I first put this up over three years’ ago, but I think it’s time it got another airing.
The phone rang in Yaacov’s tent, and he rushed to pick it up before it woke the sleeping baby Reuven, who’d just dozed off.”Hello?”
“Bruvs! Is that you? It’s your big brother Esav!”
Yaacov’s stomach flipped over. What did Esav want? And why was he calling him now, in the middle of the night?
Didn’t he know normal people were usually asleep at 2am? Yaacov cleared his throat, and replied in a guarded but friendly way:
“Hi, Esav. How are you doing? Is everything OK with mum and dad?”
“Yeah, they’re fine. Can’t complain, can’t complain. But Bruvs, what’s this ridiculous nonsense I’ve heard, that you’re working for your wives?!?”
Yaacov could feel the condescension dripping off the phone. He wiped the sweat off his forehead: this was going to be a tricky conversation, he could tell.
“What’s the problem? I didn’t have any money for a dowry, so I had to come up with the goods somehow, to pay for the weddings.” Yaacov swallowed back the additional information that the reason he didn’t have any money is because Esav’s son Eliphaz had stolen everything he had, at knifepoint. Somehow, details like that never went over so well with his big brother.
“Bruvs, that’s just not the way! You’re putting the whole family to shame. I know in chutz l’aretz people think it’s OK for men to go out to work, but that’s not the true, holy way.”
Yaacov rolled his eyes. Here it comes, he thought.
“If Dad knew that you were working, he’d have a heartattack. You’ve got it all round the wrong way, bruvs. You’re wives should be working for you. Between them, they’d bring in a pretty decent wage, and you wouldn’t have to lower yourself to look after someone else’s sheep. I mean, where’s your self-respect? Where’s your pride? You used to be the best learner in town, and now look at you: a shepherd. When’s the last time you even opened a Gemara, bruvs?”
Yaacov swallowed heavily. Esav always had a real way with words. He could take the most ridiculous ideas, and make them sound incredibly convincing. If you weren’t careful, you could end up believing all his evil nonsense, and then you’d be in real trouble.
“Esav, supporting the family is the man’s responsibility. Our mother never went out to work for a day in her life. Dad took care of all the finances, and that’s what I’m doing, too.”
“Pah! That was then,” Esav spat back. “Things have changed! It was different in the old days. It’s a stain on the family’s honour that you, the son of the holy Yitzhak, should be wasting your time with something as trivial as earning a living. I mean, what do you think your wives are for, you numbskull?”
As always when he was talking to Esav, Yaacov realized he just couldn’t win. His brother always had an answer for everything, and if Yaacov dared to point out that Esav’s family wasn’t exactly the paradigm of perfection, he’d just spark off World War I.
But everyone knew that behind closed doors, Esav’s domestic situation was a mess:
Esav’s kids regularly got into trouble at school, and were always beating people up, stealing stuff and generally destroying the peace of any place they went. His wives were sullen, disgruntled women who hated their husband, but were too scared to leave, or to try to change anything.
There was just no talking to Esav: he always thought he was right, and doing all the wrong things for the loftiest of ‘right’ reasons. From experience, Yaacov knew the best thing was to hold his tongue, and let his brother speak his piece – then hang up, as quickly as possible, without making a scene.
So it was. When Esav had finally finished haranguing his brother for his ‘un-Jewish’ practices, it was 3am, already.
Yaacov hung up, then gazed at his sleeping wife – this time Leah – and her baby son, Reuven. Sure, working was no fun. He missed the times he’d spent learning Torah in the tents of Shem and Ever tremendously. But he knew that he was doing what God wanted.
He’d seen how harassed Esav’s wives looked; they were always running around from work to yoga to Facebook, trying to do a million things at once, and killing themselves to ‘keep up appearances’ at all costs.
Yaacov was working himself to the bone on his father-in-law’s farm, but he knew he didn’t really have any choice. Right now, that’s what God wanted from him. Maybe when the kids grew up, he’d be able to return to his holy books again.
As he reached over to blow out the candle flickering next to his bed, Yaacov reflected on the dictum that ‘you can’t build a mitzvah on the back of an aveira’ – it never worked.
Esav had always excelled at doing precisely that, but Yaacov knew his path was different. His way of trying to serve God, and of trying to build the world, didn’t always look so externally impressive, or religiously showy, but long-term, he knew it was going to bear the sweetest of fruit.