Over the course of two related tales, separated by many years, the Torah provides us with a duo of poignant moments in which Jacob makes his twin brother, Esau, break down and cry. At both the theft of his blessing, and upon reunification with the brother who betrayed him, Genesis provides us with the dramatic image of Esau, a powerful man moved to tears.
Jacob, among other things, is a thief. He takes advantage of Esau’s hunger to extract his birthright, and of his father’s blindness to steal his blessing. To apply digital era terminology to an ancient text, Jacob is an identity thief. Just as today’s identity thieves steal credit card or social security numbers to get what they want, Jacob misrepresents who he is in order to seize that which he could never obtain honestly. Not only does he take that which rightfully belongs to Esau, but he does so by impersonating Esau. Torah tells us that when Esau heard what had happened, “he broke out into wild and bitter sobbing.” (Gen 27.34) Yet even in his pain, Esau does not ask for his father to do the impossible and revoke the blessing that he gave Jacob, he pleads only that he too will receive a blessing: “Bless me! Me too, Father!”(Gen 27:38).
Two Torah portions and twenty years later, we encounter these twins again, and we are told again of Esau’s tears. Jacob must face the brother he betrayed, and Esau must face the brother who betrayed him. During the brief dialogue, in which they meet for the first time since the theft, Esau does not talk about Jacob’s prior deceit. When he speaks to Jacob, he does so in the authentic and familiar language of brothers. Jacob, however, uses a forced and contrived language of subservience. For it is he, not Esau, who remains haunted by the past.
These two moments are separated in both time and space. The first story unfolds indoors, in Isaac’s tent of Isaac in Canaan. The second story takes place, after two decades of Jacob’s service to Laban, somewhere on the paths of Edom, near Esau’s home in Seir. Yet, despite these differences, these two distinct are twins, just as are the principal players themselves: one of whom, Jacob, is associated with the indoors and the domestic realm of his mother, and the other, Esau, who is associated with the world of hunting and the outdoors.
In both stories, Esau is emotionally genuine, a person whose words and actions are true to what he thinks and feels. Jacob, on the other hand, is dishonest in both what he says and what he does. For all the dramatic bowing down to the ground and protestations of reverence, the Jacob we see in the reunification scene reverts to deception in order to avoid renewing a relationship with Esau. Jacob doesn’t really regard Esau as his master, and he lies to him about where he is going.
While Esau effusively embraces the moment as a means to a new beginning, Jacob manipulates their meeting as a means to an end. Jacob offers objects as a form of compensation for past offenses. Esau offers affection rooted in the feelings of the present and hopes for the future. Jacob’s primary emotion is fear. Esau’s primary emotion is love. Jacob enters bowing to the ground. Esau enters running to embrace. And while the text says that after Esau embraces and kisses Jacob, “they [both] burst into tears,” we can assume, based on what follows, that Esau’s tears are those of joy and love, while Jacob’s are those of fear and feigning. (Gen. 33.4) Esau wants to walk and live side by side. Jacob wants to live separately. Once again, Jacob will say and do anything to get what he wants. Esau says what he means, and means what he says.
Jacob approaches the moment of reunion as transactional. Just as in the earlier story where Jacob extorts the birthright from his famished brother in exchange for a bowl of stew, now he proposes to keep his life by propitiating Esau with livestock. Esau, by contrast, sees this moment as relational. This is the day he has dreamed of, an opportunity to make up for lost time, a chance to meet his nieces, nephews, and sisters-in-law. Esau does not want what Jacob has to offer, nor does he offer what Jacob wants. He never thought of permission to continue on safely as his to give or withhold in the first place. What kind of person wants to think about interactions with family this way? Perhaps the most heartbreaking contrast, however is this: Esau is honest about what he wants but doesn’t get it. Jacob is dishonest about what he wants and gets it anyway.
These stories, about the interaction between twin brothers, call on us to consider how we relate to others. Is the primary purpose of our connections with other people to provide us with what we want, or are we to engage in mutual give-and-take, nurturing on-going relationships with others? Jacob steals the blessing, and spends a lifetime paying for it. Esau spends his life without his rightful blessing, but this doesn’t prevent him from realizing the blessings of life. Terrible things happen to Jacob after he steals the blessing. Nothing terrible happens to Esau after the trauma of having it stolen. Jacob steals the blessing, and loses his integrity. Esau is emotionally devastated from the moment he learns his blessing has been stolen, but his integrity remains steadfast.
Esau teaches us that there are far worse things than to have your inheritance stolen and your heart broken. These things happen to Esau they don’t define Esau. Jacob teaches us that the price of getting what we want may be far higher than we ever wanted. Stealing the birthright and the blessing are the moments that define Jacob. Despite his dirty dealing, he gets to keep his ill-gotten gains. Yet, no matter how far he runs from the scene of the crime, he can never escape its consequences. We can admire Jacob’s nerve and ambition without admiring everything about Jacob. We can pity Esau for being betrayed by his family, without having only pity for Esau.
The resilience and generosity Esau demonstrates can inspire us to look beyond our disappointments, and keep our outrage within limits. Rather than respond to the theft of the blessing as though it has ruined his life, Esau lives his life as though it were a blessing. May the lessons that these twin tales of tears have to teach make us ever mindful of how precious and precarious our relationships can be.