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Sermon given by Alan Curtis for his Bar Mitzvah


AS YOU LIKE IT

Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

These lines from As you like it are both intuitive and perceptive. But what do they have to do with today’s Parashat?

Well, what Shakespeare realised is that it is rare that we are our true selves. And today’s Parashat is about just that, being your true self.

In today’s Torah portion, we have heard about a reconciliation between brothers.

This Parashat, once understood, is remarkable in its ability to enable us, thousands of years later, to relate to the words and situations as if they were contemporary texts.

The Parashat is about estranged twin brothers who meet after 22 years. The meaning of the text is not easy to understand. It is complex, with many different themes. All of which we can relate to today. It is about fear. We read Jacob is ‘greatly distressed and afraid.’ It is a story about moral and ethical dilemmas. It is a tale about a name change; Jacob becomes Israel. It is about appeasement and reconciliation.

Moreover, it is about self-examination. The realisation, in modern parlance, is that a change of mindset will result in an outward showing of self-determination and self-betterment, in other words being yourself.

What it is not; is easy. It is like an onion, layer after layer.

Both of the adult twins’ families are what we might consider today as dysfunctional families. It’s all in there, lying, cheating, theft, rape, and total disharmony. However, through it all comes a semblance of outward peace (for a while, at least). External peace became possible through inner peace. The inner peace found by Jacob after the nights wrestle with who, an Angel or himself? We simply don’t know. However, the depiction through artwork is what we are all familiar with. Jacob wrestling with an Angel is a better subject for a painting than someone lying asleep, perhaps dreaming.

As in our own lives, nothing is unconnected. Today’s Torah portion is no different. However, we need to know the beginning of the story. It started with the birth of twin boys. Boys who are such opposites, it was bound to lead to trouble. The firstborn, Esau, has a ruddy complexion. He is hirsute and has teeth. Esau became a big, robust, noisy man and became a hunter. He is his father’s favourite. Esau is the progenitor of the Edomites. Jacob, the second-born, is delivered hanging onto his brother’s heel. Jacob is quieter, and he stays at home closer to his mother. He becomes his mother’s favourite. Jacob becomes the patriarch of the Israelites.

The oft-quoted story about Esau giving up his birthright for a bowl of soup is well known, but I think, over-quoted to explain what happened next.

So overused in English, we have a saying, ‘to sell one’s birthright for a mess of pottage.’

The timeline of events is not clear. Jacobs cooking a pottage of lentils may have indicated that Isaac, their father, was dead. Lentils are a traditional mourners’ meal.

Esau’s birthright would give him authority over the family. His father’s blessing, though, was altogether different. The father’s blessing would ensure the transfer of goods and chattels and make the recipient the spiritual leader and, as such, the heir of the promises of Abraham. Jacob stole the blessing while dressed as Esau under the tutelage of his mother. For it was nothing less. The theft of the blessing became the principal issue of all that followed.

As you can imagine, Esau was furious about the deception and his lost blessing.

Rebecca, their mother, fearing that Esau might kill Jacob, hastily sent Jacob away.

Jacob’s departure made Esau a rich man. He took over everything that had previously been his father’s.

Jacob travelled far to a distant uncle, Laban. Jacob prospers, becomes wealthy, and marries 2 of Laban’s daughters. Jacob also has two concubines. Between all his consorts, he fathers 13 children.

Over time, the Laban family changes for the worse toward Jacob. They feel that God favours Jacob over them. It is the family feud of soap operas. You can hear the comments: Why has Jacob got so many animals? Why does he have 13 children? Jacob is so rich, and it is so not fair.

It is the perfect family storm, and Jacob decides to leave. He was running away again. Jacob had been hoping to hear from his mother that returning home would be safe. That Esau was no longer holding a grudge. However, no such word arrived.

Notwithstanding, He plans to return to the land of his father. He does not tell the extended family he is going. He makes sure he can sneak off under cover of darkness. What Jacob didn’t know was that Rachel had stolen Laban’s idols. With the icons gone and some cattle and goats missing, Laban pursued Jacob.

Before we move on, there are some lessons we can learn from the Laban family feuds.

Families can take advantage of you. Laban effectively sold Rachel and Leah to Jacob in return for his labour.

Jacob missed the warning signs. Laban cheated Jacob by making Leah marry him instead of Rachel. Despite the trickery, Jacob continued to live with Laban. It is ironic; remember, Jacob tricked Isaac by pretending he was Esau.

A wrong decision can lead to a host of problems later. We see this when Laban tricks Jacob with Leah. By Jacob staying, he prospered, and this caused family resentment.

More arguments, and Laban agrees to pay Jacob for his work with speckled and spotted sheep. Laban reneged on the deal. Once cut out from the flocks, Laban gave the animals to his sons. Jacob told his wives of their fathers’ actions, further testing the relationship between fathers and daughters.

Jacob wishes to meet with his estranged brother Esau. When finally, Jacob sends forth men to look for Esau, they return with good and bad news. The good news is that they have located Esau, and he is on his way to meet Jacob. The bad news is that Esau leads 400 fighting men.

We see a changed Jacob on receiving the news. For the first time, Jacob considers someone else other than himself. He thinks of his family, his labourers, and his beasts. Jacob duly splits them up. He sends some to the other side of the river. He keeps others in smaller groups apart from each other. In his way of thinking, he has given the most people the most chance of survival if there were to be an impending battle. Even more remarkable, Jacob, the shadowed figure fleeing Laban by night, now puts himself at the front of the leading group. He will bear the brunt of any conflict, a changed man indeed.

Jacob’s military position is untenable. He has no army. However, he did receive good intelligence. Jacob knew what was coming down the track.

We can only surmise what went through Jacob’s mind that morning. He must have been exhausted both physically and mentally. The challenging fight throughout the night seemed to have impacted his perspective on his life. The struggle had a severe effect on his body. Somehow he had dislocated a hip in his nocturnal fight, and he now had a limp that remained with him all his days, similarly, but more importantly, he had a changed mental state. He had, it appeared, looked at the face of God, and survived. Furthermore, Jacob, after his nocturnal struggle, received a blessing.

The blessing is essential. It reaffirmed the blessing given to Abraham that he would father a great nation through his descendants. Jacob was just that. The more subtle understanding is that being your own person, not deceiving or lying, will bring rewards. So Unlike Jacob pretending to be Esau, God blessed Jacob for himself. In doing so, like re-birth Jacob became Israel.

The meeting with Esau is the stuff of Hollywood. You can visualise the scene of Jacob’s sheep, goats, and cattle being herded forward in long lines abreast. Jacob sights Esau’s army of 400 men. The opposing groups move toward each other. Finally, the brothers see each other: everything halts, men and beasts. Jacob approaches Esau. Esau approaches Jacob. Jacob falls to his knees, and he prostrates himself. He does this seven times. The two protagonists embrace. Reconciliation, it seems, is complete. Jacob offers his brother gifts of animals to appease him, but Esau says he does not need them. He is rich enough, but Jacob insists, Esau declines again, and Jacob insists. Esau finally accepts after Jacob says to Esau to look at you is like looking at the face of God.

What did he mean? Not that Esau’s visage was like God’s, but he indicated that he could see God at work in Esau’s smiling face, helping him with his plan to appease Esau.

The Parashat, through their story, shows us that life is not easy. We may need to wrestle with God. We must be true to ourselves. We cannot be valid if we live under a pretence. Real growth experiences always involve struggle and pain.

Shabbat Shalom


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