Why #BlackLivesMatter is Jewish Issue
Justice, Religion

Jacob, Esau and #BlackLivesMatter

Originally delivered at Shir HaMaalot Minyan on Nov. 13/Rosh Chodesh Kislev 5776.
[pullquote align=right] Twelve year old Tamir Rice had the same wickedness.
[/pullquote]This week’s Torah portion is Toledot.
And my friends, this parsha is not good for the Jews.
I say that facetiously, but this parsha actually makes me very angry. It is one of the most shameful and disturbing pieces of our narrative, all the more so because the commentary from our rabbis rationalizes the events with a self-righteous callousness that I find all too familiar.  Interpretations of this parsha and its events echo contemporary attempts to attribute acts of abuse and exploitation as characterological failures on the parts of their victims, rationalizations that usually happen when we are the ones who benefit from those very acts.
But let me back up and tell you the plotline first. This is the parsha where Jacob steals his older brother Esau’s brithright, first by exploiting an opportunity and then by outright deception. Or, to use Marx’s phrasing, first time as tragedy, second time as farce.
Genesis 25 finds a starving Esau relinquishing his birthright to his brother in exchange for a meal (25:29-34.) Esau comes in from a hard day hunting and working in the fields, so faint he cannot even ask for Jacob’s red-lentil stew by name, calling it Adom Ha’Adom, that “red-red” as in “that good-good.”
[pullquote align=left] Jacob does not come off well in this story.
[/pullquote]Jacob’s immediate response to his brother in such distress was to drive the harshest possible bargain: sell me this day your birthright – meaning, sell to me, the right to inherit our father’s property, to be head of the family, to exercise authority over you as the patriarch, and to be the family liaison who communicates directly with Hashem.
Esau says, “I am going to die. What use do I have for a birthright?” He is desperate. The urgency of his hunger overwhelms his ability to think clearly. Yet Jacob doesn’t let up. He insists that Esau “swear to him this day” before he concedes to feed his starving brother the lentil porridge and bread. Esau’s oath of transferring birthright was as binding as any legal document today.
Later, in Chapter 27, Rebekah overhears Isaac asking Esau to hunt and prepare game meats before Isaac gives him the fatherly blessing, a last will and testament of sorts. Rebekah and Jacob conspire to have Jacob slaughter goats from the flock, prepare them as a meal, and pose as his brother by wearing the skins of those goats as his brother’s hirsuteness, all in order to fool his father who, crucially for this story, is blind. Jacob pulls off this caper – though Isaac harbors some suspicious as to whether the son claiming to be Esau is in fact him, Isaac is finally taken in by the smell of the goat skins, like the fields where his wild boy goes to work off his energy. Isaac gives Jacob a blessing that rightly belongs to Esau, of divine protection, prosperity, and power over his brothers and other nations of the earth.
Jacob, to me, does not come off well at all in this story. He appears manipulative, exploitative, a heartless trickster. It just doesn’t sit right knowing that one of the forefathers of the Jewish people could be so cruel to his own brother. A brother who is less cunning, and who ends up broken by his family’s betrayal. Esau’s pain upon realizing that both his birthright and his blessing have been taken from him, his feeling of abandonment, fear, isolation, breaks my heart.
[pullquote align=right] How many times have we been told that the Jacobs of the world have their rights at the expense of the Esaus?
[/pullquote]He exclaims a “great and bitter cry,” the Torah says. ‘Have you no blessing for me?” A cry of desperate need, of being discarded, of having his claim to protection ripped out from under him. Do I count for nothing?
How many times in the last week have we heard that cry, throughout our lives but especially in the last weeks? How many times have we been told that the Jacobs of the world have their rights, which must be respected. Their rights to protection, at the expense of that of the Esaus of the world. Their right, for example, to dress up as Esau as a costume, to impersonate him for their own gain, without any reprisal. It’s a matter of “free speech” for Jacob, right? We tell Esau that to expect a blessing is to deny Jacob’s right to pursue it at any cost.
Yes, there are explanations in the Torah itself for this outcome. From their very conception, God says to Rebekah that the twins in her womb represent two nations, and the older will serve the younger. This fate seems so arbitrary that it requires some further elaboration.
And that is where things get truly disturbing.
The justifications for Jacob’s actions throughout rabbinic commentary are deeply troubling. First, the Gemara claims that Jacob did not take readily to deception, based on his protest to his mother that dressing up in goat skins would not fool his father. Yet, it is difficult to read this as an ethical objection, rather than a tactical one, as Jacob’s earlier behavior shows he had no compunction about exploiting his own family members’ weakness for his own gain.
[pullquote align=left] Let me translate that for you: “She provoked the officer.”
[/pullquote]Esau, on the other hand, is said to be cavalier about his birthright and ill-suited for the responsibility that it would entail. In this reading, Esau is the guy at the bodega buying cigarettes and a forty, someone who validates that the house of Jacob deserves prosperity and protection, because we would not waste our birthright in this way.
But one explanation is perhaps worst of all. Rabbi Eleazar taught that Isaac’s blindness was actually caused by his looking at the wicked Esau.
Let me translate that for you:
“She provoked the officer.”
“He had no choice but to forcibly restrain her.”
“She probably said something he shouldn’t have, it’s just not on the cell-phone video.”
“He appeared to be a threat.”
By this logic, twelve year old Tamir Rice had the same wickedness, in his case the wickedness to have a toy gun and wave it around while playing by himself in a park near his home. It was his wickedness that caused the blindness of the police officer who shot him. Tamir himself caused the blindness that erased his identity as a young boy, a child, a son with his own claim to a birthright and a blessing.
How could Isaac, Avinu, our father
our great rabbis, our fathers,
our residential college master at Yale, our father,
How can they all be so cruel as to deny what all of their children are due? To blame Esau for their own blindness, to discard their children and then say that Jacob’s right to exploit their weaknesses trumps their right for justice?
How can our fathers all be so blind?
[icon-box icon=link align=right width=1/2] Read more on anti-racism here and find materials at the #BlackLivesMatter Jewish online hub.
[/icon-box]Often our job as readers and teachers of Torah is to uncover some secret redemptive lesson, some buried cosmic logic that validates for us that these actions are holy, divinely intended. We twist and dig and construct rationales because to read at face value sometimes means to see that our power has come at the expense of others. It has come from abuse and theft.
This week I ask that we not try to suss out the secret redemptive code. I ask that we not be blind as we read. That we see exactly what is written, that what happened is
Exactly What It Looks Like.
Originally posted at amybessschiller.com.

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