Shabbat Shalom. As we approached the winter months, a level of darkness and sensitivity to grief tends to set in for many people. For me, Thanksgiving to New Years hold particular memories and yarzheits, but I know many people find themselves missing their lost loved ones especially at this time of year, even if the birthdays or death anniversaries were in other seasons. I think it has something to do with the shorter days, the lack of natural light, and the cold setting into our bones as winter descends.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Toldot, we read the well-known story of Jacob and Esau, twins who could not be more different. Esau is the favored son of his father, a man’s man, a hunter described as hairy and a animalistic. Jacob is the favored son of his mother, a mama’s boy who likes to help with the domestic chores around the house. The story culminates with Rebecca and Jacob conspiring to trick old, blind Isaac into giving Jacob his special blessing he intended for Esau. Esau’s weeping, “Have you not a second blessing for me, Father?” is truly heartbreaking in spite of the midrashic tales of Esau’s sinful and violent nature. Jacob’s trickery inspires great anger from Esau, and he runs away to escape the same fate as Abel.
But before the incident with the blessing, there is also an incident in which Jacob also finagles to gain Esau’s birthright, the promise of prosperity and the legacy of Abraham’s covenant with God. Sometimes, the distinction between the blessing and the birthright are confused and the two stories get conflated, but there is a lot happening with both incidents and they deserve their distinctions. The Torah tells us that Esau came home from the field, presumably hunting, and he is exhausted. Jacob is cooking a stew, and Esau begs Jacob for some stew, which seems odd that he would be so desperate. Who else would Jacob be cooking for, if not for his own family and household? The Talmud fills this in for us with a Midrash. Jacob was cooking lentil stew, a traditional food for a funeral. Lentils have no mouths, just as mourners often have no words, and they are round, as the circle of life which teaches us that mourning comes to all inhabitants of the earth in time. So when Esau comes in and sees the lentil stew, he recognizes this as the sign that their grandfather Abraham has died. He is hungry and tired from his long day in the field, but his desperation comes from grief. He is heartbroken over the death of his grandfather, and frightened and in shock that such a tsaddik would die like a normal man. He is confronted by the concept of his own mortality for the first time, and suddenly his birthright seems meaningless. If the righteous Abraham could die just like that, then how clearly Esau in his famished and exhausted state must be facing down death. He panics, and exchanges his birthright for the stew.
In dealing with grief or depression, it is important to try as much as possible to curb impulsive decision making, which may come out of desperation, and may be self-destructive. Of course, once one is in that state, the situation may already be lost. In the case of a fresh case of grief like Esau’s, this is why things like last will and testaments, ethical wills, and the like, unpleasant though they may be to think about, are so important so that we do not leave our loved ones to have to make difficult decisions unguided. In the case of the winter months opening up old wounds, those moments of desperation can be harder to prepare for. It can be random what triggers a grief-laden depressive mood, and it can be hard to know ahead of time what normal day to day functions, like eating, can suddenly feel confusing and disordered. For this, all we can do to prepare is ensure strong support systems. Be a support to your friends and be sure to lean on them when you need it as well. Isaac and Rebecca played favorites among their children and created division between brothers. There were no strong support networks in the family, and they crumbled in their grief. If we stick together as families, as a community, as friends, we can weather any weather the long, dark, cold winter throws at us, and we can manage our fears, grief, and desperation. May we bring light and love, warmth and support, nourishment for the body and soul, into our lives and the lives of others this winter. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.