This past weekend I had the privilege of celebrating a wedding downtown. As I was meeting up with a group later, I took an Uber to the venue. The ride on Saturday evening is a very long one. Traffic is pretty much at a standstill most of the way.
My Uber driver was listed as both a five-star driver and a great conversationalist. The notice was correct on both counts. Immediately upon entering his car he asked me why I was headed downtown. I told him I was going to a wedding. He then told me he noticed the Bible I was carrying and asked me if I was the Pastor officiating. It was actually my Rabbi’s manual he saw. I told him that I was a rabbi and we were off to the races. That is to say, we spent the next hour and a half in theological dialogue.
It turns out that his father is the founding pastor of an Apostolic Church in Grays Lake. My driver was the youth minister. He was very curious about the denomination of Judaism and my view on Jesus. I shared with him the partnership we have with the Greater Bethlehem Healing Temple and Another Chance Assembly. He was very impressed with the depth and scope of our work Feeding the Hungry and the Eat and Be Well Medical Food Pantry and how each of these projects partner with each church.
He then asked me a question no one has ever asked me before. “Who is your favorite Biblical character?” I thought for a moment and then told him that I had been thinking a lot about Esau lately. This was fresh because we are in the midst of the Book of Genesis in our Torah reading cycle. It was not long ago that we were engaged in the saga of Esau and his twin brother Jacob.
Esau has been given a “bum rap” by our sages of blessed memory. They paint him as a brute and a moron incapable of realizing the value of his birthright. Our sages claim that Esau was unworthy of carrying forward the Covenant made with his father, his grandfather, and God.
I believe, however, that Esau had his priorities in exactly the right order. Esau was an outdoorsman. He was a hunter, more comfortable in the wilderness than in a tent. Esau comes back from an unsuccessful hunt tired and hungry. Jacob has just made a lentil stew and Esau asked for some of it. Jacob denies him a bowl and demands that Esau promise to give over his birthright. Esau, tired and hungry as he was, still could have easily taken the soup from his much physically weaker brother. But instead, he gives over the birthright for a bowl of soup.
For Esau, the relationship with his brother was of paramount importance. The material advantage of the birthright did not matter to him at all. Esau simply wanted to be with his brother as a brother and not hurt him. This, of course, is a mystery to Jacob. Esau is only angered when Jacob undermines the relationship Esau has with Isaac at the end of his life. Jacob tricks Isaac into believing that he is Esau and gets his father’s blessing. Esau’s anger quickly abates so that when the twins meet up years later, Esau embraces and kisses his younger brother, Jacob. All he wants is connection with his brother.
Jacob, sadly, cannot understand or accept this and actually rejects his brother’s offer to join their camps and families together. This disconnect comes to haunt him with his own family. Jacob chooses a favorite son and is unable to connect with the rest of his children in quite the same way. The consequences are dire. Joseph’s brothers seek to kill him but later are convinced to sell him instead.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Judah stands before the man he does not recognize as Joseph and pleads on behalf of the youngest brother, Benjamin. Judah has come to realize what Esau knew all along. Connection with others, especially family, are of infinite worth far surpassing material possessions and petty jealousy.
May this Shabbat give us the strength and the wisdom to make connecting with family and community our highest priority.
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.