Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty 16 years ago on land that marked the boundary between the ancient kingdoms of Edom and Israel. According to the Torah (Genesis 32), the name Israel is given to our patriarch Jacob during a dream in which he wrestles with God. The Bible’s first mention of Edom is found in this week’s Torah reading where we read of Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil soup:
“Once when Jacob was cooking a stew Esau came in from the field famished. Esau said to Jacob, ‘Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down for I am famished’ – which is why Esau was named Edom. Jacob replied, ‘First sell me your birthright.’ Esau said, ‘I’m about to die from hunger. What use is my birthright to me?’ Jacob said, ‘Swear to me first.’ So Esau took an oath and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew. Esau ate, drank, got up, and went on his way. Thus did Esau spurn his birthright.” (Genesis 25:29-32)
The primary purpose of this story is to establish Jacob’s right to inherit the mantle of communal leadership. It is, once again, a statement by the Bible against primogeniture. Communal leaders should be chosen based upon ability and capability, not by birth order or right. According to the Bible, Esau, similar to his uncle Ishmael, lacked the spirituality and the commitment to morality necessary to be the heir of Abraham. Jacob, the “Ish Tam,” the simple or mild man, whom the rabbis of the Midrash describe as a student of Torah, was eager to assume the responsibilities, as well as the rights, of leadership. Jacob was not a perfect man by any measure. The beauty of Torah is that our heroes are presented to us as real people with their positive qualities accentuated, but with their failings revealed as well.
I sincerely doubt that Jacob, or his father Isaac, or his grandfather Abraham, could be elected to public office in 21st-century America. Imagine the negative ad campaign one could wage: Jacob: The man who withheld food from his starving brother.
The leadership crisis in modern America and Israel is in large measure due to the unrealistic and unreachable expectations we place upon public officials. We have the right to demand honesty, responsibility, and integrity in our elected officials. We should not, however, expect them to be superheroes. We must judge them on the basis of their actions and their promises. We have the right to expect them to conduct themselves honestly and morally. However, we also have the responsibility to respect their rights to privacy.
Jacob and Esau were brothers, who, in truth, were quite different from each other. From the story of the lentil stew until their reconciliation decades later, the two were bitter enemies. Finally, in the dramatic narrative we will read two weeks from now, immediately following the dream in which Jacob becomes Israel, Edom and Israel are able to reconcile their differences and live side by side in peace with each other.
On Wednesday, Oct. 26, 1994, as a world-wide audience watched the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, I was awed by the fact that the children of Israel and the children of Edom were following in the footsteps of our biblical ancestors and making peace with each other. The poignancy of the moment was increased for me when I realized that the two heads of state, King Hussein, the great grandson of King Faisal of Arabia, and President Ezer Weizmann, the nephew of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, were reconciling differences and agreeing to live side by side in peace, 75 years after their personal forebears first attempted to make peace at the end of World War I. Moreover, all of the leaders on that desert dais 16 years ago were men who over the course of their public lives had made many mistakes and miscalculations. None of them had an unblemished record. In the negative political climate of the late 20th- and early 21st-century America, none of the Jordanians or Israelis at that signing ceremony could ever get elected. Yet, I believe that one could successfully argue that only people who are aware of their own past failures could have made the compromises necessary to reach peace by, in essence, recognizing the birthrights of their opponent. The uniqueness of King Hussein, Yitzchak Rabin, and Bill Clinton was that they were all leaders who admitted their failures and their imperfections. They were each looking for the best possible solution, not the perfect one.
With hindsight we know that the dreams dreamed by the children of Jacob and Esau and the American people on that autumn day have not yet been realized. Modern Amalekites – what I believe is the biblical word for terrorists rather than an ethnic identification – have terrorized both Jacob and Esau and turned the warm peace of 1994 into the 16-year cold reality of terror attacks, the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin by an Israeli, and then in the last decade a four-year intifada with its homicide bombers, followed by a war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and another battle in Gaza two years ago. The current efforts by the successors to Hussein, Rabin, and Clinton to re-engage Israelis and Palestinians have hit new road blocks while a fence offers justifiable security to Israel and stands as a symbol of isolation to Palestinians. Meanwhile, here in America and in Israel we keep electing human leaders expecting them all to magically turn into superheroes.
On this week when we again read Parshat Toldot, let us affirm that “b’eleh toldot,” in this generation, we will piece by piece reweave the fabric of peace between the children of Jacob and Esau and between all the children of Isaac and Ishmael. Let us affirm b’eleh toldot in this new decade we will accept the responsibilities of our birthrights as Americans and as Jews by sharing our pot of lentils with all who are hungry; by recognizing that we, like every Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau, must work constantly on peacefully reconciling our differences; and with civility, honesty, and love celebrate the diversity of our community while simultaneously working to maintain its unity.
The midterm elections in America are over. May all our elected officials on every level be given the opportunity to serve our community and may they exercise their authority with chesed and tzedakah, with loving kindness and justice. May it one day be written of our generation that it was a generation in which the words of the psalmist were realized:
Hinei matov u’manayim shevet achim gam yachad – Behold how good and beautiful it is when brethren sit together in peace.