Boys to men: A Thanksgiving lesson via Esau

Boys to men: A Thanksgiving lesson via Esau

On Thanksgiving Day, my teen sons and thousands of other Jewish boys across the country will be eating large helpings of turkey and watching modern-day gladiators (a.k.a. the Dallas Cowboys) fight for field position beneath the world’s largest Jumbotron. They’ll see their heroes cheered on by a giddy, barely-clad group of women and interrupted by Lite Beer commercials about “manning up.”

Some of the messages they will receive, both subtle and not-so-subtle, will be: crush your opponent, rub it in his face, don’t act like a girl, eat large portions of meat, drive fast cars, flaunt your money, have a clean shave, ridicule your friends — and if you do all these things, then hot women will entertain you.

At half-time, there may well be an update on the atrocities that occurred at Penn State, where a culture that values loyalty and power and “winning above all” contributed to the systematic failure to report a heinous crime against a child.

After they’ve taken in this barrage of messages, on Saturday my sons will sit in synagogue listening to the chanting of the story of Jacob and Esau.

With Thanksgiving football and Parshat Toldot coinciding this year, there is probably no better time to be talking about the messages our sons are receiving about being men. Does the Jewish tradition teach them anything to help them to navigate or counter these messages? Will they be like the Penn State students who overturned a news van to protest Paterno’s firing, or will they be like the students who organized a vigil for the victims?

This week’s Torah portion begins with Isaac and Rebecca welcoming their twin sons into the world – and presenting us with two competing male energies.

Esau, the first-born hunter, is described by our rabbinic sages as the prototype of a Roman soldier. Rashi goes so far as to say that the bloodthirsty Esau “hunts women from underneath their husbands.”  He is, in other words, a rapist.

Jacob, on the other hand, desires to study, spends a great deal of time indoors, and listens to his mother. For Rashi and the other commentators of the medieval period, to be a Jewish man meant to be the anti-thesis of the gladiator. 

In the last century, Zionists, feminists, and gender theorists debated whether Jacob should be regarded as the epitome of Jewish manhood. After waves of pogroms in the Ukraine, Zionists like Max Nordau proposed a new model of “muscle Jews” and pioneers who would leave the study halls of Eastern Europe for farmland in Palestine. Feminists of the 1960s objected when modern day Jacobs would go off to study or work while women were left with household chores, child-rearing, and occasional words praising their valor.

In the 1990s, gender theorists like Daniel Boyarin tried to reclaim the fading ideal of the gentle, chubby, Jewish “mama’s boy” from the growing worship of machismo and militarism, the so-called “tough Jews.”

In working on the new teen boys program with Moving Traditions for the past year, I have found value in all of these critiques and reclamations of Jacob as the original mensch. But I’ve also felt that unless we begin to understand Esau, we will not be able to adequately guide our sons in being men.

Esau is dutiful to his father. When his father is hungry, Esau rushes off to the hunt. In fact, Esau is seen as the extreme example in Torah of loyalty. The Zohar relates that “no one ever loved his father as much as Esau loved his father.”

But Esau represents something other than extreme filial loyalty.

A collection of commentaries, Midrash Rabba, relates that one of Abraham’s old enemies, Nimrod, is trying to hunt Esau down. That’s why Esau is often away on hunting expeditions. As a teenager, Esau is in a constant state of fear and begins to see the entire world as a one big competition of “kill or be killed.”  The commentary helps us understand why Esau sells his birthright, gives up on his future, and goes off in the world to take all that he can from others.

When Jacob follows his mother’s advice and tricks Isaac into giving him the first-born blessing, Esau cries. In his heart, he wants to kill his brother. He feels that his loyalty was for nothing, and that he is destined for failure. It is no wonder that the mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, taught that “redemption only comes when Esau’s tears are consoled.” 

Is there some Jewish wisdom from this story that might help my teenage boys think differently about what it means to be men? 

Consoling Esau’s tears means learning to understand the damage that comes with a male culture that places cut-throat competition and extreme loyalty above all else. While loyalty and competition are positive forces, when they go unchecked, as they did at Penn State, deceit and cover-ups thrive in the name of protecting a winning persona. Later in Genesis, as he watches his own sons mature, Jacob learns that loyalty and competition must be balanced with a critique of power and the ability to build alliances. 

Over time, Esau decides that it is better to reconcile with his brother than to hunt him down. As the competition ends, and the two brothers meet face to face, the hairy hunter falls on his brother’s shoulder and begins to weep.

In this moment of maturity and healing, we learn that men are capable of more than loyalty, competition, and dominance. Could there be a better message for Thanksgiving weekend?

read more: