Twelve years of primary and secondary education. Four years of college. Six in graduate school. I’ve had a lot of teachers, some good and some not so good. But I always tried to remember what my parents taught me: You can learn something from everyone.
In this week’s Torah reading, Vayishlach, I’m struck by Jacob’s condition. He’s terrified, emotionally broken, as he faces what we know will be a confrontation with his brother Esau. Jacob’s anxiety is palpable; his movements, frenetic. I feel for Jacob, but I empathize with Esau.
Jacob’s behavior through the years is certainly questionable. He acquires Esau’s birthright by withholding food from a desperately hungry Esau. He steals Esau’s blessing from their father. And, many years later, when the angel with whom Jacob is wrestling begs Jacob to let him go, Jacob refuses until he receives the angel’s blessing.
Contrast this with Esau. After risking life and limb to feed his family, he returns, hungry and exhausted, and—perhaps out of desperation, perhaps because he underestimates the value of the birthright that’s rightfully his—Esau sells that birthright to Jacob in exchange for food. Years later, when Esau’s blessing is stolen by Jacob, Esau, in tears, begs for his father’s blessing. And while he vows to kill his brother, Esau ultimately refrains.
Commentators compare Esau’s character to that of ancient Rome: militaristic, materialistic, and morally corrupt. But I think there is more to Esau. Our ancestors—their accomplishments, their courage and faith, their foibles and fallacies—are a part of us. And the lessons of Torah require us to reflect on the fullness—and the humanity—of those personalities.
Perhaps Esau is heroic. His brother deceived him. His parents preferred his brother over him, and they rejected his wives. Even his father’s blessing for him offers little valediction: “You shall serve your brother; But when you grow restive, you shall break his yoke from your neck.” And still, Esau never pursues Jacob. He reflects on the discord and on his dismissive attitude towards his own birthright. He lets time pass and emotions cool and, upon Jacob’s return home, greets him with open arms and the hope of reconciliation. So perhaps it is Esau from whom we should learn. Perhaps it is Esau who should be counted among the teachers of Israel.