By Rabbi Gregory Marx
Most Biblical commentators interpret the conflict between Jacob and Essau in Parshat Toldot as the perennial struggle between nations.
Israel then and now, has always contended with the larger surrounding nations. The standard interpretation is that though Israel is smaller, it will militarily and politically prevail because of God’s help.
Thus, the well-remembered wrestling match in Rebecca’s womb in our Torah portion is seen as the never-ending conflict between Israel and her neighbors. The text of Toldot is very clear: “The Lord answered, “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger … One emerged red … the other emerged holding on to the heel of Essau.”
The Talmud teaches that they will never be equally great at the same time: When one rises the other will fall. In other words, the one will prevail only when the other is weak.
But what if there are not two brothers, fighting each other for dominance, but only one person struggling to figure out his own identity? What if this story is really about not two disparate nations but two aspects of our own personality?
Here we have a story of two men. One is a homebody, the other is an outdoors man. One is connected emotionally more to his mother, while the other is more a reflection of the natural passions of his father.
The text is very clear: “When the boys grew up Essau became a skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors; but Jacob was a mild man who stayed in the camp. Isaac favored Essau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca favored Jacob.” Maybe this one person was not sure if male identity was more wrapped up with being like Essau or Jacob, diametrically opposite visions of masculinity.
Today, it seems that men struggle with what it means to be a man. We hear phrases like “toxic masculinity.” We are attacked for our predatory nature. We are often asked, “Why can’t we be more sensitive and less masculine?” We are inundated with media tales of sexual predation. I, for one, am embarrassed from all of these stories of abuse, sexual misconduct, coercion and outright slavery.
What are we to make of it all? A book came out recently entitled, “The Trouble with Boys” by Peg Tyre. She observes that boys are left back in school at twice the rate of girls. They are diagnosed with more learning difficulties and attention issues than girls. They get more Cs and Ds and do less homework. It seems that boys are not figuring it out for themselves any more. Boys, and later men, can be confused, depressed and rudderless.
It is too easy to externalize the conflict between Jacob and Essau and to say that the battle is between two nations. It is too facile to say the conflict is between men’s and women’s rights.
Maybe the battle is in our own heart. How do we deal with hate, violence, envy, greed, lust and indolence?
All of this is wrapped up in the character that the rabbis identify as Essau. And in the end, Jacob was forced to wrestle with him one more time. The Torah tells us that Jacob stayed up all night and wrestled with a “mysterious stranger.” Some say he battled himself. Others argue that he wrestled with God. Still others maintain that he struggled with his own conscience. But maybe he was wrestling with what it meant to be a man today. If he was wrestling with his brother, then the passivist was battling with the activist, the homebody with the ruffian.
Some would say that the dysfunction we are witnessing is a new phenomenon, but the fact that it is mentioned in our Torah tells us otherwise. This conflict is as old as time itself. The Torah favors Jacob over Essau. It celebrates the mind over matter, the soul over the stomach, forward thinking over regression and peace over violence. Jacob, for sure, was far from perfect, but following his internal confrontation, he became whole.
May we who struggle find that peace and understanding as well.
Rabbi Gregory Marx is the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.