Poor Esau. What has his father, Jacob done? He’s not happy and for good reason. No wonder that his mother Rebecca tells her other son, Jacob, to run away until his brother calms down. Families…
It is not an accident that the most famous Jewish jokes are about the family. How about this:
Three elderly Jewish ladies are sitting on a bench talking about – what else – their children. ‘My son’, says one, is such a wonderful son. Every month he sends me £500.’ ‘You think that’s special’, says the second’ that’s nothing. Every month my daughter sends me £1000.’ ‘Ach’ says the third. ‘My children spend £500 each, a week on their psychiatrist. And what do you think they talk about? Me! Only me!’
When I was preparing this sermon, Peter Lipton of blessed memory, came to mind. Some of you may remember Peter giving a sermon at Beth Shalom about the philosophical implications of telling a joke, when alone. “Could the joke be funny if no-one was there to listen?”, he asked. When I told that joke about the Jewish ladies to the screen, a moment ago, I have no idea if you laughed or even smiled. I don’t even know if a computer has a sense of humour. Well, I suppose it does…when it crashes.
Anyway, families is my subject on this shabbat. They are not always easy places – just ask Esau. For that matter, you could ask his father, Isaac what he thought of his father, Abraham. Remember how Abraham agreed to sacrifice his long awaited beloved son at God’s command? Families…
There is, you’d agree, occasional stress in our families. Yet the family is where the world acquires a human face. It is the DNA out of which each of us build our worlds.
Through our parents and grandparents we each have a history. Through their children and grandchildren they have a posterity. For those of us who are parents, we have gained our most profound knowledge of life from the experience of being, in my case, a son and a father. And since Trish and I have had children of our own, we have learnt what it feels like to create something you cannot control. As the saying goes, perhaps one of the greatest kindnesses of God is that She doesn’t let us know in advance what we are letting ourselves in for.
Judaism emphasises the importance of family – and as Progressive Jews, we embrace a wide definition of family: gay or straight; married or simply committing to live together for the long-term. The point is to face the future together. And without togetherness, I very much doubt if any of us could achieve what we might.
But what about Esau? Listening to Martyn’s beautiful chanting of the biblical narrative, didn’t you feel sad or sorry for him? Aren’t there times you want to throttle your brother? Metaphorically, of course.
Yet Esau, not Jacob who deceived his brother, consistently received bad press from the rabbis. According to rabbinic tradition, Esau represented, figuratively, the oppressors of Judaism, including the Babylonians, Romans and the Christian Empire.
I think it’s time we reclaimed Esau and expressed compassion, respect, even admiration for him.
Esau’s loss is real and genuine, and furthermore, a glimpse of reality. The Bible insists we face reality and recognise that at times, life is unjust and is unfair. But if we keep telling each other that life is unfair and do nothing about it, then life will forever continue to remain unfair.
Injustice, unfairness and loss continue. Without sacrifice and adherence to doing the right thing, amidst the pressures these challenges put on the fabric of society, it is doubtful that we can re-image a fairer society and create a better future.
When faced with loss and tragedy, Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jnr said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” Loss and fear of death did not hinder him from acting out of integrity and making a difference; rather, it resulted in the creation and continuity of the civil rights movement. In other words, integrity does not equate to survival. Doing the right thing isn’t easy; it can lead to personal loss. Yet, it can also lead to positive change and tikkun olam, healing the world.
Easu faced a dangerous moment when he could have allowed hatred of his brother and desolation at the loss of his birthright to permeate his soul, for the long term. Yet, what did he do when he met Jacob, as recounted in Genesis a few chapters later? “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept” (33:4).
Whilst there is no shrine for Esau and he wasn’t depicted with the compassion he deserved for the loss of his birthright, on this shabbat, let’s remember Esau for the decision he made to give his life a greater purpose and meaning. Remember Esau. Remember, if the time should come when you have to make a choice between what is right, and what is easy, remember what happened to a brother whose birthright was stolen, who overcome injustice and unfairness, and when he met his long lost brother, he simply wept and kissed him.
And this is the point of my sermon: life is rehearsed and becomes real in the family. And through the family we experience a complex choreography of love – what it means to give and share, to grow from obedience to responsibility, to learn, challenge, rebel, make mistakes, forgive and be forgiven, to argue and to make up. Without the family we would not know what life’s most basic concepts mean.
We can know the past but we can never know the future. Human life is lived towards the future, which means facing the unknown.
My hope and prayer this shabbat, is that you remember you are on a journey across an unknown with nothing to protect you…except one another. It may not be much…but it is everything. You will have to face shocks, crises, tragedies but day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year, someone from your family will support you.
Being there for one another is an act of faith; it is neither rational nor irrational; rather, it is the redemption of loneliness so that we can face the future without fear. Not because we should be optimists, nor because of blind trust, but because each of us will know that someone who loves you is, giving you support, understanding and strength.
A slender consolation? Perhaps. But is there anything greater?