Quick pop quiz: In Jewish tradition, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?
Now, for those of you who said Esau—Why is he known as the bad guy? Goliath represents a warring army, Pharaoh enslaves our people, Korach leads a deceptive rebellion, Amalek preys on the weak. What does Esau do that was so wrong as to go down in the history books as the hated twin, the deceiver, the ruffian?
And listen, you’re not alone in putting that title on him.
In parshat Toldot this week, Jacob and Esau are born, representing now the third generation of our spiritual lineage. And to scour the generations of textual interpretation of this parsha would be to find a scathing report of the eldest son, Esau.
The commentators of many eras drag this guy through the mud. They tell us that when Jacob and Esau were in the womb and their mother, Rebekah, would pass schools and houses of worship, Jacob would start running toward them in the womb, but when she passed houses of idolatry, Esau would start running toward them. In the womb. Just had to get to those idols.
Midrash tells us that Esau kills a man named Nimrod just to prove he was a better hunter. Medieval Jewish tradition even tells us that Esau is the progenitor of Christianity, at a time when the Jewish people were being oppressed by Christian armies.
But in the Torah text alone, without all the later interpretation, Esau is not an idolater or a murderer or an ancestor of a then-rival faith. He is a brother and a son who keeps getting hurt by the people that he loves. He is a boy whose brother callously steals his birthright from him, whose mother conspires against him, whose father, having been tricked into giving his choicest blessing to Jacob instead, claims to have run out of blessings and have nothing good or kind or hopeful to pass on to him—even as Esau weeps before him, heart-broken, begging to have his father’s blessing, too. He is a man who is accused of marrying the wrong woman and bringing shame on his father’s house. All this to keep up the ruse that Jacob is the good son, the right son, the better son. And what does Esau do? Oh he gets mad and he grumbles to himself that he wants to kill Jacob. And then he disappears into the text while we follow Jacob’s story, the winner, our bloodline.
Esau ostensibly slinks away, the evil twin that he is. And years later when Jacob and Esau meet up again as adult, Jacob, who now has also bought into the Esau-is-evil narrative, trembles, expecting his brother to kill him. But Esau is not that guy. Instead, Esau doesn’t hesitate for a second. He runs to Jacob, he kisses him. He forgives his conniving brother in a heartbeat.
At this time, Jacob is walking with slowly and with a limp and so he tells his brother to go on ahead without him. And Esau, this supposedly horrible person, utters what is arguably the most compassionate sentence in all of Torah. Nis’a v’neileicha v’eilcha l’negdecha—Let us journey together, brother, and I will continue at your pace. He offers him kindness, companionship, a patient friend to walk by his side. What a jerk.
So we might ask ourselves—if our Torah text tells the story of not only a decent guy, but an extraordinary guy, why does he get such a bad rap?
Perhaps because it is easier for us to buy into that narrative. It’s easier for us if Jacob is the good kid…because it’s Jacob who wrestles with an angel and Jacob who is renamed Israel and Jacob who becomes the father to the Israelite tribes and it’s Jacob’s name we pray in the Amidah and it’s Jacob’s name by which we call ourselves. Esau—who seems to be one of the good guys—gets crushed and messed with by the guy who is our progenitor. And so we see him as the bad guy because it fits better into our narrative. And, I think, because we’ve seen him as the bad guy for so long. Esau’s gotta be the bad guy so Jacob can be the hero.
But we can redeem Esau. By reading our own text more closely, by looking into his literary eyes, by checking our assumptions about what we need Esau to be for him to make sense in our own origin story.
And exploring Esau allows us to examine who else we naturally see as the bad guy because it better fits into the story we tell about ourselves or our family. Who else do we demonize in order to categorize who they are, or who we are?
Consider the Broadway show, Wicked. It’s a midrash of the Wizard of Oz which challenges our lifelong belief that the green-skinned witch is the bad guy. From childhood, we’ve known her as the flying monkey loving, out to get Dorothy, and hates her little dog, too, witch.
But in Wicked, all this gets turned on its head and we see her from a different angle, from her own story of herself. What we thought we knew about her, we’re told, is only because we see her through the eyes of Dorothy, someone who needs her to be wicked for her own life story to make sense. But in this show, we, the audience, get to peek into the truth of her identity from another perspective – through her humanity, through her own hurts and hopes. Through what we might call “the Esau lens.”
Like Esau, the wicked witch is not anything of what those around her accuse her of being. As the protagonist in her own story, her humanity is much more obvious.
So how might this affect us, even change us? I imagine that we all do this to someone. Many of us just had the blessing of spending our Thanksgiving with family or friends. Perhaps there is someone at your table—real or proverbial—who is cast as the bad guy. Someone who is seen as having bad intentions, or bad inclination. The problem of the family.
What if we tried to see them without the Esau lens, without the overlay of so many generations of interpretation, to see them more clearly for who they actually are, what they have actually done, and why?
What about a friend, or an enemy we might have? Are they the bad guy because we need them to play a certain role in our own story? Do they have a different story about themselves? Are they more complex than we allow them to be? And what would it take to give them back a chance to not be wicked, to not be seen as evil—to just be their own self, shaped by their own stories and struggles and choices.
Perhaps Esau is here in our story this week to give us the courage to see differently the Esaus in our own lives, to help us see more clearly a regular person who falls prey to our erroneous judgements, who is playing a role in our stories not because of who they are, but because of how we’ve decided that we need to see them.
Who is your Esau? And who are they really? And how might letting them be free of the story we tell about them give them new life and give us new life, too?