On a recent bike ride through the Negev I was told that the security wall in the West Bank and the new border fence in Sinai are disrupting the Bedouin’s way of life and robbing them of their primary source of income ….. stealing cars!
It’s hard to mouth the word “steal” without taking a moral high-tone, but the truth is that “stealing” is and always has been an acceptable way of re-distributing wealth, property and territory… or even disrupting the status quo (as evidenced by Abbie Hoffman’s published work: “Steal this Book“).
In a famous Midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zorah 2b and Sifri to Deutoronomy 33:2) God offers the Torah to different nations before offering it to Israel. One nation, when asked what was written in that Torah “passed” upon learning that stealing was forbidden…. after all how could they possibly make a living?
The thing about stealing is that most societies believe that stealing is wrong; the gating question is stealing from whom? While social units such as a families, tribes or nations that live off of plundering don’t sanction stealing within their respective social units, stealing from outsiders however is accepted. What is strange about the Sinai Midrash is that it would imply that the stealing prohibited by the Bible is stealing from outsiders, but biblical and legal (halachic) authorities limit most biblical social obligations and mores to within the tribe (“your fellow” rayayhu) [i.e. it is forbidden to steal or deceive a non-Jew not because of a specific prohibition, but because to the resulting desecration of God’s name chillul Hashem) …. so this Midrash is a proof-text to the contrary…. other nations passed on the Torah because it forbade stealing from outside of the tribe, but not the Jews.
It is clear from the biblical script in Genesis 27 that Jacob is in-fact stealing his brother’s blessing and tricking his father (a variety of theft; genevat da’at) . This is not an oversight but is in-fact the narrative that the myth maker meant to create. By stealing the birthright, Jacob establishes his street creds or as they say in Israel, he proves that he’s not a “freier” (a sucker)…. But the birthright is still stolen.
The earlier story of a sale of the birthright (Genesis 25: 29-34) is duly recorded but not referenced before or after the trickery… or of more significance… it is not referenced when the two brothers reconcile many years later.
So we are left with two conflicting accounts of the transfer of the patrimony; a questionable sale by minors for a bowl of red lentils and a cunning theft.
There is no attempt to reconcile the two narratives nor final justification of the transfer of the birthright to Jacob. The message is clear.
Ultimately the tension in the story of Jacob and Esau gets resolved not by a legal brief nor an apology and commensurate reparations but by each brother/nation finding their own identity and niche within the land of the possible.
Golda Meir once said that there will be peace when our enemies love their children more than they hate us. In a corollary to that the Bible, at the resolution of the stealing of the birthright narrative, suggests that there will be peace when each party forgets its own version of history, law and narrative and focuses on building the best possible present given what is possible.
With Hamas firing rockets at Jerusalem that are landing near Palestinian villages and using it’s own women and children as human shields, we have an enemy that seems to hold the lives of it’s own children in the same disregard as that of their enemy. We have an enemy that is blinded by ideology and its own narrative and has no regard for building a better present…. we seem to be very far away indeed from that day of reconciliation.