In the story of the rival twins, Jacob and Esau, Jacob emerges as the winner, the inheritor of the mantle of his fathers, the blessings that his seed will inherit the land.
But Esau is not actually a loser in the text. On the contrary, the Torah goes to great lengths to tell us of Esau’s lineage, and the fact that the Jewish people have no claim whatsoever to the land of Esau, that we must respect Esau’s boundaries and sovereignty.
The obvious question of course, is: why? What does Esau do that merits this treatment?
And I think the answer, like all of these answers, is in the text. In summary:
Jacob deceives his father to steal his brother’s blessing. Esau is enraged and wants to kill Jacob. Jacob flees, and stays away for a few decades, making no contact at all with his parents or brother.
Then, Jacob comes back. When he does, he proactively sends messengers to his brother, bearing gifts of all kinds. When they meet in person, he bows down many times to Esau, calling him “my lord,”, and finally says “My blessing is yours.” In other words, Jacob clearly tries to undo what he had done. Jacob is giving back what he had stolen.
At this point, Esau has a choice. He traveled to meet Jacob with four hundred men, so he was ready for anything. When Jacob placates him, Esau chooses to accept the gift – and in full. He even offers to escort Jacob to their parents, traveling at whatever speed suited Jacob’s family and herds. Jacob declines, and something is made clear: the future of the Jewish legacy belongs to Jacob, and Esau is not invited. The rejection is polite and it is gentle, but it is firm: Jacob seeks to have no more relationship with Esau, none at all.
And Esau is given another choice: how does he handle the rejection? The answer is that he acts like a perfect gentleman, a mensch. Whatever his feelings may have been, his words and actions are perfectly in concord with civil and cordial acceptance.
This is, as with all things in the Torah, a lesson to us. We are used to learning from Jacob, but the Torah is setting Esau up to be an example to follow as well: accept apologies. Respect the wishes of others if they have no intention of harming us. Be a mensch, even – and especially – when you are being rejected. And if you manage to do those things, then G-d will respect and reward you in turn.
[an @iwe and @susanquinn production]