Esav: Redeeming the Vilified Twin through Social Location Awareness & Compassion, through Mussar Mindfulness
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Toledot (https://www.sefaria.org.il/Genesis.25.19-28.9?lang=he&aliyot=0), we pray our Intention/Kavannah that our practice be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We engage in an act of self-care, a radical one, where we commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
An encounter with the Torah text through the lens of Mussar Mindfulness requires that we practice mindfulness of how we are triggered by the text, what arises in us from the text, what we are clinging to, expectations, desires and aversions.
I also attempt to discuss with the P’shat of the text (not Midrashim/Aggadot/Legends of the Torah). I would venture to say that many of our Midrashim are from ancestors who could or would not accept the text and the experience with the text as it was. They had to imagine it differently in order to live with the Torah, its demands, and what God expected of them/us, and how God seemed to have behaved in the text.
Now, onto our weekly parasha/Torah portion, Toledot: It is well known that our tradition favors Yaakov over Esau, Yitzhak and Rivka’s twin sons. It is also well known to what extent our tradition went to vilify Esau, associating him with Edom, Rome, and Christianity.
Our ancestors from the Middle Ages under Roman and Christian rule, when Jews were oppressed, saw Esav as the ancestor and symbol of their oppressors and so imagined Esav as dishonest, violent, and evil. It is not a far leap to see that they were projecting their own fears of what we and others may think about Yitzhak, who behaved dishonestly and with violence in the form of withholding food and violence to his father’s trust and Esav’s well-being.
So, time, place, and social location (who we are, where we have citizenship, if we have citizenship, our skin color, our perceived race, religion or ethnicity, our class, our gender, our sexual orientation, if we are disabled or not, etc.) affect the way we understand stories and people, and thus, how we receive the Torah text and our tradition. The different ways of understanding Torah are influenced by who we are.
For now, we will focus on the scene when Esau returns from hunting: faminshed, he requests to be fed by his brother, Yaakov, who denies him the nutrients he needs until he agrees to sell his birthright.
Jacob was cooking a stew and Esav came in from the field, and he was faminished (according to Ibn Ezra: in dire need of food or drink (https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.25.29?lang=bi&with=Ibn%20Ezra&lang2=en, based on these sources: Targum Yonathan; Bava Batra 16b; Yovlot 24:3).
וַיָּזֶד יַעֲקֹב נָזִיד וַיָּבֹא עֵשָׂו מִן־הַשָּׂדֶה וְהוּא עָיֵף׃https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.25.29?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en
Let’s put this pasuk/verse and encounter in context: we have two 15-year-old boys and according to inherited tradition, this meal that Yaakov is preparing on behalf of his father, Yitzhak, who is in mourning the loss of his father, Avraham.
Chizkuni teaches: “and he was worn out;” it is usual for hunters to be worn out after chasing their prey. Moreover, sometimes they lose sight of their prey in the forest and get lost and it takes them a long time to find their way home. They may remain lost for a day or two, and when they finally get home they are totally worn out, hungry and thirsty.
מן האדום האדום
“from this reddish looking stuff.” Every time we encounter the adjective “red,” it always appears to be repeated. The author quotes as examples: אדמדם, ירקרק in Leviticus 13,19 and 49 .(Rash’bam). When someone requests something urgently, he is always in the habit of repeating the key words in such a request. Esau, on that occasion, was extremely in need of food and drink.https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.25.29?lang=bi&with=Chizkuni&lang2=en
ויבא עשו מן השדה והוא עיף
Tur HaAroch teaches: Esau came home from the field, very tired; he was so tired that he was overcome by a dizzy spell, fainting, so that he concluded that he was about to die soon. He meant that unless he would get something to eat immediately, his condition would deteriorate and result in his death. This being so, what good would the birthright be to him? One of the allegorical explanations of the Midrash claims that his condition was due to his having lost his bearings in the field and the forest, areas that do not abound with markers showing the way; instead of finding deer to kill, he exhausted himself finding the way home. When he found his brother Yaakov tending his father’s flocks in the field, he remarked that he would die soon as there was no one who had the power to restore him except his saintly father…https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.25.29?lang=bi&with=Tur%20HaAroch&lang2=en
Tur HaAroch continues: “spoon-feed me,” indicates that this commentary may be close to the truth, as otherwise Esau would have said something like “תן לי,” “give to me!” He was so weak that he could not even lift his hand to his mouth.https://www.sefaria.org/Genesis.25.29?lang=bi&with=Tur%20HaAroch&lang2=en
Let me start off by saying that it was not only unkind that Yaakov didn’t feed his brother immediately; it should have made the “sale” null and void as it was done under duress.
Furthermore, Yaakov’s behavior is unethical, coercive, and an expression of the unbalanced middah/soul-trait of greed.
Do we really not have any insight into Esau’s behavior here? He is 15. He is faminished. He feels he will die. This is not the time to have a discussion about birthright and selling or buying it.
Both made unskillful decisions: Esau should have refrained from engaging in a transaction while suffering, and Yaakov should not have acted with manipulation and exploitation. Furthermore, if we believe, as our tradition tends to posit, that Esav spurned the birthright, a sacred institution in that time, for a bowl of lentils, then he would have rejected the birthright under any circumstances. Thus, Jacob could have requested the transaction another time.
Furthermore, let’s look at Yaakov’s state. He is 15. He just saw his grandfather die, who handed over his enormous and wealthy estate to his son, Yitzhak. Yaakov was most likely acting from greed: a desire to inherit all that he just witnessed his own father inherit. So, we witness him acting out of greed, getting his faint brother to sell him access and control to that future wealth.
In conclusion, strong inner states can arise in us when doing this Torah study, when engaging in this encounter with our ancestors each week. Strong inner states can be a source of turbulence that affects the calmness of the soul. It is our Insight Mindfulness practice to recognize and accept these states, and to know that they are just states that will pass with time; that we need not cling to them or avoid them. It is through our daily sitting mindfulness meditation practice that we develop the capacity to witness our inner states.
It is also our Mussar practice of the Cheshbon Hanefesh journal to develop awareness into what inner states occupy us and cause others and ourselves suffering. It is also our Mussar practice to respond to these internal storms by developing the capacity for inner distancing. This inner distancing is the ability to bear witness without reacting. Mussar teachers, like Reb Eliyahu Lopian, teach that this inner distancing can be developed through prayer; others teach through Torah study.
This is what we have begun to do right now: develop the capacity for inner distancing through our Torah study. And for those of you reading this, we also develop this capacity together through our sitting meditation practice, which is available in the YouTube video embedded above.
We honor God, our practice, our ancestors, our community, our Torah, and Dharma. I am honored to be your teacher and to be here together in order to enable offerings like this. We rely on your donations of any amount to offer these teachings and sitting. This donation is called Dana in the Pali, a tradition of Insight Buddhist Meditation, and Terumah in Hebrew, a tradition of Judaism. On behalf of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar, I thank you for your donation.
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Shalom Shalom Shalom
We practice and ask ourselves:
- Can we bear the burden of our ancestors, particularly when they act out with unbalanced middot?
- Can we extend compassion and less judgment?
- What can our ancestors and the Torah teach us?
- And can we integrate and be mindful of these lessons and what was handed down to us by our ancestors, like Esav, so that we can use this wisdom to make sure that we do not cause more harm and suffering?
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