Jacob’s reflections: What can we learn from Esau, the Wicked Witch, and the Big Bad Wolf?

What can we learn from Esau, the Wicked Witch, and the Big Bad Wolf?
by Jacob Cytryn, Director

(Thanks to Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein of the Conservative Yeshivah for introducing me to some of the texts referenced below.  And thanks to my son Sam for inspiring this D’var Torah with his summary of the parashah after school.)

History is written by the victors, or so the adage goes.  It makes sense: the losers usually are not around to make any additional contributions to society.  In the pre-modern world, they were usually exiled, assimilated, enslaved, or worse.  One of the key factors in some scholars’ assessment that the Jews slavery in Egypt and subsequent Exodus are based in historical fact is, interestingly, in part because the narrative we tell is so unique.  Rare, if any, are the other cultures who tell a story of their origin in slavery; rarer still are those cultures who continue producing histories and literature of every genre after multiple exiles and centuries of persecution.  A lesson of Jewish history may very well be that, sometimes, history can be written by the losers.

And so it is jarring that, in this week’s parashahTol’dot, as in the previous narratives about Ishmael which we read over the last three parashiyot, the “loser” of the rightfully earned birthright has no say in the narrative and, indeed, is vilified and turned out in an arch-enemy by the later layers of Rabbinic tradition.  On a basic level, a close reading of these narratives in the Torah portray both Ishmael and Esau as sympathetic characters, favored by their respective fathers.  Both Abraham and Isaac express sadness at the loss of one of their sons.  And yet the story we tell is the story of a genetic dynasty, and that dynasty goes through Isaac and Jacob.

Recent years have shown us the value and insight of stepping into a perceived villain’s shoes, perhaps most famously in the musical Wicked and the series of books written by its author, Gregory Maguire, including Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror Mirror.  The popular and clever children’s book The True Story of the Three Little Pigs tells the story from the wolf’s perspective: turns out he had a terrible cold that caused all that huffing and puffing.

The implications for camp lie on the very surface of this conversation: living together in cabins is intense and emotions can run high.  When working together at camp it always behooves us to step into the other person’s shoes for a moment, to imagine their story, rationale, and motivation instead of being stuck in our own.  As God addressed Ishmael באשר הוא שם / ba’asher hu sham / in the place where he was, so too do we orient our counselors to build relationships with their campers not based on their interests and where they are but in a camper-centric way.

The vilification of Esau, based primarily on the events of this week’s Torah reading which begin with the intra-uterine struggle of the two diametrically opposed twins and reaches its climax in Jacob’s stealing of Esau’s birthright, is challenged by at least two classical sources, one in the Torah and another in a late collection of midrashim (Biblical interpretations of diverse genres) called Midrash Tehillim.  In Deuteronomy we are commanded by God not to abhor Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, for they are our cousins (23:8).  The midrash provides three reads of the Jacob-Esau tension, as imagined through the genetic offspring of Jacob – the Jews – and the figurative offspring of Esau – the militaristic and cruel Romans.  The first two are de rigeur:  Esau’s figurative descendants are proud of the world they have conquered and the wealth they have acquired, while the Israelites are proud of their familial closeness with each other and their religious heritage in the Torah, respectively.

The third comparison provides a different approach.  It presents the relationship between Jacob and Esau as being represented by the relationship between Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi and Antoninus Pius.  Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi is one of the most prominent and revered figures in all of Rabbinic literature, understood to be the author/redactor of the first canonical work of Rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah, and a great political leader as well.  Pius most likely represents one of two Roman emperors or an amalgam of both, who lived at the same time as Rabbi Yehudah. The two men have a respectful relationship as it is depicted in the Talmud.  These two leaders learned from each other and can be understood to represent reconciliation and cooperation between those whose relationship has been destroyed.

During the rest of the year and, especially, in the midst of a summer at camp, we would be wise to step into another’s shoes, especially when we are writing – literally or figuratively – the history.  Sometimes we are the victors, and other times we are the losers and are not aware of it.  More often in life, it all depends on your perspective and, with enough perspective, we can all realize the complexity of our relationships and the utter futility of such binary distinctions.  Human to human, heart to heart: that is truth in ways that definitions of winning or losing can never be.

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