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Esau’s Rehabilitation

In our reading this week, our matriarch Rebecca learned that her older son Esau was plotting to kill her younger son, Jacob. She told Jacob to flee to her brother’s home in Ḥaran and wait there until Esau’s anger would subside, at which point she would send for him. Her pleading words to Jacob end with the question, “why should I lose you both on the same day?” (Genesis 27:45)

Rebecca’s question is intriguing. How would she have lost both her children on the same day? If Esau had murdered Jacob, she would have lost one son, not two. If Jacob had killed Esau in self-defence, she would still only have lost one son.

Rashi suggests that she was worried Jacob would kill Esau in self-defence, but that Esau’s children would then avenge their father’s death and kill Jacob.

Others have suggested that in Rebecca’s mind, were Esau to have killed Jacob, she never would have been able to forgive Esau for doing so and he would have become dead to her, living or not. They suggest she may have also been thinking of the story of Cain and Abel: Cain wandered the earth after murdering his brother, and Adam and Eve never saw him again. Many read the Biblical story assuming that Rebecca only cared for Jacob and not for Esau. Whatever her and Isaac’s failings as parents were, here we see that both parents did love both children, even if that love was expressed differently by each parent for each child.

Was Rebecca essentially blaming the victim, sending away Jacob so he wouldn’t be killed instead of preventing Esau from killing him? The continuation of the story suggests not. She was not absolving Esau of his responsibility, she was merely buying time and keeping everyone safe. She eventually did send for Jacob, seemingly after she hads done extensive work with Esau. When they eventually met again, Esau was not a threat to his brother anymore. Rebecca had rehabilitated him.

Biblical stories are meant to be complex and multi-faceted, just as our lives are. There is much to learn from our tradition and apply to our lives. There is also much we can learn from modernity to shed light on Biblical stories. As time progresses, as much as things change, things tend to remain remarkably the same.