We live in a time of polarisation and conflict. The roots of many universal phenomena are found in the stories of the book of Genesis. The reading this week investigates the roots of social conflict.
This theme is apparent from the very beginning of the reading. In the opening verses, Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, is carrying twins who seem to be constantly fighting with each other in the womb. Worried, Isaac approaches the Lord to enquire as to the meaning of this fighting. He is told that Rebecca will give birth to two nations, and that they will be in a constant state of strife. Indeed, Jacob and Esau become the symbols of political discord in later rabbinic literature, representing Rome and Jerusalem, or Christianity and Judaism.
The animosity between Esau and Jacob can be explained by the subsequent stories in the Parasha; the competition for the birthright and for Isaac’s special blessing. But the roots of the conflict predate these stories and are embedded in the very nature of the universe which Jacob and Esau inhabit.
The theme of conflict can be found elsewhere in the Parasha. In the middle of the reading, there is a seemingly benign story about Isaac going out to dig wells. Even here the theme of conflict is apparent. When he digs the first well, the neighbouring peoples come to confiscate it, claiming that that the water in the well is theirs. He then digs a second well which is also confiscated. Note, the second time the locals steal Isaac’s well, they don’t even bother to give him a reason as to why they are taking it. Once persecution of the stranger has become normalised, you don’t even need to give excuses. It is now okay to harass the stranger – no questions asked.
Given this state of affairs, is there any hope in the Parasha for the cause of mutual understanding and peace? Perhaps we can draw comfort from the fact that in spite of all of their fighting, Esau and Jacob eventually learn to live with each other in peace. This happens only later in the Torah, after they are fully grown and after each of them has made a name for themselves.
This also happens in the case of the wells. Isaac goes on and digs a third well. This time, there is no fight over the well, and he gets to keep it. Once there are three wells, there is enough water for everyone. No competition means no conflict.
Perhaps the lesson is that jealousy, mutual distrust, and animosity are actually the normal state of affairs in our world. Peace, security, mutual respect, are hard won treasures; something that we have to work hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. We tend to take peace for granted. It is only through mindful attention to the value of peace and the willingness to work for it, that a world of mutual understanding and respect can be maintained.
Rabbi Chaim Weiner