By Shlomo Riskin
“So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. And Jacob journeyed to Succot, and built himself a home…” [Gen. 33:16-17]
What is Jewish continuity? How might it be attained? Jewish organizations have spent many years and millions of dollars in search of answers to these questions. And with good reason: how can we expect Jewish identity to exist in three generations without Jewish continuity now? I believe that an answer can be gleaned much more quickly — and inexpensively — through an examination of the lives of Jacob and Esau, where we will discover the secret to Jewish continuity.
Jacob finally returns to his ancestral home after an absence of twenty years. Understandably, Jacob is terrified of his brother’s potential reaction and so, in preparation, Jacob sends messengers ahead with exact instructions how to address Esau. Informed of the impending approach of Esau’s army of four hundred men, he divides his household into two camps, in order to be prepared for the worst.
But what actually happens defies Jacob’s expectations: Esau is overjoyed and thrilled to see him. The past is the past: “And Esau ran to meet [Yaakov], and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept” [ibid. 33:4].
The two sons of Isaac emotionally reunite in an embrace of peace, love and hope. The future of Jewish history was set to take a radical step in a new direction. Nevertheless, Jacob prefers a cool reconciliation, delicately refusing Esau’s offer to travel together. Jacob feels the need to traverse a different path and, at his behest, the brothers separate once again. Jacob’s reticence to requite Esau’s warmth is striking. Why refuse his twin brother’s gracious offer? Jacob’s decision has important implications for our generation.
There are positive characteristics of Esau to be found in many Jews across the diaspora. Many are assertive, self-made people who weep when they meet a long-lost Jewish brother from Ethiopia or Russia. They have respect for their parents and grandparents, tending to their physical needs and even reciting the traditional mourner’s Kaddish. Financial support and solidarity missions to the State of Israel, combined with their vocal commitment to Jewry and Israel, reflect a highly developed sense of Abrahamic (Jewish) identity. Similarly, Esau feels Abrahamic identity with every fiber of his being.
But when it comes to commitment to Abrahamic (Jewish) continuity, the willingness to secure a Jewish future, many of our Jewish siblings are, like Esau, sadly found to be wanting. Undoubtedly, one of the most important factors in keeping us “a people apart”, and preventing total Jewish assimilation into the majority culture, has been our unique laws of kashrut. Like Esau, however, the overwhelming majority of diaspora Jewry has tragically sold its birthright for a cheeseburger.
Esau’s name means fully-made, complete. He exists in the present tense. He has no commitment to past or future. He wants the freedom of the hunt and the ability to follow the scent wherever it takes him. He is emotional about his identity, but he is not willing to make sacrifices for its continuity. It is on the surface, as an external cloak that is only skin-deep. That is why it doesn’t take more than a skin-covering for Jacob to enter his father’s tent and take on the character of Esau. Indeed, Esau is even called Edom, red, after the external color of the lentil soup for which he sold his birthright.
And what is true for a bowl of soup is true for his choice of wives, as he marries Hittite women, causing his parents to feel a “bitterness of spirit” [ibid. 26:35]. No wonder! The decision of many modern Jews to “marry out” has, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center report, reached an American average of 58%! The “bitterness of spirit” continues to be felt in many families throughout the diaspora. As the Pew report shows, those who marry out and continue to profess a strong Jewish identity are not able to commit to Jewish continuity. Perhaps Esau even mouthed the argument I’ve heard from those I’ve tried to dissuade from marrying out. “But she has a Jewish name!” “She even looks Jewish!” Esau may have said, “Her name is Yehudit!” [literally, a Jewess, from Judah]. “She has a wonderful fragrance!” [Basmat means perfume] [ibid. v. 34].
On the other hand, Jacob’s name, Yaakov, is a future-tense verb. Jacob is constantly planning for the future, anticipating what he must do to perpetuate the birthright. Similarly, if we are to attain Jewish continuity, we must internalize two crucial lessons from the example of Jacob and Esau: 1) never sell one’s birthright for any price; and 2) guaranteeing a Jewish future means planning strategically with an eye towards the long-term, sacrificing short-term gains in order to demonstrate a commitment to continuing the legacy and lifestyle of Abraham and Sarah.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.