Did Jacob Need Esau to Become Israel?
Parashat Tol’dot opens with matriarch Rebecca carrying twins – Esau and Jacob – who, even before birth, struggle each with the other. Their prenatal strife is so dramatic that Rebecca declares in despair, “Why do I even exist?” From birth, the twins were polar opposites, and their struggle was not resolved for many years: “Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a homespun man, keeping to the tents.” (Gen. 25:27)
Next, we discover Jacob was a strategic thinker, while Esau was rash and impulsive, selling Jacob half his future inheritance (the extra portion due the eldest) for the immediate gratification of a bowl of soup. In Chapter 27, Jacob even steals a blessing meant for Esau. Parenthetically, this one was not the blessing of Abraham that Isaac knowingly bestows on Jacob in Chapter 28.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote of individualization as the struggle to integrate opposing aspects of one personality into a coherent whole. With that in mind, we can easily imagine these twins are not two separate individuals but two opposing aspects of one persona.
Could the struggle of Esau and Jacob be a Jungian struggle for personal integration? Scripture reports that Jacob was renamed Israel “for you have struggled with God and ‘persons’” (Gen.32), and in the next chapter, Jacob and Esau are reconciled.
Might it be that in some way we, too, are each struggling to reconcile and integrate the competing forces within us – our own Esau and Jacob – striving to become our own Israel? It is never an easy task. The vagaries of life can help us recognize our inner conflicts and grow by reconciling them. Personal loss, surviving a tragedy, struggling to overcome poverty or bigotry, and even understanding success have forced many of us, or given the opportunity to plumb our inner conflicts more deeply.
For those who answered our nation’s call to selfless service, the experience of war is the moment when even the most “Jacob” of us discovers his or her own “Esau.” Combat veterans have experienced the most inhumane of human experiences. “Organized” mass mortal combat is so beyond the normal human frame of reference, so rife with demonic forces, that is inexplicable to those who have not experienced it.
There simply are no everyday analogs, no common reference points that allow the non-veteran to understand the veteran’s experience. Not surprisingly, most veterans tell their story only one to another. They know the uninitiated simply cannot be expected to comprehend.
At times, the poet, musician or artist can convey what mere prose cannot. In Picasso’s painting “Rape of the Sabine Women,” we see the Roman and Sabine warriors locked in mortal combat with spear and sword. They are necessarily focused entirely on each other. In the kill-or-be-killed moment neither notices – nor perhaps even cares – that together are they trampling a woman and child, two pitiful victims, civilians condemned by the warriors’ struggle.
If it is awful on canvas, how much more terrible to experience.
Imagine that the combat veteran has discovered his or her own Esau and struggles to integrate that discovery into a more complete new self – an “Israel.” Yes, we know the tragedy of the tormented, disturbed, and emotionally disabled veterans, broken by the horrors of war.
But we also know the great souls forged in the dreadful tragedy of human combat.
It may not be a coincidence that many of our greatest heroes were veterans – not just national heroes as President John F. Kennedy or Senator John McCain, but also Jewish heroes. I recall the many former chaplains who became great leaders of Reform Judaism. I recall two among many, rabbis Roland B. Gittelsohn and Harold Saperstein. Let us not forget the hundreds of common soldiers, airmen, and Marines, such as Alexander Schindler (later Rabbi) and Albert Vorspan, who led us in the struggle to perfect the world and ourselves. Neither will I forget my father, who fought from Normandy to Germany.
Each year on Veterans Day, November 11th, we honor living veterans and the memory of veterans past, especially those we know and love.
We acknowledge the horrific risk they willingly took and the appalling sacrifices they made for the sake of others, not least ourselves.
We also honor the millions of veterans who never saw combat but who confronted its real possibility in their lives, and the 1.2 million Americans now on active duty (including more than 10,000 Jews serving in our armed forces).
Let us not forget the families and loved ones, worried at home while their veterans are off at war. Surely both the warrior and worrier confront their own Esau. Together, we pray for each of them to become the integrated and whole “Israel” they can become.
Ultimately war has no saving grace. “Just” wars are fought to prevent even greater and more pernicious calamities, but even just wars can never, on their own, create the perfected world we seek. The creation of peace, of wholeness, takes a separate conscious and intentional act.
So while we cannot fight our way to peace, we can struggle to integrate our competing impulses – the Jacob and Esau inherent in each of us – and create an inner peace and become an Israel. Then we can struggle to share that wholeness with our world. So might we become the blessing promised to Abraham, that through us, all the earth may be blessed.
The painting that accompanies this post is the work of Svetlana Dubinsky, a resident of Tel Aviv.