Today’s reading features several examples of my least favorite aspect of aggadah. The rabbis have a tendency to vilify characters who, in the text of the Tanach itself, are nuanced and possibly sympathetic, like Esau or Ishmael. Due to later historical connections and allusions (e.g. Esau = Edom = Rome), the rabbis feel they have to demonize these characters in order to claim that the bad behavior of their putative descendants is due to their ancestor’s evil nature. This tendency was especially frustrating to me in reading the aggadot for today in light of the fact that I usually read the story of Jacob and Esau’s reunion as an inspiring story about forgiveness. Instead, many of the aggadot seem focused on demonstrating that Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation was flawed or insincere, with an eye especially to showing that Esau is intimidated or bullied into accepting the truce.
In aggadah #81, Esau is granted his own parallel version of Jacob’s dream. During the same night that Jacob has his dream, Esau’s forces are “wrestling” with bands of angels who inflict lasting damage and also, in a sense, rename Esau. While Jacob is granted a new name that indicates his destiny and role as a patriarch of the Jewish people, Esau’s new name diminishes his importance and demonstrates that he is only a significant person in relation to his brother. Jacob’s dream ennobles him and gives him the strength to finally confront his sin and become a new person, while Esau’s dream relegates him to second place, to an existence as the fall guy. In a sense, the author of the aggadah is dramatizing what the commentaries have done to Esau’s character. Could we conceive of an alternative dream aggadah here that addresses the fact that Esau, who could justifiably have remained bitter and angry at Jacob, instead runs to greet his estranged brother with kisses and happy tears? What message or new name could the angels have brought to Esau to assist him in wrestling with his own pain and doubts and preparing for the reconciliation?
A final note: Aggadah #77 is a fascinating warning about teshuvah and especially about the process that many of us are engaged in right now, that of making apologies to people we have wronged. The text compares revisiting those moments of conflict to a sleeping robber chieftain (I like the image of my yetzer hara-- evil inclination-- as being a bandit hanging out in my brain) who begins a new fight upon being awoken and suddenly reminded of a past confrontation. I have certainly had moments in my own life when an attempt to make amends has turned into a fraught rehashing of the original fight. Let’s take this midrash as a caution: we should monitor our own intentions and approach when exposing old injuries to the light. If we bring up the old disagreement by reminding our loved ones of the pain of the original incident instead of the new, better selves we hope to be, we risk sabotaging our own efforts at moving on.
This Rosh Hashanah, may we all be blessed with the strength to reconcile with our own Esaus (or Jacobs) and to experience the moment in which teshuvah helps us to see the face of God in the faces of our fellow human beings. Shanah tovah!