VaYishlach: Meeting People with Different Needs

This week we have the conclusion of the Jacob and Esau family feud, one which has spanned three Torah portions. Let’s examine how this conflict came to be in the first place. We have seen Jacob and Esau bifurcated in a number of ways, beginning with Rebecca’s pregnancy struggles, with her two fetuses literally fighting in the womb, and her imploring God “If this is the case, why am I alive?” God replies that she has two nations in her womb, that one shall be mightier than the other and that the older shall serve the younger. Interestingly, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that the trope indicates a different message: the pause is after the word “older,” indicating “The older, the younger shall serve,” and perhaps this is why Jacob bows to Esau in this week’s portion. Nevertheless, a conflict is set up in utero.

Both brothers quickly emerged from the womb in a struggle to be firstborn. The first is covered with red hair and appropriately named Esau, “the mantled one.” The second holds onto the heel of the first, as he wants to come out first in an attempt to supersede him[1] and is named Yaakov, a name derived from the word “heel.” The brothers are described as different as night and day, with Esau being a great hunter and Jacob sitting in tents. Rashi equates Jacob with a yeshiva bochur, stating that he sat in the tents of his ancestors Shem and Ever studying Torah.[2]

One day, Esau returns from the field ravished one day and asked that his brother give him a bowl of stew. Jacob makes Esau swear his birthright away before giving him the stew. The story is further complicated by the fact that each parent favors a different child: Isaac the strong hunter and Rebecca the quiet homeboy. Isaac intended to give Esau a blessing after he went on a hunt and returned with game. Thwarting his plan, Rebecca disguised Jacob in the clothing of Esau and cooked a meal that Jacob served his father in order to acquire the blessing. When Esau found out about the ruse, he broke down saying “Have you but one blessing father? Bless me too father!”[3] and Isaac gave him a blessing to serve his brother but when he grows restive to break the yoke from his neck! Rebecca sent Jacob away under the guise of needing to find an appropriate marriage partner and he fled the wrath of his brother. Eventually Esau pursues Jacob who after splitting his family in half (so that one half could survive), bowed seven times in submission to Esau. The two appear to reconcile (though Midrash tells a different story) and all is happily ever after.

What bothers me about this narrative is threefold: first is that sibling conflict appears to be divinely ordained, from the moment the two brothers struggle in the womb. There will be a winner and a loser, a master and a servant. Secondly, both parents favor a different child and a wife acts behind her husband’s back to ensure that her favored child will receive the firstborn blessing. Thirdly, Jacob is rewarded for his trickery in “stealing” the blessing from his brother. This is so much the case that one of the meaning of the word יעקב is trickery, as we see in the Haftorah for Tisha B’Av, כי כל אח עקב יעקב, for every brother is a deceitful supplanter.[4]

How can we reconcile the problematic nature of the brothers? The process shall begin through an appreciation of what each of the brothers brings to the table. Esau was a hunter, a provider of food for his family. We should value those who, like Esau, are active, provider types. We also should value those like Jacob, who sit quietly in the tents learning. There is no need to pick favorites in such a case: rather we should see the gifts of both brothers as being of value.

Through the same logic, we can value all types of people. When I was growing up, I was the “ideal student,” the one who listened quietly to the teacher, asked questions and showed respect to my peers. Some of my more active and outspoken classmates were not “favorited” to the degree I was in the classroom. Neither were those who had learning difficulties, at least in the traditional style of reading the textbook and “spitting back” the content on a test. The irony was that I almost was not allowed to attend Jewish day school because I was taking OT, PT and Speech, and the day school did not want anyone with supplemental services. When they saw my test scores, however, they said “Oh, he’ll do fine,” and I was accepted into day school.

When I attended college and later the Davidson School of Education at JTS, I studied Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, understanding that students learn best in different ways. We created projects and portfolios that featured lessons focusing on different intelligences, whether music, art, intrapersonal reflection, interpersonal discussions or spatial activities. These lessons were designed to meet the needs of multiple types of learners, rather than solely the traditional “model student” or “teacher’s pet.” It made me truly understand that smart did not only refer to book learning, and that each person has both strengths and challenges.

In our interactions with people, we have a natural proclivity to favor some and not others, to appreciate the gifts of some while not noticing or being impressed by those of others. Too often we turn away from those who struggle with similar challenges to the ones we had, perhaps because it is too painful to see them. The story of Jacob and Esau teaches us about the dangers of this approach and of the importance of seeing the value inside every person. Esau was one who focused on actively doing, on providing for his family with hard days work in the field, while Jacob stayed indoors and learned home skills from those in his family. May we honor both of these personalities, as well as all others that we encounter in life. On a weekend when we express appreciation for all we have, let us learn to value the strengths that are our own and always see the positive in each person we encounter. In doing so, may our story always end with a hug and a kiss, just like Jacob and Esau’s did.

[1] A congregant’s interpretation was that Jacob clung to Esau’s heel so that he didn’t have to separate from him, demonstrating the closeness of the brothers.

[2] Rashi on Genesis 25:27

[3] Genesis 27:38

[4]Jeremiah 8:3

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