Friday, November 16, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: The Trickster is Tricked

One of the cardinal rules of Jewish preaching one learns in rabbinical school is never to preach against the text. In other words, if the Jewish tradition sees an act or character as positive, one should not give a sermon or write a commentary saying the opposite. Similarly if the tradition sees a character as evil, one cannot legitimately claim Jewish sanction for portraying him as good; the classic example would be a sermon portraying Pharaoh as a "tragically misunderstood hero."

But sometimes this rule is hard to follow. Our Parasha this week, Toldot, tells us the familiar story of how Jacob swindled his brother Esau out of his birthright. He does this in two ways. First, when Esau comes home hungry from a hard day of hunting, Jacob forces him to sell him his birthright before he will give him any of the lentil stew he has just finished cooking. Second, when their father Isaac sends Esau out to hunt again and bring him something to eat "so that my soul will bless you", Jacob and his mother Rebecca collaborate in an elaborate plan to trick Isaac into thinking that Jacob is Esau. In both these cases the behavior of Jacob cannot but trouble us.

What is interesting is that immediately before this story, Isaac tricks Abimelech, the king of Gerrar. Perhaps Abimelech is not too bright. Several chapters earlier Abraham instructs Sarah to tell Abimelech that she is his sister rather than his wife, fearing that they will kill him in order to take her. Now Isaac does exactly the same thing, but when Abimelech catches Isaac and Rebecca "in the act" he discovers that once again he has been tricked.

And so the deceiver is himself deceived. We have a tendency to treat others as they treat us. While karma is not formally a Jewish concept, there is a sense in the Bible of measure for measure. Or as my friend and teacher Father James Walsh, SJ, of Georgetown University says: "there is no reward and punishment in the Bible, there are consequences."

The consequences of Jacob and Esau's quarrel over the birthright have been with us for centuries. Esau asked his father if he has only one blessing. Isaac may have indeed had only one, but God has many. May we learn to respect those of other faiths and may they learn to respect us as well.

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