“Jacob made mistakes, but he acted as his mother wanted him to do. And he later came to regret the harm he’d done. I rest my case.”
So ended my 10-year-old defense of our perhaps most central spiritual ancestor, Jacob, the guy who later gets renamed Yisrael – Israel – from which the Jewish people take their name…
I was in 4th grade in cheder, 10 years old, in what we called “Sunday school,” at my synagogue, in Kansas City in the 1990s. And our best cheder teacher, the eccentric, thoughtful Steve Sakin, had tasked us with a most memorable project — we were holding a court case to adjudicate the morality of the tale we just heard read today. When Jacob tricks Esau his twin brother out of first his birthright, when Esau is famished and just wants a meal, and then again when their mother Rebekkah instructs Jacob to deceive their father Isaac into getting the firstborn son’s blessing, intended for Esau.
This is a rift between brothers, between the closest of family blood relations, that cries out from the Torah — because it has its echoes, even, all the way back in human history, the Torah tells us — before even Cain and Abel, the first human murder, all the way back to their parents, Adam and Eve, who are deceived by the snake in the Garden and then try to obfuscate responsibility when God “finds outs,” Adam blaming his partner, Eve, and Eve blaming the snake… Deception and blame and questions of family succession (who is the favoured child? Who is more loved, more recognised? Who is responsible?) are written deep into the DNA of the Torah — and, I suspect, deep into human DNA…
I was a 10 year old like many 10 year olds. That is to say, I’d been told some of my national myths — people settled the land in covered wagons — and some of the myths of my particular community — we were slaves in the land of Egypt — and some of the myths of my family — we came to the United States to escape the pogroms… But I had not internalised many of the Torah stories — because they seemed so opaque, so weird, so old and sometimes impossible to understand, or, at worst, irrelevant.
I think of this every time a bar or bat mitzvah young person stumbles through reading the English, not even the Hebrew, of their portion — all those foreign-sounding names and ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and references to references to references it seems we could never hope to understand. And I think of this — the difficulty of bringing our Jewish myths close, of understanding them — every time I talk to Jewish and non-Jewish adults as well…
A young member of our community wrote me just recently to say, “To even be a Jew or one of God’s chosen people you must follow the mitzvot, however, some of the Laws are really weird!” Another said to me the other day, “I see this whole thing totally different from my partner! We don’t even see our Jewishness the same way.” Another bat mitzvah student reasonably declared to me, “I don’t believe in these stories.”
Well. What does it mean to believe in these stories?
I think my cheder teacher Steve Sakin all those years ago understood something of what that might mean…
He declared that– I was the defense attorney for Jacob, that another one of my more keen classmates was the prosecution, arguing Esau’s very reasonable case (that he’d been screwed out of something that was rightly his!), another played Jacob, another Esau, another their blind father Isaac, another their mother Rebekkah. We had to go to the synagogue library, I remember, and “do research,” learning along the way that all the Jewish commentators and scholars had wildly divergent opinions about who was “right” in this story, who “wrong.” About their motivations, why they were making the choices they did.
On one hand, the Jewish tradition seems to back Jacob up, as does the Torah’s language in some ways. Rebekkah their mother appears to be doing God’s will when she instructs Jacob to wrest the blessing away from his twin Esau.
But the Torah, on the other hand, in great mythic and storytelling fashion, is not uni-vocal in this — it doesn’t just say “top marks, Rebekkah was right, story done.” For we learn later that Esau, the wronged party in this story, had a grandson, Amalek, who would go on to be the founder of another people, the Amalekites — and the Amalekites are set up in the Torah stories to forever and always oppose the Jewish people, to be our number one nemesis in the world.
And the heavy implication here is that, guess what, the enemies you make are often, sometimes, in part, your fault. We, the Jewish people, descendants of Jacob, messed up first. This founding enmity between us and the Amalekites can be traced back to Esau’s despairing wail when Jacob runs off with his inheritance, his birthright. “Have you no blessing for me, father?!” cries Esau, and it is we who know we are guilty.
Deception and hurt begets deception and hurt, says the Torah. Things are not so simple.
Steve Sakin knew we need to inhabit our stories– somehow, to find a way in.
What does it mean to ‘believe’ in these stories?
It means to inhabit them, to embody them, to come closer to them, to struggle with them, and hate the ones that make me you angry, that seem unjust or wrong– and to be moved and love the ones that speak to you. And to return to them again and again as we do in our Torah reading every Shabbat morning. And at the Passover seder table. And in cheder. And when the Exodus is referenced in literature or in politics. To think about how these deep myths intersect with our lives. Or could.
Another member of the community said to me recently, about a Jewish-adjacent issue, “I realised I can’t not be involved. It’s my birthright.”
We are bound by our choices — to be counted — in this Jewish storytelling project.
I was a bit embarrassed, I remember that day, at 10 years old, to have to defend Jacob’s actions. They are, one could argue, indefensible. And even in that strong emotion, embarrassment, I was already part of the story. That’s investment. Anger is investment. Frustration is investment. Confusion is investment. All are valid emotions to feel toward the Jewish tradition and its stories. And so too are love and inspiration and comfort.