A verse in the book of Amos attacks Edom, Esau’s descendants, saying shichet rachamav – ‘he destroyed (i.e. suppressed) his pity.’ A midrash then reads not ‘pity’, (rachamim), but ‘womb’, rechem, and links it to the story of the troubled birth of Jacob and Esau in our parasha. The Midrash says that Esau, as he was being born, ‘destroyed Rebecca’s womb’, causing her to become infertile, and that as a result, although Rebecca was worthy to bear the Twelve Tribes of Israel, she could not.
This midrash is consistent with other midrashim on the parasha where the rabbis rewrite Esau’s character to portray him as a total sinner, guilty of the three worst sins: murder, sexual immorality and idol worship. But this midrash is particularly troubling. The image itself is reminiscent of something from a horror film. And in it, Esau has become more than just a wicked man. He is now something diabolically evil and treacherous. He has become a force that halts the march of our national history, striking at his own mother’s motherliness. When we note that in Rabbinic writing, ‘Edom’ (ie Esau) is used to mean first Rome and then Christianity/Christian nations, we might ask ourselves: what dark messages are we being given about other nations?
There is a key fact here though. As a verse in the book of Deuteronomy says, ‘Do not wrong an Edomite, for he is your brother’ (Deut. 23:8) Evil though the Rabbinic Esau is, he is not a distant and alien Other. He is our sibling. Our tradition has put its darkest imaginings into our own family, and this is a safer place for them overall, for family relations are, at the very least, complex. Violently negative feelings, such as hatred, resentment, jealousy, coexist with better ones, connection, loyalty, even concern. And we see this happening with the Rabbis. Their need to demonise Esau can be seen as an attempt to deal with guilt over his manifestly unfair treatment at the hands of the rest of the family, by constructing him as an evildoer who therefore deserves what he gets. And the particular midrash about Rebecca’s infertility can also be read as having a subtext of guilt and doubt. After all, the plain meaning of the story told in the parasha is that it was Rebecca’s whole pregnancy with the twins that was difficult, not the birth of Esau in particular.
Perhaps the descendants of Jacob were worrying that their ancestor was as much the cause of Rebecca’s subsequent infertility as Esau, and were angrily insisting to themselves that no, no, it was all Esau’s fault. If the Other is also our brother, then we can attack him, but we cannot simply dehumanise him and ignore him.
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue