In this week’s parsha, we are deep in a difficult family story. Yitzhak and Rivka struggle to conceive and after she conceives, the struggle continues in her womb. It gets no simpler once their sons are born. Esav emerges first, hairy and red, followed closely by Yaakov, clinging tightly to Esav’s heel. The boys are quickly caught up in a multigenerational cycle of favoritism and deception. When Yitzhak has grown old and announces that time has come for him to bless Esav, the eldest, the grand slight of hand goes into effect. Guided by his mother, Yaakov dresses up as Esav and presents himself to Yitzhak, who blesses him.
When Esav comes in from the fields and discovers what has happened, he is—understandably—angry. He asks his father, with a note of incredulity, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” Esav is not asking to take back the blessing already given to Yaakov. Rather, he cannot fathom that his father would have only one blessing.
Yitzhak’s answer comes like a slap: “I have made him a master over you and I gave him all his brother’s as servants and I have sustained him with corn and wine. So what, then, shall I do for you, my son” This statement is almost absurd in its excess, particularly as Esav is Yaakov’s only brother. Yitzhak is so tangled up in a shortage of blessing that he cannot even see Esav’s individuality. There seems to be a part of Yitzhak that never quite recovered from the trauma of the akedah. The scholar Avivah Zornberg shares a midrash from Bereshit Rabbah that describes Yitzhak’s blindness as a physical manifestation of his trauma, a lack of sight seared into him by the raw horror of what he saw at the top of Mount Moriah. Even now, years later, some essential part of Yitzhak is stunned and silent, struck numb with fear.
Esav demands, “Do you only have one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” I imagine the father and son facing off, Yitzhak so sure that his understanding of the situation is the only one that can ensure a future for his family, and Esav, furious at the injustice, hurt by his father’s inability to see, desperate to remind Yitzhak that he too is his son. They are stuck.
Then, Esav bursts into tears. There is a teaching in the Talmud, in tractate Bava Metzia, that says that since the destruction of the Temple, the gates of prayer have been locked. But, the text continues, while the gates of prayer may have been locked, the gates of tears are never locked.
The gates of tears are never locked. There is always a way to get through—yes, to God, but perhaps also to another person. Esav’s vulnerability unlocks the gate of his father’s heart. It may not swing open wide, but it does begin to let the light in. Where before Yitzhak had only refusal, now he suddenly has an answer. He says, “Behold, your dwelling shall be the fat places of the earth and of the dew of heaven from above; And by your sword shalt you live, and you shalt serve your brother; and it will come to pass when you will break loose, that you will shake his yoke from off your neck.”
Now, Esav is not exactly satisfied with this blessing. He goes away angry, perhaps at the grudgingness with which it was given, perhaps at the curse nestled within the blessing. He swears to kill Yaakov. The cycle of violence does not end here. But much later, when he is reunited with his brother, he does not kill him. He embraces him, and both brothers cry. That reunion, I believe, is made possible by Esav’s initial tears and the response those tears pull out of Yitzhak. Listening is not the end of the tikkun, but it is the beginning.
This past weekend, I was given a remarkable opportunity to listen. Along with a group of Jewish leaders, including a number of other Hebrew College students, I traveled to Bethlehem in the West Bank with an organization called Encounter. Encounter seeks to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by offering Jewish leaders the opportunity to listen to the stories of Palestinian leaders in media, business, non-violent activism, education and politics. There are two parts to any Encounter experience, the staff was quick to tell us: what happens during the program itself and what you do afterward with what you have learned.
Over the course of the weekend, we heard so many incredible voices. From Ali Abu Awwad, we learned about his journey from armed resistance to non-violent activism. From Ghada Aruri, we learned about the disenfranchisement of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem and her work in neighborhood organizing committees. From Hamed Qawasmeh, we received a striking overview of the geographical and political situation in the West Bank. From Abu Ibrahim, the leader of the village council in Khalet Zakariya, we learned that there is a demolition order on the village’s tiny school because it was built without a permit—a permit that is almost never granted to Palestinian communities—while the Israeli settlement right across the road is building an addition to their already large school. With stunning generosity and courage, these presenters spoke. We listened.
There are times when someone reveals their humanity and we are called to listen. Even when we don’t want to, even through fear and trauma, even when we cannot imagine that the mere act of listening can bring about any change. There are times when we are Yitzhak.
And there are times when we are charged with revealing a truth so vulnerable and human that it may well emerge with tears. When we stand there, asking someone we love to listen in a way they cannot currently imagine, risking being shut down or turned away or dismissed. There are times when we are Esav.
As the other participants and I go out from the trip, scattering in our many directions, traveling by car and bus and plane, rejoining communities of prayer and work and learning, my hope is that we carry a keen awareness of the power of listening and the power of speech. In these challenging times, that awareness is more important than ever. I hope that we remember the bravery and grace with which each presenter spoke his or her reality into vivid detail. I hope we can recognize the stories with which we have been entrusted. I hope we can speak of our experiences on this trip, even when it makes us nervous, even when it is hard, even when it seems that there may not be quite enough blessing to go around. Because the gates of tears are always open and blessing flows from God like a spring of living water.