Vayishlach: Goat Versus Snake

November 27, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Toledot, Vayeitzei, Vayishlach | Leave a comment

The book of Genesis/Bereishit is full of pairs of opposites. Some are counterparts and friends. Adam and Eve, the prototypes of male and female, demonstrate that opposite genders can be partners. Ishmael and Isaac, the outcast who invents his own life and the chosen one who is bound to his father’s agenda, eventually become allies. Leah and Rachel, the unloved and the beloved, unite when their husband Jacob consults with them, and they both decide to leave their father and go with Jacob to a new land.

But other pairs of opposites in Genesis never become partners. Cain kills Abel; Sarah exiles Hagar. The twins brothers Esau and Jacob manage two peaceful reunions: one at age 60, and the other when they bury their father. But their differences are such that they can never build a real partnership—any more than a goat can partner with a snake.

The Torah identifies the twins with these two animals when they are born, in the Torah portion Toledot:

The first emerged red, entirely like a robe of sei-ar, so they called his name Esav. And after that his brother emerged, and his hand was holding fast to the heel of Esau, so he called his name Ya-akov… (Genesis/Bereishit 25:25-26)

sei-ar = bristling hair; (from the same root as the word sa-ir = he-goat)

Esav = Doer; (in English, Esau)

Ya-akov = Heel-grabber, Cheater, Cunning One; (in English, Jacob)

At birth, Esau is hairy like a goat. Jacob’s grip on his twin’s heel is a reminder of the snake in the garden Eden, whom God cursed to crawl on his belly and bite human heels.

When they grow up, Esau is headlong like a goat, rashly running at what he desires until his horns crash against it. Jacob is sneaky like a snake, gliding on circuitous routes to his desires. We see this in their behavior when Esau is famished and sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of lentil stew. In the Torah’s next scene about Esau and Jacob, their blind father Isaac wants to give Esau a blessing. Rebecca, the twins’ mother, commands Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing. Jacob protests:

Hey, my brother Esau is a sa-ir man, and I am a chalak man! (Genesis 27:11)

 sa-ir = hairy; he-goat

chalak = smooth, slippery

So Rebecca not only dresses Jacob the snaky  in Esau’s clothes, but also covers his arms and neck “with skins of goat kids” (Genesis 27:16), and Isaac gives the blessing he intended for Esau to Jacob. Enraged by the “theft” of his blessing, Esau rashly swears he will murder his brother, and Jacob leaves for his uncle Lavan’s house in Aram.

In the next Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob completes his 14 years of service to Lavan in lieu of bride-prices for Lavan’s daughters Leah and Rachel. He gives notice to his employer/uncle/father=in-law, but Lavan does not want to let him go.

And Lavan said to him: If, please, I have found favor in your eyes! Nichashti, and God has blessed me on account of you. And he said: Designate your wage to me, and I will give it. (Genesis 30:27-28)

nichashti = I sought an omen; (from the same root as nachash = snake)

Lavan almost said, “I sought a snake, and God has blessed me on account of you.” The serpentine Jacob makes a clever bargain and works for another six years in exchange for far more livestock than Lavan expected. Meanwhile, we learn, Esau has moved to the land of Sei-ir = hairy goat, and become its chieftain.

Twenty years after Jacob fled to avoid being murdered by his brother, he finally heads back toward Canaan. Now he has a large family, servants, and abundant flocks and herds.  In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (And he sent), Jacob sends messengers ahead, and they return with the news that Esau is marching to meet him—with 400 men. Frightened, Jacob takes three precautions: he divides his people into two camps (see my blog “Vayishlach: Two Camps”), he prays to God, and he sends extravagant gifts to Esau: 220 goats, 220 sheep, 60 camels, 50 cows, and 30 donkeys.

The night before they meet in person, each man battles with his inner god or demon. (The Torah describes how Jacob wrestles with a “man” who turns out to be a messenger of God. I think Esau must go through his own struggle that night, after the surprise of receiving a fortune in livestock from Jacob, so I wrote a Torah monologue about it.) In the morning, the estranged brothers meet.

Jacob raised his eyes and he saw—hey! Esau was coming, and with him 400 men! So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two slave-women. And he put the slave-women and their children first, and Leah and her children behind them, and Rachel and Joseph behind them. Then he himself passed ahead of them, and he bowed to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. And Esau ran to meet him, and he embraced him, and he fell upon his neck, and he kissed him; vayiveku . (Genesis/Bereishit 33:1-4)

vayiveku = and they wept out loud. (In the Torah, people weep out loud at moments of strong emotion, including relieved joy, lamentation, pleading, and remorse.)

When the goat and the snake meet again, they both weep out loud, perhaps in relief, perhaps in remorse. Perhaps they both have evolved enough to see the divine in one another. Jacob (who was always more verbal, even smooth-tongued) says:

If, please, I have found favor in your eyes, then you will take my tribute from my hand; inasmuch as I saw your face, like seeing the face of God, and you were well-disposed toward me. (Genesis 33:10)

Thus the twin brothers, opponents since birth, finally meet in peace. But their family reunion is brief and fragile.  Esau does invite Jacob to travel with him as far as  Seir. But Jacob does not dare go to the land of goats; he cannot rush headlong into a trusting friendship the way Esau can. The serpentine Jacob politely says he will catch up later—and then heads in another direction. The two brothers do not see one another again until their father’s funeral.

Esau and Jacob do better than the other mismatched pairs in Genesis; nobody dies, and nobody is driven away. Yet a goat and a snake cannot become close friends and go home together. Esau and Jacob must part and head for their separate destinies.

May each of us be blessed, like Jacob, to see God’s face in people who are fundamentally different from us. And may we all learn, like Jacob and Esau, to greet them in peace, and part from them in peace.

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