Jacob and Esau: Tol’dot – Genesis 25:19-28:9
Part I: The Character of the Two Brothers
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.