Readings: Genesis 27:1-35, 41-45, Divine Provident #147 (see below)
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Here we are at the second stage of Jacob and Esau’s story. It does sound like a little bit of a replay, but Jacob seems to have upped his game. If he was simply being shrewd in convincing Esau to part with his birthright last week, he is downright deceitful in the way he cheats Esau out of his blessing this week. While the scheme was Rebekah’s idea, Jacob’s only real objection was procedural, and once the goat skins were on, he was all good. If anyone is the victim in this story it is poor Isaac, who as diligently as he could, tried to ascertain his son’s identity but was thwarted by the deception. Both Isaac’s and Esau’s desperate and heartbroken reaction to what Jacob did is incredibly sad to read.
Now we might find ourselves a little bit confused about the difference between the birthright and the blessing. The former relates to issues of inheritance, basically a private family matter, but the blessing was more ritualistic, a public declaration. What looks to us like an everyday affair of bringing Isaac some dinner actually represented a specific blessing ritual, with various elements agreed upon by social construct. Isaac could no more revoke the blessing and place it on Esau in the same way that a minister cannot just say a marriage they have officiated doesn’t count because they changed their mind.
So we understand why Esau was so very enraged. If Esau didn’t value the birthright and gave it away too easily, he certainly valued Isaac’s blessing, and it is clear that their bond was real and deep. Jacob had taken something that Esau could never regain. But also, that doesn’t mean that Esau had the right try to kill Jacob for what he did. Again, a messy human situation, with people acting badly all over the place.
If we return to our Swedenborgian interpretation we see more fully explored what was hinted at last week. Esau represents our natural will: what we want and how we feel. Jacob represents our natural understanding: how we think about things and what we understand to be true.
Part of learning how to be wise, of learning how to love effectively, is learning that our feelings, and our way of seeing things through the lens of how we feel, might be limited, might not represent objective truth. For this recognition to occur, we need to let go of the way that we feel, and let our understanding take the lead for a while.
Because there is a reason we have the phrase “look before you leap.” Many times it is really important for human beings to learn how to create a space between impulse and action, between feeling and thinking. When we are ensconced in our emotions, we don’t put much stock in waiting, in thinking things through; we don’t want to. Our emotions don’t necessarily care very much about ultimate truth, they are only concerned with what is true for us. And there are times when we do need to stand for what is true for us. But there are also times when we need to put aside our feelings so that we can be led by ideas that will expand us and bring us into spiritual growth. Life based only on how we feel, what is good for us, often ends up hurting other people.
One example might be from our recent common experience with white privilege and anti-racism. There are certain ways we might *feel* about racism in this country, and those feelings will lead our thinking and our conclusions. Our sense of personal grievance might lead us to think that white privilege can’t be real because we personally have suffered in various ways. Our sense of hopefulness, or let’s be real, our attachment to the status quo, might lead to us to conclude that we are now in a post-racial period because we elected a black president. Our feelings of defensiveness might cause us to reject the idea that we have participated in a systemically racist society, because how can we be a good person if we have done so, even unwittingly? But when our feelings are leading our thinking, we don’t always get to the truth.
This process of making space for new ideas, being willing to look outside of our own ego for truth, is not so much about second-guessing ourselves all the time, or ignoring our own intuition, but rather having the humility to recognize that our own feelings are not necessarily the final arbiter of truth and rightness, that we can learn something by listening to other people and other ideas, and especially that we can learn something from engaging with God’s word. Sometimes Jacob needs to take the lead.
And that is going to feel a bit like “stealing” what rightly belongs to our will. Think about how much “truer” our own thoughts feel to us than objective facts, or other people’s experience. The intensity, the closeness, of our own feelings give them a lot of power, and that is not easy to give up. When we go looking for another kind of truth, that might even feel like being cheated somehow. Many times our emotions are not ready to be called forth into a new way of being, into transformation. This call to newness might feel a lot like “taking away” something that belongs to us, like our peace of mind, or of usurping our right to feel the way we want, and we certainly might feel anger if we have been happy with the way things were.
But letting Jacob lead is integral to the path of regeneration, the path of spiritual progress. All of us are born into the primacy of the Esau-mind, and this sense of selfhood, about ability to feel things as a singular person, is a good and righteous gift. But it also can tend towards selfishness if we never learn to look outside of our own experience. God has made each one of us for a heaven of mutual love. We have a selfhood, we have feelings, so that we can experience the beauty and joy of heaven by being both recipients and participants in its mutuality. But if we never learn to look beyond our own feelings, we will never get to the mutual part of it. So God calls us to mutual love over and over and over again, as training for the joy that awaits us.
And as we do let Jacob lead, and especially as we learn to *remember* to let Jacob lead when it is important, it won’t feel comfortable, just as the Jacob and Esau story is wrenching, and tense and chaotic. Both Esau and Jacob end up suffering. Jacob is sent far away to his uncle’s home. As we stretch our natural understanding, as we search for new ways of thinking about things, we might well feel discombobulated, or estranged, like we are living in a foreign land. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that when the pattern of our thoughts is being inverted, when we give up the primacy of our feelings and open up to learning something new, something that will change us, we feel actual psychological pain. I think we can all relate to this through our experience, those times when some new information, or a new willingness to listen, starts turning us inside out, changing what we thought we knew, and consequently, how we feel and how we act. But this is a good thing, because God is reordering something that needs reordering within us. If we can bear it, then we will be building within us a greater capacity to see the truth with clarity, building within us a greater capacity to love others effectively, building within us a greater capacity to act with both wisdom and empathy.
Jacob and Esau remain separated for a really long time. And I don’t think that needs to be a picture of how we will always be suffering the psychological pain of letting our thinking be reordered, but do I think it is a picture of how the work of humility is ongoing. Swedenborg writes in relation to this story that: The arrival at intelligence and wisdom takes time. In the meantime [a person] is led on by means of those truths to good.(1) (AC 3330:2) And what he means here by good, is essentially kindness. The point of this separation of the Jacob-mind and the Esau-mind is not to demonstrate how bad and wrong we are, but to lead us to kindness, to teach us how to live with kindness. Jacob and Esau do a whole ton of living while they are apart, and eventually they reconcile. This is what we will hear about next week.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #3330:2
Genesis 27: 1-35, 41-45
1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.” “Here I am,” he answered. 2 Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. 3 Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. 4 Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.” 5 Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob…8 Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: 9 Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. 10 Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.” 11 Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. 12 What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.” 14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. 15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. 16 She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. 17 Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made. 18 He went to his father and said, “My father.” “Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.” 20 Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” “The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied. 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” 22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him. 24 “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied. 25 Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.” Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.” 27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. 28 May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness— an abundance of grain and new wine. 29 May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.” 30 After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. 31 He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.” 32 His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” “I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!” 34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. 44 Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. 45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”
Divine Providence 147
…we have an earthly mind, a spiritual mind, and a heavenly mind, and that we are wholly locked into our earthly mind as long as we are caught up in our compulsions to evil and their pleasures. During all this our spiritual mind is closed. However, as soon as we look into ourselves and realize that our evils are sins against God because they are against divine laws, and therefore try to refrain from them, the Lord opens our spiritual mind and comes into our earthly mind by way of its desires for what is true and good. He comes also into our rational processes and from there rearranges the things in our lower, earthly mind that have been in disorder. This is what feels to us like a battle, or like a temptation if we have indulged in these evil pleasures a great deal. There is actually a psychological pain when the pattern of our thoughts is being inverted.