Could we imagine life with only one color? How about with only 3 colors? Black, white, and perhaps a few shades of gray? Television began that way but today we have thousands of colors on all the screens we utilize – personal computing, iPads, and high definition televisions – which allow us to see the world in vivid Technicolor, countless shades and tints of every hue.
Even with such advances in colors, we still too often seem to paint people in monochrome. This has traditionally been the case when it comes to Jacob and Esau, the twin sons born to Rebecca and Isaac that we are introduced to in this week’s parsha of Toldot.
In what was and will continue to be a theme in the Torah when two children are born, the second child seems to be favored. Esau and Jacob are born just minutes apart. Jacob exits the birth canal while clasping the heel of his big brother, thereby earning his name. (Yaakov means “heel” or in modern Hebrew a form of ‘in one’s footsteps’). Whenever one child is played against another in the Bible, we seem to tilt the scales in favor of one, seeing them in one color: white, the good and positive color. The second child is black with fewer redeeming qualities. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Menashe and Ephraim are just a few examples that fit neatly into this model.
I do not want to focus on this page as to why they are favored. Although recently there was an article in the New York Times that suggests that parents with multiple children actually choose favorites. Do you? Most people I know would never admit that they have a favored child. Well, at least not publicly. But in private would they?
I have two kids. I do not have a favorite but I do realize that they have different characteristics, traits, and beliefs that make them special and unique. Based on my day, what is happening in my life and my needs, I find that I can gravitate to one over another. But rarely is it the same child, as they both bring color to my life and the world.
In our tradition, Esau and Jacob are opposites. One burly and rough, the other soft and smooth. One is a lover and the other the fighter. Rebecca favors Jacob while Isaac has an affinity towards Esau. We will learn that Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s vulnerability. Jacob further colludes with his mother to trick his aging father at the time of the birthright blessing. Still, with all of this behavior, Jacob is the child to whom deference is given in our traditions. We continue to follow his journey. He wrestles with God. He is the inheritor of the covenant made with his grandfather, Abraham, which we are reminded of daily as we invoke his name in the recitation of our prayers. But where is Esau? He cannot be found in our liturgy, we do not track his journeys in the Bible unless it intersects with Jacob. Esau seems to draw a bad rap, and I would add unnecessarily.
The Midrash teaches us that Esau was an exemplary son that regularly doted on his father. Isaac had a sight difference. He could not see well, as evidenced in the episode of trickery. Still, the rabbis tell us that Esau would hunt for all of his father’s favorite foods. One Midrash even suggests that when Esau came back parched and starving and Isaac leveraged his hunger into the undeserved birthright, Esau was out in the fields preparing a feast for his ailing father.
Other children in the Bible seem to suffer a bad rap too while their siblings are heralded as saviors and leaders. Perhaps it is because we are used to seeing biblical characters in black and white ““ good and bad. Sometimes that lens through which we see the Bible can extend to modernity. This candidate is either good or bad. This CEO, friend, rabbi is either on one side of the ledger or the other. That is dangerous.
When it comes to human estimations and appraisals, we cannot afford to be linear. We need to see everyone in Technicolor. If we do not, we put blinders on that only allow us to see one way, one color. Not seeing the qualities that every biblical character, person, candidate, and rabbi has to offer the world does a disservice to the ability God gave us since creation to see the world in many vivid colors.