Challenging the Binary is the Best Way to Answer Esau’s Cry
In this week’s Torah portion, Tol'dot, we read about Isaac: “The man grew rich, and he went on growing all the richer until he was exceedingly rich” (Genesis 26:13). Amid a famine, God blesses Isaac with abundance. His lands and estate are fruitful.
This portion is replete with contrasts and binaries. Despite abundance, we encounter scarcity. Alongside fruitfulness, we find barrenness. In this portion, we are charged with questioning the institutions, ideas, and practices in our day that divide and exclude people.
First, we learn that Isaac's wife, Rebekah, is barren. After Isaac prays for children, Rebekah becomes pregnant with twins. When Rebekah learns of her pregnancy, God, about her twins, tells her: “the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25: 23). While we read about the blessing of two children (Jacob and Esau), we also learn of deep difference.
A brother either serves or rules; it is all or nothing. This binary spans the divine and the anthropogenic: both the sacred and ordinary worlds promise either riches or rags.
In Tol'dot, we learn about some ways our ancestors navigated this zero-sum world. The oldest son in a family – in this case Esau – was heir to a birthright, a claim to the land and property of his father. As an increasingly blind Isaac prepares for death, Rebekah encourages Jacob to trick his father into securing his brother's blessing by dressing as Esau.
Reversing his fortune and fulfilling God's promise to Rebekah, Jacob recreates the binary we encounter in the beginning of the parashah (Torah portion) through Isaac’s example. Having secured his brother's birthright and blessing – a promise of resplendence – Jacob casts Esau into a world of dependence and scarcity.
It is here that we encounter one of the Torah's most haunting cries. We read, “When Esau heard his father's words, he broke into an exceedingly loud and bitter howl and said to his father, ‘Bless me! Me too, Father!’” (Genesis 27:34).
In many ways, this week’s parashah is a tragedy, a story of deceit and treachery. Brother turns against brother and an entire lineage is torn apart. But it also forces the children of Jacob – the Jewish people – to reconcile with our heritage.
We are charged to answer Esau’s cry by questioning the binaries we enforce in our own world. In this story, the binary precipitated by a birthright – the practice of one child receiving everything at the other’s expense – causes Esau's misery. Isaac's shudder is that of an entire people, and signals a great injustice and deep remorse. Why, amid great wealth, must one child be left with nothing?
Today, we grapple with our own binaries: ideas we build and enforce that divide, separate, and create an unjust, and often violent, reality.
One such binary involves gender. The gender binary divides conceptions of gender into the categories of “man” and “woman,” and organizes expectations around gender that are often based on the sex assigned to a person at birth. The gender binary and its expectations related to gender identity or expression and sex assigned at birth ignore the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming people. These expectations help set the tone for the discrimination and violence transgender and gender non-conforming people face every day.
This week, as we observe Transgender Awareness Week, and especially on November 20, International Transgender Day of Remembrance, people around the world will mourn the loss of those who fell victim to violence committed against transgender and gender non-conforming people during the last year, and reflect on the ongoing violence transgender and gender non-conforming people face daily. The day also serves to remind us of ways in which society's predominant conception of gender is binary and violent. It erases the identity of those people whose gender expression or identity does not correspond to the expectations enforced by the gender binary.
The ongoing violence, prejudice, and discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people is the driving force behind the Reform community’s Urgency of Now: Transgender Rights Campaign. An advocacy initiative on behalf of local, state, and federal policies, the campaign reflects a deep commitment to protect people of all gender identities and gender expressions. Joining these efforts offers Jews and our communities across North America opportunities to take up the charge that extends to us from Isaac’s time. As heirs of Jacob's legacy, we must continue to interrogate the norms and institutions that are riddled with the echoes of Esau’s cry.