the cunning one, not Jacob. It is she who will conceive the ruse to win Isaac’s blessing. Jacob is the epitome, not of one who insists that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for.” (Robert Browning from his sonnet, Andrea del Sarto) Jacob’ story is not a tale of a character who has zeal, deep passion and an ambitious desire to achieve lofty goals and aspirations. Like many characters in The Torah, he will be chosen to do so in spite of his personality that on the surface makes him out to be quite unsuitable to the task.

Instead, Jacob’s hand took hold of Esau’s heel rather than reaching out on its own towards heaven. Further, though Jacob will win his father’s blessing, he never supplants Esau. The two brothers go their separate ways. Besides, if the Torah meant supplant, then the Hebrew equivalent of the planta, or the sole of the foot, would have been used as a metaphor, not the heel. Jacob does not pursue his older brother’s birthright. He is commanded and guided by his mother to do so. Rather than charging out to beat his brother, Jacob is a momma’s boy. His victories come about by clinging to his brother’s heel, not by supplanting him. They come through some degree of calculation, not by energy and zeal, by obeying his mother’s commandment and not his own inner determination.

Later, he will not emerge as a victor when he wrestles with the angel. He prevails precisely because the match ends in a tie, with Jacob himself wounded and crippled. This is not the portrait of a person whose ambition leads him to supplant his brother. So Jacob is not really like Michael Corleone. When Jacob holds onto the heel of his brother in emerging from the womb, he is not trying to pull Esau back so he can get ahead of him, but clinging to Esau to allow Esau to drag him out of his cozy and protected cave. Jacob is clearly not someone portrayed as overreaching, but someone who depends on another for physical strength.

What about Esau? Is he a Sonny, rash and impulsive, to some degree thick, but very strong? Esau is even often portrayed as the epitome of evil. But there is no evil here. Rather, Esau is the heir of the personality of both Abel – a hunter – and of Cain, who was quick to become angry. Esau combines the traits of those founding brothers and rivals. But, in the tradition of Cain, and like his brother Jacob, Esau will end up a farmer yoked to the land until his restlessness sets him free to once again pursue adventure and daring.

Esau is confident, assertive and competitive, brash but not really rash. Wasn’t he rash in selling his birthright to Jacob in return for a good hot meal? No, he just gave little value to the distant future. He was a man of the moment, someone who liked the hunt and adventure. Aggressive and full of self-confidence, he did not need Jacob’s cautionary approach to ensuring his future. He was assertive and decisive, possessing the typical character of a first-born or only-born. He was a very skilled hunter and loved the outdoors. If he lived today, he might have become a great fighter pilot.

When the boys are grown up and Esau returns from the hunt famished, instead of Jacob simply sharing his meal with him, Jacob insists on a trade, offering him food in exchange for his birthright. Esau seems to have no problem with that. He was totally confident and reliant on his own inherent capacities, unlike his supplicant brother, Jacob. He was skilled in the ways of the world, confident in his ability to make a living. Why would he need to rely on the privileges and rights of primogeniture (bechorah)? He was internally motivated and needed no external props to let him get ahead. Further, the immediacy of life interested him far more than any long-range planning, necessary for one not as well endowed in the ability to make his way on his own. At the moment he was starving, not literally, but hungry for immediate experience of taste, smell and the texture of food. Further, Esau loved his younger brother in a way that Jacob did not reciprocate. As far as Esau was concerned, his brother needed the birthright much more than he did. So he gave it up in exchange for a bowl of hot soup.

This was not so much an impulsive act as a gesture of good will. It was not a rash act, but an action born of someone who is confident, and, unlike Jacob, self-motivated. Esau did not have to ask or rely upon someone else to tell him what to do. Self-reliant, self-motivated, he had full confidence in his own abilities. This did not make him impulsive. A skilled hunter has to be patient, possess highly developed hand-eye coordination, be very earthy and rooted to the ground rather than prone to flights of fancy, esoteric thinking and visionary dreams.

Esau may not have been a profound thinker, but he clearly was no slouch. He just loved action more than reflection, but he had to be of superior analytic skill to be a skilful hunter. He just loved the adrenaline-driven life of action. Essentially, he was a man for whom the excitement of the moment, the smells and tastes of a material and richly embodied life, counted much more than any calculation to protect long-term interests. He loved a driven, fast-paced life, one that led him to marry two Hittite women disapproved of by his parents. Although a hedonist and a materialist, he clearly is quite capable of thinking and reasoning. And there is no evidence of any evil whatsoever.

Further, Esau truly loved his brother. He might have become angry at his brother’s betrayal and his mother’s trickery, but he also proves very forgiving when the two brothers meet up once again after a separation of many years. In fact, Esau proves to be loyal rather than suspicious, trustworthy rather than an opportunist. He may seek to dominate and be restive with service, but that also makes him ill-equipped to rule over others. Esau is NOT evil. Only an elitist bookish nerd might consider him as an evil person. He is simply an extrovert, a man of few words and very driven, pushed by his inner compulsions and instincts more than careful deliberation. He is also very agreeable and personable, in contrast to Jacob, who is somewhat of a coward, calculating and clever in figuring out how to protect himself, but not driven to dominate or have power over others. Esau wants to experience life. Jacob wants to give in service to the future. Esau has a synchronic personality. Jacob has a diachronic one.

Before I try to defend that position any further and my interpretation of how Jacob succeeds through trickery in winning his father’s blessing ostensibly meant for Esau, in the beginning of the next half of this commentary, I will focus on the rewards themselves and analyze each of the blessings.

Shame and Humiliation: Part I of V: Shaming and Shame

Shame and Humiliation

Part I of V: Shaming and Shame

by

Howard Adelman

Is shame a virtue or a vice?

Shame is what you do to yourself. Humiliation is what one person does to another. You humiliate your neighbour when you try to shame him or her. Trying to put a neighbour to shame is one ineffective way of trying to get rid of the shame you feel in yourself. Whether expressed inwards towards oneself or displaced outwards onto another, as the ancient Jewish sages wrote, “Better a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”

Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and got her father-in-law, Judah, to sleep with her so she could conceive. However, even though Judah had broken his promise to provide his other son as a husband for Tamar so she could have a child, even though he publicly denounced her as a prostitute when it became obvious that she was pregnant, Tamar refused to humiliate her father-in-law and the biological father of the foetus she carried in her womb. She revealed the truth only in private to him and not only informed him that he was the father of the child, but gave him clear proof. He decided on his own to acknowledge his guilt in not fulfilling his promise to Tamar and took responsibility as the father.

The story of Joseph, the favourite son of Jacob, and the coat-of-many-colours his father gave him, is also a tale of a refusal by Joseph to shame his brothers before their father. His brothers had pretended that wild animals had killed Joseph when they had sold him into slavery. When, many years later, his brothers, during a drought and famine, traveled down to Egypt for provisions, Joseph had risen to the highest position in the land next to the king. However, he kept his identity secret and made his brothers go back and bring his father. Joseph then revealed himself to them, but adamantly refused to humiliate his brothers by telling his father what happened. He lied. Joseph had not told his father earlier even to relieve the pain at the loss of his favourite son lest Jacob take out his wrath on his brothers. Joseph always made his concern for his brothers’ dignity as human beings primary. He fabricated a story to spare his brothers ignominy, humiliation and the wrath of their father.

If it is wrong to humiliate another and shame him or her in public, is it wrong to feel shame oneself? Carl Jung called shame the swampland of the soul. Steve McQueen recognized this when he directed and co-wrote the part of a sex addict played by Michael Fassbender in the movie, Shame. As it happened, when Shame was given its public release, Fassbender appeared in another movie released at the same time; he played Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method. It is 1904 and Carl Jung is treating a new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), with Sigmund Freud’s new talking cure. Shame was also a theme in that movie for Jung diagnosed his patient as being obsessed with sexual humiliation, in her case, brought on by the abuse of her father.

In the film, Shame, Fassbender stands before the audience in full frontal nudity. What a contrast to being em-barr-assed! In fact, the movie is about the main character, Brandon, who insatiably pursued sex. Sex was not on display in such detail for titillation, but to allow the audience to get inside Brandon’s head and learn to understand a man running away from himself and escaping his deep sense of loneliness through sex. Standing nude before us, not with Fassbender’s usual macho body, we view Brandon as an addict who fuels his addiction with junk food while watching porn and masturbating.

Shame is the product of our loss of self-esteem, our increasing self-doubt and insecurity. When we feel shame, we have set aside any consideration of our self-worth. Shame feeds on self-loathing. That self-loathing, in turn, forms a vicious circle to propel us into behaviour that increases our contempt for ourselves even further. Shame is indeed a “soul-eating emotion” in Jung’s terms. I knew a mother of a grown daughter who obsessively shamed her offspring in public. The mother would directly tell her daughter, “Why can’t you do it as beautifully as ….N?” She asked her daughter rhetorically, “Why can’t your child be as smart as G?” That mother fed on humiliating her closest offspring, yet her daughter had learned to turn the tables and prevent shame from swamping her life and, most importantly, disrespecting herself and showing disrespect to her own mother. The daughter was still never perfect enough, still had to be everywhere exactly on time, still had to perform always at the highest standard. But she did not allow the shame to eat away at her soul as if it were the spiritual equivalent of a flesh-eating disease.

Shame is allowing your self-worth to be determined by how you appear to others. Ironically, shame, so tied with exposure, hides in the deepest recesses of your being, subverting your self-worth in the most devious ways. Fed by self-doubt and a low opinion of oneself, shame is not determined by who you are or what you do, but by the phantom of who you are supposed to be.

Why then is shame defined as a painful feeling that arises from a consciousness of dishonourable or improper behaviour towards another? It is because we project shame onto another and believe it is the other who behaved dishonourably? Tim was a sexist. Rachel was a dissembler, if not a liar, who, to compound her problems, showed no proper respect towards her parents. He or she should feel pain, we insist. He or she should be conscious of his or her misbehaviour. But it is we who cast stones who must become self-conscious of our behaviour. Tim Hunt did not feel that he was disgraceful. But he was disgraced. Rachel Dolenzal pursued her quest to identify with and fight for the rights of Blacks with intelligence and energy. But she was subjected to public shaming as a dissembler and even a liar.

Deborah Blum is not only an American journalist and columnist for The New York Times, but also a Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for best reporting for her series entitled, “The Monkey Wars” on the ethical conflict between scientists who use animals in their experiments and animal rights activists opposed to this purported cruelty to animals. As a star science reporter, she gave a parallel lecture to Tim Hunt’s in South Korea at the Ninth World Conference of Science Journalists. She wrote about what happened to Tim in an article for The Daily Beast called “Sexist Scientist: I Was Just Being Honest,” the title of which quickly informed readers about her view of Tim Hunt as well as satirizing rather than explicating and understanding his own account.

Both speakers had given their lectures. At the luncheon afterwards, they were each asked to add a few informal comments. Deborah talked about the way women make science smarter. Tim gave a tribute to women’s contribution to science. He then went astray to talk about his troubles with girls in the lab (supposedly humorously, and suggested perhaps structuring labs on the apartheid principle).

Deborah Blum’s nerves had already been set on edge when Tim referred to female scientists as “girls.” When he made his infamous remarks which I wrote about, Blum, along with two other science journalists, were appalled.  They tweeted simply to put what they had seen and heard on record, and the story went viral. Tim later protested that he had been “hung out to dry” and that he had only been joking, but to no avail. He insisted that no one had called him to ask him to explain what he meant. Blum took umbrage at that for she declared that she had made a point of asking Tim for that very explanation. In that explanation, Tim had evidently said that, “he was only trying to be honest.” But Blum never reports on what that explanation was. She presumes the remark was just a revelation of Tim Hunt’s sexism, though she quotes from his apology to the Korean female scientists and journalists. Most serious of all, in contrast to her award-winning series on the war between lab scientists and animal rights activists, she never even attempts to explore the war of righteous journalists battling for the purity of principle in a number of different fields and the sacrifice of individual human lives and reputations in that crusade.

Hunt had written that he regretted his “stupid and ill-judged remarks.” He added: “I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.” Blum acknowledges that this indicated that the event was not entirely an “ill wind,” but not because Hunt’s remarks were not an ill wind, but because Hunt was forced to retreat and retract his sexist remarks – without ever determining whether those remarks were intended to convey a sexist worldview. Blum never tries to reconcile the remark, Tim Hunt’s apology and his behavioural record as a scientist and collaborator with women or to explore why he would offer such a tasteless joke. Instead, Blum went in another direction. She challenged characterizing the firestorm that followed as a “witch-hunt” and, instead, insisted that, although she sympathized with anyone caught is such a media storm, “if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones.  Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.”

But that is precisely the nature of a witch-hunt. The individual hunted down and quartered does not count. What counts is the principle. And if Tim Hunt had to be sacrificed on the altar of pure principle, so be it. Further, it was not even worth investigating whether there was any empirical evidence to support her assumption that Hunt was a sexist. That was just a given. The remark was made. He said that he was trying to be honest. Case closed. And that has been the problem with most of the journalism coverage of both Tim Hunt and Rachel Dolezal. The frame determines what the facts are. Disputes over interpretations of so-called facts are set aside and certainly never traced to different frames of interpretation. Nor is her own role in igniting the firestorm critically investigated. After all, Deborah was just tweeting for the record. She had not intended to bring Hunt down. But when the corpse of his reputation lay in tatters, that was just the cost of upholding a principle. Quite aside from never investigating whether such pain was proportionate to the alleged offence, Blum never asks whether her offence might have been far worse than Tim Hunt’s. He apologized. She remained self-righteous.

However, shaming another begins with being made to feel ashamed of oneself. How do we combat shame that somehow has been instilled in us? By self-love. By self-respect. By attending to our actual performance rather than our inadequacies and all the ways we fall short. Shame is a cancer that can only be held at bay by subjecting it to laughter and derision, by forcing it into the light where it has a great deal of trouble thriving. For shame belongs in the shadowland of the soul. It is a saboteur, a terrorist of our spiritual health. It sends the message that we are unworthy and unloved, indeed, unlovable. Shame corrodes. Shame corrupts. Shame paralyzes and induces impotence.

That is why it is wrong to try to hang a scarlet letter of shame on another. If feeling shameful is a process of sickening oneself with the thought of oneself, shaming is often the effort to project that state of being onto another because of what one believes deep down about oneself. To project shame on another is to attempt to relieve oneself of that feeling no matter how we rationalize it. Why do we try to get rid of the feeling by ejecting it onto another? Because we feel deep down that we are not good enough and so try to bring down someone who appears too good, too active in the battle against privilege. Rachel Dolezal is a case in point.

And she was vulnerable. She did not show proper respect for her parents, whether they were her biological forbears or not. She somehow seemed ashamed of them. She stumbled when she tried to articulate who she was and who she was trying to become because she lacked an adequate intellectual framework to articulate her own aspirations within a more universal context. However, as I will later try to show, no matter what she had done, once caught up in a system of shame, there is no escape and no method of throwing off the shame. For it is akin to a Haitian curse, to having an effigy of oneself struck through with a long needle. The pain is excruciating and cannot be avoided. Further, the process, once accepted and dominant in a culture, gives official permission to allow others to portray the shamee, in this case, Rachel, as a dissembler, as someone who deliberately wore a disguise, because there was a grain of truth in it. The world is invited to join the exercise of shoving in pins. But the real truth was that Rachel courageously took on her own self-definition of who she was, and, further, stood up to the abuse and name-calling.

Tim Hunt, in contrast, when he cracked a stupid dumb joke and it backfired, fled the field when the abuse and put-downs poured in. He offered a clearly sincere and heart-felt apology, that, as can be expected when one understands witch hunts, was either ignored or misinterpreted and used against him. But he never joined the media circus. A Nobel Prize winner had been brought low. The institutions that are there to protect intellectuals from their deepest vulnerabilities because they venture to work on the frontiers of ideas, suddenly turned tail and allowed the lions to maul and scratch and bite their own offspring to deflect the public rage against themselves. Tim Hunt could be the most courageous of individuals in pursuing the frontiers of knowledge in a field where he had enormous expertise, but when he inadvertently left his comfort zone, and failed to perform up to scruff, the lions were waiting. Released into the arena of public opinion, Tim Hunt never had a chance. The feeling of inner doubt that he had worked his whole life to overcome through superb performance to insist that he was good enough rather than never being good enough, now escalated into a different domain altogether. “Who do you think you are?” Not satisfied with watching a highly respected man being drawn and quartered, the watchers and gazers, those who cried for more blood, tramped on the torn and shredded body to demonstrate their own disgust with themselves.

Do not get me wrong. Those engaged in humiliating another never experienced their sadistic behaviour, their efforts to humiliate, their desire to bring an esteemed person down, as an engagement in public humiliation. No. They were serving a higher purpose – fighting against sexism or combating a failure at transparency. Like the Puritan witch hunters of old, they were serving a higher calling. “This is who we are!” they shouted from their fountainheads in the media. “Now see where you are.”

But what about Jian Ghomeshi, Evan Solomon and Senator Mike Duffy when they failed in what they actually did, when their hidden selves – their sadism, poor judgement or greed – were exposed to the public glare? Should they not feel shame? Should they not be humiliated and disgraced?  Perhaps the media firestorm was far out of proportion to the slip-up of Rachel Dolezal and even more so of Tim Hunt, but surely those other three should be made to face the guilt for what they did.

Facing guilt and shaming are two radically different enterprises. Ensuring that they face what they did wrong does not require humiliating them. If they erred legally, it is for the courts to judge. If they failed ethically, society will hold them to account and convey what is unacceptable behaviour. There is no necessity to heap on humiliation. They may or may not feel shame. But we fail if we try to transfer our own sense of low worth onto any of them. Humiliating another is unacceptable, not simply or mostly about what is done to them, but about what we are doing to ourselves.

A shaming society is a society of witch hunts and public flogging. It is not a society that tries to raise the level of self-worth of everyone. A society of shaming is a society that says we all have equal value when that can only be done by bringing many of those with great value into the common trough. If they misbehave, they must be found guilty in the eyes of the law or in public valuation. They must be brought face-to-face with their guilt. But rubbing their noses in the trough of greed or a failure in transparency and recognition of what they did wrong, only enhances the difficulty they face in dealing with the truth about themselves. More importantly, it hides and displaces our failure to deal with the truth of who we are. They have done it to themselves by their behaviour. What those guilty of a crime or moral turpitude deserve from us is compassion and a sense of proportion. And it is the latter that is so sorely lacking when we engage in schadenfreude.

A society that respects guilt and allows and encourages confrontation with one’s guilt is a healthy society. A society which indulges itself in humiliation and shaming is a sick society. A communist system is a shame culture par excellence, a culture that undercuts any individual’s capacities to be allowed to feel guilty or grant recognition to another individual.

Shame is not the acknowledgement of guilt. Shaming is not the focus on what you did to harm another. Shame is not an effort to get someone to acknowledge that what was done was bad – though I will later discuss a hybrid that pretends and contends that it does precisely that. Shame is not assisting another to apologize sincerely and to take a punishment proportionate to their deeds. Shame is humiliating the other, is heaping scorn on another. And it is always done in the name, not of a specific legal or moral code, but in the name of a universal abstract principle – anti-sexism, honesty, Puritanism, communism.

Shaming someone because she did not show sufficient or proper respect for her parents is not an effort to allow Rachel to face her failure. For her failure is allegedly misrepresentation. The abandonment of respect for her parents was viewed as the core case of that failure, not the core of  failure in her altogether. For if she was alienated from her parents, that was simply an interpersonal problem between Rachel and her father and mother. But if she disowned her parents for the purpose of lying and dissembling before the public, then Rachel crossed a universal moral principle which we must all uphold –  honesty. And honesty is the demi-god before which all journalists must bow down in an uncritical idolatry.

That god was called Veritas, the goddess of honesty in the ancient Mediterranean world. I will not go into the difference between the parallel Athenian god, Athenaia, which offers a subtle explanation. Instead I will try to offer a mythological explanation of why representatives of the public media seem to take such much pleasure in revealing that a greatly admired or respected person has feet of clay. I will retell the tale about Veritas that can be found in Aesop’s Fables.

Tomorrow: Part II of V: Veritas, Prometheus, Mandacius and Humiliation