Throughout our history, Jews have had a complex relationship with power and powerlessness. Some ancient paradigms might be helpful in making some sense of the current moment. One such paradigm comes from the Torah and the fraternal conflict between Jacob and Esau.
Though they are twins, Esau and Jacob couldn’t be more different. Esau is hairy, a sign of a wild outdoorsman; Jacob is smooth, typically a sign of innocence and femininity. Esau is a hunter; Jacob is a yoshev ohalim, someone who sits in tents. Our sages say this means that he was someone who studies in yeshivot, a scholar.
In one view, Jacob is a stand-in for Israel, Esau, for any number of foreign empires — Edom, Rome, Christianity. They value might and aggression; we prize peace, respect, and scholarship.
In a passage full of drama, Jacob, disguised as his brother, Esau, comes before their father, Isaac. His goal is to wrest a blessing from his father before fleeing for his life since his aggrieved brother is on the warpath. Isaac, whose sight is diminished, instructs his son “come closer that I may feel you my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not.” He touches his son’s arm, covered in hairy goat skins — a costume fashioned to deceive — and he remarks, “Ha-kol kol Ya’akov v’ha-yadayim y’dei Eisav.” “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (Genesis, 27:22)
Is Isaac’s question expressing a simple curiosity about which of his sons is standing before him?
Or — maybe Isaac, though dim of sight, understands exactly what is going on.
Perhaps Isaac is teaching through his question, “You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not to be worthy of my blessing. Remove the disguise, and I will bless you as Jacob. As for Esau, I will offer him blessing appropriate for him.”
But this year I read these words differently: Is it possible he’s asking a more existential question: “Who are you, my son?”
After all, Jacob and Esau are twins, sharing the same genetic makeup. Isaac wants to know: Which side of the self does Jacob wish to express in the world?
As the S’fat Emet, a rabbi and a mystic, explains, as Aviva Zornberg quotes him in “The Beginnings of Desire”: “now good and evil are intermingled in him; he will be forever involved with the ambiguities of the world…” This moment, then, represents the loss of childhood innocence and the entry into the struggles of moral responsibility associated with growing up.
Frightened by this challenge and by his brother, Jacob runs away. Years later, when he is forced to confront Esau, Jacob choses fight over flight. He has learned to wrestle with himself and with God, his name changes from Jacob to Israel, and he is now a force to be reckoned with. You might say, Jacob has “grown into” the hands of Esau. But the question is: Has he found the voice of the true Jacob?
Only when he finally meets his brother and sees there is no longer hostility does he soften — and the brothers embrace and weep.
We hear the voice of Jacob once again, crying, willing to embrace another.
Perhaps in Isaac’s words what we heard is a warning: You may become powerful. At times you may have to fight. But you are fundamentally a person of peace, love, and kindness. Employ the hands of Esau if you must, but don’t lose the sweet voice of Jacob, which the world needs so desperately.
The modern State of Israel was founded as a response to the powerlessness of Jews. How many times in our long history had we, like Jacob, been forced to run away from danger? After the Shoah, we decided: We’re done running.
Zionism sought to revitalize and transform the Jewish body and spirit. If the Diaspora was characterized by the weak yeshiva student, Jacob, the “new Jew,” would rediscover the dignity of work and sweat in a return to the land. Israel has made possible a renaissance of Jewish culture, arts, and Torah study, with Jews seeking to re-integrate the voice of Jacob into their identity.
Then October 7 made us all feel the weakness of Jacob again — wounded and vulnerable. This time, however, we remembered that we are not powerless. And though power is a dangerous thing, what more noble cause is there than wielding it for the protection of one’s own people and the redemption of captives?
Israeli teacher Shayna Goldberg wrote in November:
“The world sees soldiers dressed for battle.
But we know the people behind those uniforms.
The father holding his two children…with his gun hanging behind his back…; the mother lifting her son out of the crib after long shifts away….
“The world sees the weapons in their hands.
“But we hear their soft, gentle, moving, and prayerful voices….”
“It’s been 75 years, and it has not gotten any easier.
“This will never be natural.
“Not this clothing. Not these hands. Not these weapons.
“War and fighting is not our way.
“We prefer to use our voice to advocate and create, to build and contribute, to comfort and care, to heal and bring people together.
“But to do that we first need to survive.
“Am Yisrael chai.”
There’s a battlefield picture of an Israeli soldier in full combat gear reading from the Torah. Only instead of a yad, he’s using a combat knife. The image — an instrument of violence tracing the words of our sacred text — is powerful and unsettling at the same time. That’s the hand of Esau.
But a distinction remains: When Esau builds an army it’s to expand his wealth, his territory, his glory.
When Jacob builds an army, it’s to protect his family.
Hakol kol Ya’akov. I have heard the sweet voice of Jacob, only it’s hard to hear over the crashing waves of war and the cacophony of voices shouting hateful things at us and about us. The voice of Jacob is why Israel is a place I am proud of, even, perhaps especially, at this difficult time.
I heard the voice of Jacob in Washington on Nov. 14, as 300,000 of our friends and family gathered. Though we are angry, our voices weren’t angry or hateful. They were loving voices, singing “One day, there’ll be no more wars, and our children will play.”
The voices of Jacob expressed compassion for the Palestinian people in their pain and suffering. We do not rejoice in the might Israel must show. We never cease to mourn the incredible human toll this war has already taken on both sides.
Acknowledging that pain doesn’t diminish our commitment to our own people. It doesn’t make us weak or disloyal. It makes us human — and we must not lose our humanity.
It in no way undermines the legitimacy of Israel’s military actions.
I have feared that a part of me has become callous, more angry, more fearful. I turn to Torah. I hear the Torah reminding me to be Jacob, to be our namesake Israel, even as the hands of Esau wield power.
One day, may it be soon, this war will end. May Israel prevail. May the hostages and soldiers return home to their families. And I pray that Israel emerges from this with the voice of Jacob intact and strong.
Rabbi Ari Lucas is senior rabbi at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell.