Earlier this fall I was honored by the invitation to offer some words of Torah as part of the Peace Parsha series at Americans for Peace Now.
You can read my commentary on parashat Toldot at APN: If this is so, then why am I? I'm also archiving it below.
"The children struggled in her womb, and she said, 'If this is so, then why am I?'" -- Genesis 25:22
We read in this week's Torah portion that even in the womb, Rebecca's children Jacob and Esau quarreled. And their perennial struggle brought her to an existential outcry: if this is so, then why am I? If this is the only possibility for my sons, she seems to be saying, then my motherhood -- even my whole existence -- feels called into question. If fighting is all there is, then what's the point?
I suspect that many of us who care deeply about Israel and Palestine have those moments of heartfelt crying-out. If this is so, then why am I? If struggle and violence are inevitable, "then why am I" giving my heart and soul to working toward peace?
The twins are different in every way. Esau is the elder son, bigger and stronger; Jacob is the younger son who prevails by his wits. Esau is an outdoorsman who likes to hunt; Jacob prefers their mother's tents. Generations of commentators saw Jacob as the proto-yeshiva-bucher and Torah scholar. (One midrash holds that whenever the pregnant Rebecca passed a yeshiva, Jacob would strain within her womb to lead her there.) As the story unfolds, Jacob outwits Esau out of his birthright (land inheritance), and then with Rebecca's help tricks Isaac into giving him the elder son's blessing, too.
As Jews we identify with Jacob, in part because our story tells us that he is the progenitor of our family line. But I think we also cheer for Jacob because he is an underdog who prevails through wits rather than through strength. Historically, that's how Jews have made our way in the world. As the younger brother, Jacob wasn't supposed to receive the blessing or the property inheritance due to the firstborn, but he outsmarted a system of inheritance which was weighted against him. We who have historical memories of being denied full citizenship, and living memories of being denied entry into universities and country clubs, can't help but cheer at Jacob's triumph.
Many of the family stories in Genesis are stories of inversion, where a younger brother prevails over the older. Just so, with God's help, we have prevailed for millennia in an often unkind world. When we struggled under Roman empire, we associated Esau with Rome. It's easy to interpret Israel's presence among many (sometimes hostile) Arab nations as another Jacob-and-Esau story, where once again we are the underdog who wrests control away from a region of Esau after Esau.
There's another way to map those two brothers onto today's Middle East. When the modern state of Israel was founded, the idea of a "new Jew" came into vogue. Brawny and tough, hardened by tilling the earth, the identity of the sabra veered away from the Jacob-style timidity which had, some said, made the horrors of the Shoah all too possible. The mythology of the early decades of the modern State of Israel aligned us for a change with Esau, the brawny hunter-gatherer, instead of with Jacob. Never again will we rely only on our wits: now we have an army.
But in the decades since 1967, that army has been tasked with maintaining an occupation. Maintaining ownership by military might has not led to peace between the two peoples any more than Jacob's claiming the firstborn's blessing by trickery led to peace between the two brothers. It would appear that whether we place ourselves in the Jacob role or the Esau role, peace is beyond our grasp. But are these our only choices? Is enmity between brothers the only possible paradigm for Jacob and Esau -- and, by extension, for Israelis and Palestinians?
Later in Torah, Jacob meets up again with his brother Esau after many years apart. (It's on the cusp of that fateful meeting that Jacob wrestles with the angel, gaining a new name in the process -- Israel, one who wrestles with God.) The brothers embrace and Esau offers words of joy. He marvels at his brother's good fortune -- by this time Jacob is quite wealthy, with wives and children and herds and flocks -- and invites his brother to travel with him. But Jacob is unable to trust his brother's overture. He makes excuses to take a different route, and they never meet again.
Every year when I read these verses, I wonder whether Jacob made the right call. Granted, his brother had threatened to kill him back in the day; he has good reason to fear. But what if Esau had grown and changed? What if his offer of peace and brotherhood were sincere? We'll never know; Jacob didn't have the inner resources to take the risk of finding out. But in our day we need to live out a different choice. We need to open our hearts to the leadership of courageous peacemakers on both sides. We need to learn how to act out of hope, not out of fear. We need to write a different ending to this story.
Torah teaches that the two brothers wrestled in the close confines of Rebecca's womb. Today Israelis and Palestinians are in an equally tight place: pressed together cheek by jowl and village by settlement, intertwined and struggling for dominance. Can we imagine a new birthing out of that narrow place, one which would lead to the emotional expansiveness required for coexistence?
Rebecca cried out to God in anguish at the tussling of her sons. She felt as though their struggle would annihilate her. Last summer when Israel and Gaza were at war, my heart broke again and again. Every time I read a news story, saw a Facebook update, glimpsed the war even from this distance, I felt as though witnessing that struggle in a place which I love would shatter my heart. And I wept at how the fighting was shattering the land and its inhabitants.
Our tradition teaches that it was the Israelites' cries, from the narrow place of slavery, which sparked the outflow of divine mercy leading to the Exodus. This is what the Zohar calls אתערותא דלתתא, "arousal from below." If our hearts break as we witness continued struggle in Israel and Palestine, and we cry out as Rebecca did, what new possibilities might we call forth from God's infinite reservoirs of compassion?
If eternal hatred and bloodshed are our only options, then Rebecca's cry still resonates: if this is so, then why am I? But I believe that a different reality is possible. If we will it, we can make it more than a dream.