19 November 2009

Resolved and Unresolved

The rabbis in the Talmud suggest that the famous incident between Jacob and Esau bargaining over the birthright for a bowl of lentils took place on the same day that Abraham died. It's an interesting and somewhat provocative thought that fuels the imagination.

What was Esau doing out in the field--from which he comes back to the house hungry--on his grandfather's funeral date? Left to their own devices with parents in mourning over the loss of first Sarah and then Abraham, Jacob and Esau are the rivaled brothers of legend here, 14 or 15 years of age and hanging out, barely staying out of trouble, while off someplace else the "adults" mourn according to the traditions.

I see this all the time with regard to funerals. Shiva homes are generally divided into adult rooms and kids' rooms--with the appropriate sense that we don't fully draw the young into the heaviness, the weightedness of mourning; rather, it's enough that they are present to mark this passage in life but we expect youth to have the resilience, practically the denial of death's inevitable power to conquer us all. That mortal reality is unavoidable past a certain age, a perspective one learns to live with. For youth, however, it can be damaging if not crippling. (One immediately thinks of the claim, heard over and over, that traditional Hebrew schools' great institutional failure in the last generation was in placing too much emphasis on Holocaust education and not enough on Judaism's positive message about living life.)

Riding to school today, we were listening to Nachum Segal on JM in the AM on WFMU, and as a rabbi discussed the weekly Torah portion, my six year old piped up from the back seat, "I know what the Torah's all about--but what's the Bible? I mean, what's THAT book all about?" Her friend in the backseat said, "Rules from God." "You mean, how to live?" she asked. "Yeah," he said. And that settled that. Made sense.

In my mind, preparing to do another burial today, I thought to myself but didn't say aloud, "And how to die."

Because what we expect from our children is how to live, live, live.

So here are Jacob and Esau, two teenage twins, looking very much alike except the color of their hair, and they're hanging out, bargaining over the future of the family while others are off mourning. There's a kind of moxy in the whole thing, you know? One imagines them boasting of how they'd lead the family, what choices they'd make moving forward for their generation.

Today there'd be a basketball game on, food on a table, a lot of laughter and bluster. It's interesting to think of Esau coming in from the field, immediately starting in with his brother, and then his brother setting to bargaining. And after some back and forth (a constant running joke among them: 'Brother, you came out holding my heel!') Esau relents for a bowl of lentils and Jacob gets to be called Firstborn.

The rabbis give this moment less credence than the blessing that Jacob will get from his father, this in deceit and with his mother complicit as well. It's an ugly moment, arguably, one that one also sees with families torn apart by death--a competition begins for the estate, for wealth, for power. But by this later section of the family narrative, the kids have grown somewhat and they are now moving through the world with a more realistic, albeit competitive mentality.

What's the message? That there is a double-edged sword to a playful rivalry in families. It can hold the key to defusing conflict or it can in fact load up ammunition for a greater, more damaging confrontation down the road.

When Jacob and Esau finally re-unite toward the end of their narrative, after Jacob has wrestled with God and received his new name, Yisrael, the meet expecting battle but embrace. Esau moves to kiss his brothers and aware of the weightiness of the moment, the rabbis say he likely wanted to bite his throat. The restraint is heroic in its own right, a reconciled fact for a family that ultimately chose new leadership.

And the story hangs open, both resolved and unresolved, for the brothers part ways, at peace, but less together than their early, playful days, watching a ball game and bargaining over the future of the family.

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