Rivalry and strife are baked into the human project aren’t they? It seems an inherent part of the dynamic of what it means to be alive. In the telling of our Jewish tradition in the Torah narrative, it is there from the beginning. The tensions are present from the start: sky above and the earth below; a Divine spirit hovering over the face of the deep; good and evil; man and woman. All around us is difference and the capacity to name and organize those differences according to the power we have as thinking, reasoning, sentient beings.
According to the Torah, God makes the male and female human in the “Divine Image” and places them in the Garden of Eden and warns them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Yeah, right. Who would listen to that? Half of the fun of living is the adventure of walking that thin line, too often blurred by those who lack distinction. The choices we make are only expressions of free will if we have the choice ourselves to decide. So obviously God wanted the first humans to eat from that tree in order to embed within them the power to choose.
Human history, tragically, is littered with the bodies and the destruction wrought by poor choices, by evil doings. According to the midrash to Genesis, God built many worlds before the one we currently live in and finally gave up on the idea of perfection. Instead, the rabbis say, God created repentance and the ability to change one’s path, to do good, and to choose life. This is, to a significant degree, what we mean when we say that Judaism is a religious tradition that privileges both realism and hope. To be realistic and hopeful is to hold potentially two conflicting views of the world together at once. Or, in the words of Mel Brooks, “Hope for the best, expect the worst. Life is a play, unrehearsed.”
If God realized early on that perfection is the enemy of the good, there is a lesson there for us all. And read through a certain lens, we might say that the Torah’s first book, Genesis, makes this abundantly clear when it comes to the human project. It is filled with the kinds of twists and turns, aspiring, soaring deeds of goodness mucked up by incomprehensible acts of cruelty and evil. It’s a messy story, and in no particular family dynamic is that messiness made more apparent than in the variety of depictions of sibling rivalries.
Cain and Abel fight over whose offering is most beloved by God and Cain rises up to kill his brother. Ishmael makes sport of his younger brother Isaac which enrages Isaac’s mother Sarah, who demands that Ishmael and his mother Hagar are expelled into the wilderness. And in this week’s Torah portion, Toldot, Rebecca feels great pain in her womb during pregnancy and inquires of God, asking “Why do I even exist?!” She then receives a prophecy that says, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate people shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other; and the older shall serve the younger.”
When the two boys emerged at birth, Esau came first, with his brother Jacob gripping his angle on the way out. The curtain rose on the unrehearsed play of these brothers’ lives, an ancient literary narrative that is among the most colorful, profound, emotional and confounding of any in Jewish literature.
Rashi teaches us an interesting set of legends. In one he says that the struggle already in the womb was about the two infants representing radically different world views. Whenever Rebecca walked past a House of Study, the baby Jacob would struggle to get out to go learn Torah; and whenever Rebecca walked past a pagan altar, Esau would struggle to go make a sacrifice to false Gods. We might say Rashi is arguing that inherent to the human project is the unavoidable tension between an unseeable God who demands observance of the law and deeds of loving-kindness, and an idolatrous, atavistic being which represents false worship. Picture Abraham smashing his father’s idols; Moses demanding that no human should rule over and oppress another human. It is the stark either/or of early Jewish theology.
In another midrash which Rashi brings to bear, he says that actually the brothers were arguing in the womb, about who would inherit this world and who would inherit the world to come. Here we might say that the rabbinic tradition is shedding light on the ways in which different faiths seek dominion over the other. Judaism begins and goes from Abraham to Moses; Christianity supplants Judaism with Jesus; Islam privileges Mohammed as the next iteration of God’s revealed truth to the world. Only one of us can be right. That type of thing.
And that’s just in the womb!
But what is the womb other than a beginning; of darkness over deep waters and the hovering spirit of the Divine animating the souls of those within as they emerge in to the messiness of life, with all its imperfections, challenges, mistakes, and disappointments, triumphs and pure joy?
And what is life other than a series of tests, questions and experiments in living, an “unrehearsed play” in which only we, with enough luck and good fortune, can determine the end?
Throughout this week’s Torah portion and in the coming weeks we will see the rivalry between Jacob and Esau endure many twists and turns; and in Joseph’s narrative that follows, we will see that rivalry explode into the kind of technicolor rendering that makes it, to paraphrase Robert Alter, practically a separate novella within the Hebrew Bible.
Did Isaac and Ishmael ever reconcile? Did Jacob and Esau? Did Joseph and his brothers? Do we in our own families, communities, nations?
The sages taught long ago that the real cause of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt was not the evil devisings of Pharaoh or the harsh cruelties of the Egyptian taskmasters. Rather, they say that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt because of sibling rivalry. Had the brothers not been jealous of Joseph, they would not have stolen him away and faked his death; he never would have been sold into service in Egypt; and his brothers never would have found their way down there when a famine arose in Canaan and they went to their neighbor, seeking food. They never would have been on the wrong side of history when the lines were written, “And a new king arose over Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.”
We know how it unfolded from there. But what we don’t know, in the great unrehearsed play of our lives, is how our story ends. Only we can know that when we choose life, choose blessing, choose peace, and hope for the best.