Accepting the Shadow: Tol’dot, Genesis 25:19−28:9
The boys hate each other. They love each other, of course, but they also hate each other. They may be found wrestling in the aisles of the sanctuary, arguing in the hallways, or pinching each other in their religious school classes to see who yelps first. They hate each other, yet they also insist on sitting together in class. They hate each other, but they love each other; they are brothers, fraternal twins.
The older twin is outgoing and loud; he prefers sports, bikes, and outdoor activities. The younger twin is quieter, has a darker personality, and sharper; he is a studious boy who likes computer games and science fiction novels. Talking to strangers is more difficult for him.
Each twin has a parent they’re closer to. Their father, never particularly athletic, loves his ‘jock’ son and revels in his triumphs: “did you know that Esau was the first pick for the soccer team this year?”
Their mother is closer to Jacob, her sweet boy who prefers to stay closer to home. Even as infants, Esau would pull away from her while Jacob nestled in close.
Both parents try to live through their favored twin and experience a different side of themselves. Isaac tries to be an outdoorsman through his rough-and-tumble son’s exploits. Rebecca dominates her docile son, but also wishes to have his power.
In rabbinic literature, the twin brothers represent archetypes of two major civilizations: Jacob is Israel and Esau is Edom (Rome). Thus, the narrative becomes a fight between the forces of good and the forces of evil.
Consider this midrash from Rabbi Levi, found in “The Book of Legends”:
“[At first, Jacob and Esau] were like myrtle and a wild rose growing side by side. But when they grew up, the former yielded its characteristic fragrance and the latter its thorns. So, for the first thirteen years, both Jacob and Esau went to school and came home from school. But at the end of the thirteen years, one [Jacob] went to houses of study and the other [Esau] to shrines of idolatry.”
This tradition of seeing the worst behavior in Esau testifies to the depth of persecution that Jews have felt in the Diaspora. The ancient rabbis, having been exiled from the land, tended to think of Esau as Rome, and of Rome as embodying the worst aspects of the persecution that they experienced. But this one-sided view is problematic. While acknowledging “Esau is a symbol of hate,” Nehama Leibowitz also points to midrashim that show Esau’s humanity. As she writes in “New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis)”: “In the Torah…Esau is a human being, the son of Isaac and Rebecca…like all human beings he has his good and bad sides.”
For example, when Esau speaks of exacting revenge on Jacob, he also decides to wait until the mourning period for their father has passed. It is a small thing, but it is still noteworthy that in the heat of the moment he prioritizes his father’s need for comfort over his own desires.
If we were to take the twins as archetypes, we might want to think of them as two facets of the same personality, rather than two types of people. Each of us has a shadow to our personality, a side that includes the aspects we do not wish to acknowledge.
In the case of Jacob and Esau, we see Esau acting as a foil to Jacob’s competitive side. Esau does not want to be the one who stops at nothing to win. Jacob hates his competitive brother Esau – which is, in fact, a form of hating himself. After all, is he not the one who tricks his brother Esau to get Isaac’s blessing?
So often, what we hate in others is what we refuse to acknowledge in ourselves.
We might fantasize about vanquishing our foes, but the reality is this: there is no total victory. Your shadow side remains, that part of yourself that has not yet been acknowledged. The more you fight it, the stronger it becomes.
How can we heal a broken world where the shadow side will not be repressed? How do we move past this and allow ourselves to be whole?
The first step is to recognize and accept the fullness of human experience. We all have within us a yetzer ha-tov (an impulse to do good) and a yetzer ha-ra (an impulse to do bad).
The second step is to learn to love our entire selves, including the parts that are jagged or difficult. Redemption is not achieving everything you ever wanted; it is the state of seeing things as they are and wholeheartedly accepting them.