It’s Not Always “Happily Ever After”

Have you ever read a story or watched a movie in which you desperately wanted two characters in deep conflict to reconcile?

In one particular tale, we see two brothers who are completely different in nature and fundamentally at odds with each other. The Storyteller couldn’t have made it clearer. One brother seemingly had taken advantage of the other, and the other wanted to kill the one for it.

Yet, isn’t it our nature to want things to turn out happily? And, the story gives us hope that maybe they will. We know that the boys’ father wished well for both of them. After a period of separation and struggle, they meet. Further, they appear to reconcile. There’s a kiss. There is an exchange of gifts. And the two seemingly go off in peace.

Yet, while the two come back together to bury their father, we can’t help but notice that the brothers never see each other again.

I’m talking here, of course, about the end of the story of Jacob and Esau. It’s some of the main action in this week’s Bible portion.

It is true that I am a person, perhaps like you, who wants characters who have problems with each other to reconcile. Perhaps it’s human nature. Or it may be that this hope is a part of our ethical and spiritual orientation. After all, “How good and how pleasing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

Over many years I have thought and written that this Torah text is one of reconciliation and that it is quite lovely in that respect. That the brothers appeared in so many ways to find peace and would later honor their father by joining together to bury him seemed sufficient proof.

It’s a nice and fair reading. But this year I fear it’s not altogether right.

Traditionally, rabbis and sages have never cared for or liked Esau. They see him as a crude, bad man who never strays from his true nature, that is, one to oppose God’s way, Torah, and the person, Jacob, who had been chosen to carry on the tradition. Many see the angel with whom Jacob struggled as an angel sent by Esau to destroy him. Further, they see Esau as the founder of Edom, whose descendants perpetually set out to destroy Israel and Israel’s descendants.

I’ve always known this point of view and accommodated it, or, should I say, I chose to put it to the side.

Now, I can’t altogether.

The accompanying portion from the Prophets this week is from Obadiah. The message there is absolutely clear: Esau fundamentally hated Jacob and had designs to kill him. Further, this enmity would last not only during the brothers’ lives but also throughout the lives of their respective successors. The end of the enmity would come only when the house of Esau is punished and the righteous ascend and help establish God’s kingdom.

So, what conclusion are we to draw? I, for one, have not yielded my former inclination generally to hope for reconciliation. In fact, I think the text won’t allow us to, all the rabbinic explanations notwithstanding. But the weight of negative observations over the ages about the never-to-be-present-again Esau is undeniably great. It is simply true that there are some relationships that are incapable of repair and that there are some people whose bad nature is such that reconciliation with them cannot be achieved.

One should be open to making peace with others where there are differences, but one must be clear-sighted and realistic. A naive blindness where the differences are due to others’ evil brings on weakness, insecurity, and harm. And a failure to see, defend against, and defeat evil is dangerous to the welfare of oneself, one’s community and the good.

I leave today’s study a bit sad, perhaps at a certain loss of innocence, but also safer and more secure for finally having had the difficult struggle the text invites.


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