Descendants of Esau and Jacob: Naming Names and Telling Tales (Genesis 36:1-43)
In psychotherapy, it is generally proposed that the beginning of coping consists of naming the problem or issue with which one is having difficulties. But giving a name is insufficient. Stories must be told in order to give substance to memories and emotions and allow them to be synthesized and then set aside, not as the “worthless sand” in which a gem was found (as discussed in the previous post, but as valued bits of history that make up one’s very foundation and to which one can return again and again out of interest and no longer out of fear.
Perhaps the Torah’s naming of names without telling the tales of these many descendants of Esau comprises a message of no little import to the descendants of Jacob – let me explain:
Joseph’s history, and that of his brothers, includes, not only their father Jacob, but also their uncle Esau. Esau, the father’s twin brother, was of course a part of his nephews’ personal histories and he exerted an impact on the men they grew up to be, even if only indirectly given that they likely had little contact with him during their lifetime. Perhaps Joseph’s behaviour toward his own elder twin somehow led to Joseph’s brothers’ treachery even if they had never actually been told the story in any clear way.
We often see, in clinical psychotherapeutic work, that children have some kind of intuitive knowledge pertaining to their parents’ past, sometimes acting out parts of that past, even if the parent never told them stories from their childhoods. Similarly, perhaps, we, the longtime descendants of Jacob and Joseph, are not told the stories about all these individuals but listing their names informs us that these people play an important role in our history without directly telling us what role.
The fact that the descendants of Esau were enemies of the descendants of Jacob, particularly in the person of Amalek, has left a scar in our collective psyche that persists to this day. We see it over and over again in how the Jewish people feel surrounded by enemies (sometimes we ARE surrounded by enemies, but perhaps not as often as we feel). There is a kind of victim mentality in today’s Jewish people.
Why should that be?
Jacob and Esau eventually reconciled somewhat but they never really found peace in their relations. The fear of murder plagued Jacob even after their reconciliation. We live that fear to this very day. It seems that we Jews, perhaps partly because of our victim mentality that makes us see hate even where it might not be, know more about how to make enemies than we know how to make friends – Ishmael, Esau, . . . It is interesting that our family line as told in the Torah is made up of a series of traumatic splits from brothers and extended family that has led to enmity.
Less than stellar behaviours on the parts of Abraham and Sarah, and later Rebecca (Jacob’s mother), caused painful schisms in the family and we are still feeling their weight to this day. So our history is made up of victims and victimizers who are intertwined and not always distinguishable. Can we, today, be brave enough to not only name the names of those we regard as enemies but to add some humanity by listening to their stories and not only our own? This is not to say that we allow other stories to take precedence over our own, but that we listen.
Perhaps some of those peoples Israel has shunted aside as “worthless grains of sand” merit shining a bit of light in their direction. Who knows? By sifting through the piles of names to which we have not attached any significance other than that of a dehumanized “enemy” we may find something of surprising interest.
If we walk along and kick up the sands, asking to hear the stories of those we have barely named and give heed to those sand particles in a way we never before have, it is even possible that we will discover that some of those grains of sand have, by now, turned into pearls just waiting to be discovered. And to our own detriment and peril we continue to ignore the call of untold stories of those whose names we fear. Because pearls such as Muhammad Zoabi, Sara Zoabi, Anett Haskia, Bassem Eid, Ahmed Meligy, Yahya Mahamed, Mosab Hassan Yusef, Sherif Gaber and more, are already starting to float to the surface.
Image Credit: Francesco Hayez [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons