One of my greatest challenges is balancing the big world of beings and events with the little world in my own head and heart. Mostly, life consists of toggling back and forth between them, like someone switching between two TV channels. Reading this morning’s headlines about the president’s domestic spying and the prevalence of sexual predators on the Internet, I wondered if I could drag my head above the high-water mark of my own preoccupations to even see the big world clearly, let alone do anything helpful about what I see.
A friend and I talked about her recent visit to relatives of a much older generation. As they kvetched about their problems, my friend recommended seeing a therapist. The response was incredulity: Whatever for? But in my baby-boomer cohort, the examined past is de rigeur. We know exactly what was done to distort our little personalities in childhood and we are able to draw straight lines between these injuries and our current disabilities. “That’s my abandonment issue,” one says. “My parents were emotionally abusive,” says another, “that’s why I hide out.” It isn’t just a question of age, either. Probably my most powerful incentive to actually let go of my ancient grievances was hearing a woman of eighty complain about her long-dead father’s coldness, her eyes filling with tears, clearly reliving the experience as she spoke. I saw that unless I chose differently, hers could be my path too: I could keep my earliest wounds sore for a lifetime.
It helps a little to understand that while the therapeutic culture may be an artifact of our own age, the dilemma is timeless. At Shabbat services on Saturday, our Torah portion was Va-Yishlach (Genesis 32.4-36.43), which (among many other interesting and even bizarre tales) tells the story of Jacob’s reunion with his estranged brother Esau.
The backstory of these brothers trumps much other family dysfunctionality. When Esau comes in starving from his labors, his scheming younger brother Jacob entices him with a plate of lentils; Esau sells his birthright (his claim to the firstborn’s larger inheritance) for this food. Later, when their father Isaac lies near death, Jacob’s mother persuades him to masquerade as Esau to cheat his brother out of the blessing to which a firstborn is entitled. Afterwards, Jacob is exiled to the distant home of his relative Laban, where he is tricked and exploited into laboring long for rewards not always of his own choosing. By guile and good fortune, he eventually amasses a great household—family, servants, cattle and goods—and escapes from Laban’s domain.
The text gives us a lot of information about Jacob’s fear in approaching Esau after twenty years. Jacob beseeches God to protect him from Esau’s wrath. He carefully plans his approach, sending gifts ahead, separating his household and troops into camps should a defensive strategy be needed, sequencing the arrival of his various wives and handmaidens with their children.
We are told nothing about Esau’s mental or physical preparations for the encounter, only that “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.”
The midrash—the parables and other rabbinic teachings that have been elaborated from Torah texts—loves Jacob, who despite his deceptions is revered as devout and studious. To underscore the point, they are hard on Esau. He is branded an idolater from the womb (seemingly extrapolated from the fact that his first wives were idol-worshippers from Canaan, contrary to his father’s wishes), and endowed with every evil impulse. I have heard this described as a way to elevate the patriarch Jacob by inventing for Esau misdeeds greater than Jacob’s; and as a general cultural move, exalting the man of intellect by denigrating the rough man whose life centers on the body.
But I don’t see the basis for Esau’s bad rap, despite his evident unconsciousness in youth. Instead, in the two brothers I see two basic human options, laid out clearly thousands of years ago. For twenty years, Jacob flees his own guilt and the fear it generates. He locates the fear outside himself, in the person of his brother, but as their meeting demonstrates, his fear is his own creation.
Meanwhile, Esau has taken the other path, healing his life by living it. We aren’t told how, but he has released his grievance. He comes to the encounter with an open heart, with no residue of fear or anger.
What I notice in myself is that the old hurts arise easily from their resting places. When someone close to me convinces me to do a costly favor, then refuses me when I need something, all those ancient feelings about being exploited and disregarded bubble up. A hot effervescence rises toward my head, and if I let it achieve its destination, I will be swamped with anger and regret that feel like all there is in the world, the whole truth. The practice I am trying to do now is to notice the bubbles before they get too far and remind myself that I am no longer trapped in those old stories, that I don’t need to feed them anymore.
This is how I imagine Esau’s transformation: that one day he is striding through the fields, replaying the scenes of his humiliation. Jacob is long gone, but Esau feels the anger start to churn as if it were yesterday. Suddenly, a deer appears, racing toward its home. Esau reaches for an arrow, but it is too late. This is not the first deer I’ve missed, he thinks, because I was suffering with my brother in the past rather than attending to what is here, now. He looks at the sky, observing the path of distant birds. He kneels in the grass, crushing a clump of seed heads in his fist, inhaling their sweet fragrance. He walks home.
The next time his mind conjures the image of Jacob’s deceit at Isaac’s bedside, the scene immediately shifts. It is years earlier; he is attempting to show his clumsy younger brother how to shoot his little bow. Jacob is frustrated, but Esau perseveres until Jacob reaches his target, bursting with triumph and gratitude. No life has only one story, he thinks. There are as many sides to life as stars in the sky. He walks on, wondering if he and Jacob will ever meet again.