I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Esau because I think Jewish tradition has been unfair to him. Esau is the twin brother of our patriarch, Jacob. The two began to have “issues” in utero. “But the children struggled in [Rebekah’s] womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” (Genesis 25:22)
When the children were born, Esau emerged first, with Jacob close behind, holding on to Esau’s heel.
From that moment on, being the second born child was not good enough for Jacob. Twice he schemed; first, he convinced Esau to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup. Later Jacob tricked his blind father, Isaac, into thinking he was Esau and convinced him to bestow the blessing of the first born upon him. When Esau discovered this deception, he burst into “a wild and bitter sobbing,” begging his father to bless him to, but to no avail. Esau, still enraged, threatened to kill Jacob. So Jacob fled.
Esau might have been impetuous, emotional, and reckless. He didn’t necessarily make good decisions, but nowhere does the text describe him as bad, evil, or idolatrous. However, Midrash and Talmud do.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks summarizes midrashic complaints against Esau succinctly: “Esau was attracted, even in the womb to idolatrous shrines. He trapped not only animals but his father Isaac by pretending to be pious when he was not. God cut short Abraham’s life by five years so that he would not live to see his grandson violate a betrothed woman, commit murder, deny God, deny the resurrection of the dead and despise the birthright. Such is the way of midrash. It helps us see. . .Jacob as good. . .Esau as bad. That is an important part of our tradition.” (Covenant and Conversation Toldot 5778).
It may be important, but it still may not be fair or justified.
When we read the text just from the Torah, there is no indication that Esau committed any of these heinous acts. The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash need to paint a negative picture of Esau and elevate the more clearly despicable young Jacob because the lineage of our people goes through Jacob, as he emerges as the father of the Tribes of Israel. We elevate one while denigrating the other.
If you have ever been unfairly slandered, or if others have demeaned you or painted an unfair picture of you, it is a painful violation of your character. That is what happened to Esau. It sometimes happens to us. Having to defend yourself in the court of public opinion can be very difficult. Once someone disseminates information about you, true or not, it’s out there. And the damage can be long lasting. And it isn’t fair.
Midrash are stories and lessons that help fill in the gaps. In our lives today we must be careful of the stories we share, the midrashim we create that fill in the gaps of those we know. Speak the truth; don’t exaggerate; don’t diminish. Reveal the complexities of a situation, minimize the simplicity. Be aware, be attentive, and fair. Give the Esaus in our lives the benefit of the doubt.