Esau and Jacob show us that nobody is perfect

This week’s Torah portion is Toledot, and within it, we read about the rivalry between Jacob and Esau, the twin sons of Isaac. The rivalry started within the womb, where the twins struggled to such an extent that Rebekah despaired from the pain. Jacob and Esau’s rivalry would continue for their entire lives, though they eventually find a way to co-exist in the world mostly by staying away from each other.
Our tradition portrays Esau in a highly negative light. He is described as a skillful hunter, but one day when he comes home from the hunt, he sells Jacob his birthright, the right to become the leader of the family, for a simple bowl of lentil stew. Later, he marries two Hittite women of whom his parents did not approve. After Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, Esau vows to himself that he will murder Jacob. In rabbinic literature, he looks even worse. He is shown as a rapist, a murderer and an idolator. Further, his descendants include Amalek, Agag, Haman, and according to the rabbinic literature, even the Roman Empire, none of which were particularly good for the Jews. He’s a bad guy.
But how bad is he really, if we look at Esau in a more dispassionate light? Well, to start, he was a good hunter. I will grant you that that is like saying John Wilkes Booth was a good shot — it’s kind of beside the point. But Esau was a good hunter and pleased his father by providing the foods that Isaac enjoyed. Esau’s reaction to finding out that he lost his father’s blessing because of Jacob’s trickery is absolutely heartbreaking. “When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father!’ … ‘Have you not reserved a blessing for me?’” Even when Esau vows to murder Jacob in revenge, he resolves to wait until after their father has died so he doesn’t cause Isaac any pain. Again, I grant you, not awesome, but at least he was thinking of his father’s feelings. And when he realizes that his choice of wives has upset his parents, he marries his first cousin, the daughter of his uncle Ishmael. Also not great, but he tried.
And how good is Jacob, really, if we look at him in a more dispassionate light? He manipulates his apparently dim-witted brother into selling him his birthright. If your sibling came into the house, exhausted and hungry, wouldn’t you just give them some food, not withhold it as a bargaining tool? When Jacob’s mother suggests tricking his father to steal his brother’s blessing, Jacob’s only objection was that he might get caught, not that it was wrong. So Jacob lies, steals, and dishonors his father, which according to the Ten Commandments, is kind of a bad thing. So Jacob is not looking so good now, is he?
Here’s the bottom line, though. No amount of historical revisionism is going to turn Esau into a good guy and the right man to lead the future of the Jewish people. And while Jacob was definitely the better son to lead the family and receive his father’s blessing, he was by no means perfect. Esau wasn’t all bad and Jacob wasn’t all good. Which is true of most people, that we are an admixture of both good and bad qualities. None of us is perfectly good or perfectly evil. Rather, we are all flawed human beings, a fact that is important for us to remember.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice-president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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