Rev. George Miller
July 23, 2017
In the Jewish faith, there is something called “midrash.” Midrash are stories created by rabbis to explore scripture and deepen the story.
For example, in 70 CE the Temple was destroyed by the Roman army, leaving the holy City of God in shambles. The destruction of this sacred site meant that a truly traumatic catastrophe had fallen upon the Children of Israel.
And so, the rabbis created a midrash in which they pictured God watching this calamity and becoming overwhelmed with grief.
The archangel came, fell upon his face, and spoke to God- “Master of the Universe, let me weep, but you must not weep.”
God replied “If you do not let me weep, I will go into a place where you have no authority to enter, and weep there.”
This particular midrash imagines God sitting, weeping with us, for us, and refusing to be consoled.
There is another midrash that deals with sorrow. It says that the people of God will not enter into a time of peace until the tears of Esau have ceased.
The people of God will not enter into a time of peace until the tears of Esau are no more.
Let us explore what this means, but first we have to go back, way back in time, to Genesis 12, where it all begins.
Once upon a time, God calls a man named Abraham to get up and go, go to the land of Canaan in which he will have land, he will have a child, and his family will bless all the families of the world.
But things don’t go so well. He and his wife Sarah face a lot of obstacles. They’re childless. They get caught up with local politics. He has a son with another woman.
Sarah gets pregnant at an old age. She demands that Abraham sends his first son into the wilderness, and then Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his other son, Isaac.
If you were to make a list of traumatic events for a family to face, there’s a whole lot happening here.
Fortunately, God was just testing Abraham, so his son lives. But imagine what it would be like for Isaac knowing that at one time his Daddy tried to offer him up as a burnt sacrifice.
Then Isaac loses his mother, watches his daddy get remarried and have 6 more kids. At 40 he’s sent away to find a wife, falls in love with a woman named Rebekah, and his dad dies.
Life is like that- isn’t it?
But at least now Isaac has someone to love him. Good news- Rebekah is smart, beautiful and everything a man could hope for; bad news is that just like Sarah, she is unable to have kids.
Isaac is earnest in prayers to be a Daddy. Good news- after 20 years of being childless, Rebekah becomes pregnant, and it’s with twins.
Bad news- before they’re born they are already fighting in the womb.
“If this is the way it is, why should I even live?” asks Rebekah.
We have heard this story so many times, but have we ever stopped to hear just how…traumatic this all is: a family so full of generational dysfunction that doesn’t seem to go away.
-A grandfather who abruptly left home, had a child with another woman and sent that child out into the wilderness to fend for itself.
-A son who at a young age was bound by his father and placed on top of a wooden altar to be sacrificed.
-A set of twins who are fighting so much within their mother’s womb that she wishes she was dead.
And even after they are born, things don’t go so well. The first born, Esau, is his Daddy’s favorite. The second born, Jacob, is loved more by his Mom.
Read further and there’s the time Esau gladly sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of stew.
Then the time Jacob pretended to be his brother and fooled his dying father into giving him the blessing which he knew rightfully belonged to his brother Esau.
Isaac and Esau realize they have been tricked by Rebekah and Jacob, but there is nothing they can do to undo this dysfunctional deed.
In a heartbreaking moment, Esau, deeply hurt by this unjust act, betrayed by his very own brother, begs and pleads to his dying father, “Have you only one blessing, Daddy? Bless me also, Father. Bless me also.”
But when the blessing does not come, Esau lifts up his voice and weeps, tears welling up from his stomach, his soul, his wounded spirit, falling out of his eyes, running down his cheeks, falling on the floor.
The Jewish midrash says that salvation will not come to the world until the tears of Esau have ceased.
The stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs are powerful tales to be told.
They are about real people facing real situations, in which they act in very real, human ways. Sometimes in ways we can admire, sometimes in ways we can detest.
These stories are filled with people who are living with all kinds of trauma: the trauma they create, the kind they are born into, the kind that just happens.
Moving to new locations, rocky marriages, political events, issues of fertility, and problematic births can all be traumatic.
Being almost killed by your father, tricked by your mother, deceived by your brother are not the sort of things one can easily overcome, forgive, or forget.
All these events can linger, fester, and have long lasting effects.
Time does not heal all wounds, and not talking about them doesn’t mean they never happened.
And what role does God play in all of this?
How do we feel about a God that would tell an elderly couple to get up and move to a place they have never been?
How do we feel about a God that would test someone’s faith by asking them to tie their son up as a sacrifice?
How do we feel about a God who tells a pregnant woman in pain that she has two nations in her belly who will always be at war against one another?
And how do we interpret the actions of this dysfunctional family? Are they actually doing God wants or what they desire to do?
Are there times along the way in which they only heard what they wanted to hear and not what God actually said?
And what do we make of their actions?
There is one way of reading these stories in Genesis that says these family members are lying, cheating and acting unjustly to achieve what God wants…
…Then there is another reading that says even in the midst of these family members lying, cheating and acting unjustly, God is able to somehow, someway still act to achieve God’s will and bring good news into the world.
These stories can be used to validate unhealthy behavior and to say “See- that’s what God wants.”
OR, they can be used to show that even when we act abusively, when we act unwisely, when we make unjust decisions, God is still able to move through the chaos and bring forth new life, new beginnings, and resurrection.
The midrash we shared earlier says that salvation will come to the world when the tears of Esau stop flowing.
This can mean that it is only when our enemies stop hurting that we will stop hurting too.
It means that like it or not, we are tied to our arch-rivals, and only when the tears on both sides cease will peace come about.
Because of the most recent General Synod, I wonder if this midrash can have another meaning as well.
Maybe it also means that the world will not experience redemption until after the tears of the traumatized, the abused, and the unjustly treated stop to fall.
Maybe Esau’s tears can represent anyone, anywhere, at anytime, who has been unfairly un-blessed.
Think of the Resolutions that the UCC recently passed at our General Synod.
-The Resolution for “A More Just Economy…” advocating for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour.
-The Resolution supporting “Adult Survivors of Child Abuse and Neglect” which calls us to acknowledge that 1 out of 6 boys and 1 out of 4 girls has been sexually abused.
Talk about shells in our teeth and the tears of brother Esau.
Other resolutions spoke out against the use of “Corporal Punishment of Children” in schools and institutions; an issue that is timely for Highlands County.
As well as Resolutions that spoke of standing with workers that picked tomatoes for Wendy’s, studying gun violence as a health issue, and advocating for children living under Israeli Military Occupation.
These resolutions confront the issues of trauma, dysfunction, injustice, and conceit.
They place shells in our teeth and ask us to acknowledge the tears in Esau’s eyes.
The stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Esau and Jacob remind us that no family is perfect; no dynasty is without dysfunction, no society is without secrets.
They also invite us to wrestle with and to ask the hard questions, like-
How does God work through it all?
How do the wounds of Jesus bring about peace and resurrection?
How does the Holy Spirit refresh and restore such situations?
Maybe, just maybe, when dysfunction, when trauma enters into our family, and enters into our lives, and we are sitting there, weeping, God is sitting right there with us, weeping too.
Maybe God also wept when Esau was unjustly tricked out of his blessing.
Maybe it is only when Esau, and our enemies, and all those who have been traumatized have stopped weeping, that God will stop weeping also.
Amen and amen.
(I am thankful for “Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Redemption” by Rabbi Toba Spitzer that gave insight into the above midrashs; and Rabbi Spitzer’s permission to share them.)