His Brother: A Novel Interpretation of Yaakov and Esav

There was this guy we knew in town, a big strong fellow. We never knew his real
name, but everyone called him Red because of his red hair.

He was a simple guy, quick to anger, quick to forget and forgive, pretty much
content to take life as it came. He wasn’t much of a student; played varsity soccer
in high school, but academically mostly C’s; no talk of college. But he’d been
working after school and on weekends, helping out with animal care at the State
zoo nearby, and he liked that well enough. So he wangled a full-time job there at
the zoo after he finished high school.

He had started out pretty much just cleaning up after the elephants, that type of
thing. But now that he was full time, he started learning more about zoo operations
and about the animals. After a while, he was not only feeding the animals but also
preparing and ordering the feed, working with the zoo budget, learning how to
interact with the public, etc. He also began to spend a lot of time with a sweet girl,
Adelaide, who worked in the gift shop, and they were even talking of marriage in a
few years. In fact, Red kept living at home with his parents, so he could save
money for the future.

Like I said, Red was a simple man. He was pretty satisfied with his life – he had a
steady job he liked, his own car, a girlfriend, and enough spare money to go to the
movies or have a beer with his friends.

There was one additional thing: His father had an ornate, old-fashioned, gold
pocket watch that had been passed down to him from his father, and his
grandfather and great-grandfather before that. Red had a special bond with his
father, and it meant a lot to him to get this watch someday. Red’s father had
promised him that if his life was on track when he turned 21, he would get the
watch. Red figured his life was pretty much on track, and he was content.

Well, his birthday came, and, full of anticipation, he went to his father at breakfast
to receive the watch. His father greeted him with a shame-faced look. He no
longer had the watch! Turns out that Red’s brother – but wait, what’s this about a

Yes, Red had a younger brother, Jakey, and the reason we haven’t heard about him
yet was that he just wasn’t important in Red’s life. They really moved in different
circles. Jakey wasn’t just a straight A+ student; he was all Advanced Placement,
Honor Society, president of the Debate Club, etc. The two didn’t have much in
common and, frankly, pretty much avoided each other.

But apparently, Jakey had sat down with their father the night before and somehow
managed to sweet-talk him into giving the watch to him, even though Jakey was
younger – just finishing up high school – and besides, the watch had been
promised to Red!

Well, Red was furious! He said, if he got his hands on that scheming, no-good
brother, he’d beat him up within an inch of his life! But as it happens, Jakey was
about to leave for Harvard anyway. The boys’ mother calmed Red down, pointing
out that Jakey would be out of his life soon.

And soon enough, Red got promoted to manager of one of the zoo departments.
He felt secure enough to marry his Addie, get their own place, and think about
starting a family. He certainly didn’t think much about the pocket watch any more,
except once in a while on his birthday, when he might remember for a moment,
and laugh to think how important it had seemed at the time.

Well, 20 years went by. By now Red was Associate Director of the whole zoo. He
and Addie had several kids and their own home, and Addie still worked part-time
in the zoo gift shop, when the kids were in school. And in all this time, Jake never
came back to visit his parents. Oh, they heard from him in occasional letters,
sometimes even in newspaper clippings that he sent them. After Harvard, Jake had
gone to the London School of Economics for a business degree, then started
working for the home office of a big English meat-processing business, where he
quickly moved up to be the CEO. He settled in London, had married well, had a
whole bunch of kids, and even had a couple of girlfriends, too; apparently, from
his rare letters, this was pretty much an open secret.

But now, after 20 years, Jake had gotten into some trouble with his Board of
Directors and had been invited to leave the company. They gave him a golden
parachute, so he gathered up his wealth, his wife, his girlfriends, and his children,
and decided to head back to the States.

When Red heard that Jake was returning, he was pretty pleased and certainly very
curious. Red had matured in these 20 years. He knew he and his brother still
wouldn’t have much in common. But he also knew his brother was family. Their
parents were getting on in years now, so it would be good for him and Jake to have
each other as they moved into middle age. Moreover, the letter from Jake about
his return sounded pretty positive. Jake wrote about how much he’d missed his
family and how he looked forward to getting acquainted again, meeting each
other’s wives and children, etc.

It was going to be a couple of months before Jake wound up all his affairs in
England. In the mean time, strange packages starting arriving at Red’s house.
There were boxes of fine cigars, packages of juicy pears from Harry and David,
steaks from the Omaha Steak House, even a Persian carpet and a couple of silk
robes. They all had notes inside saying, “From your loving brother Jake,” or words
to that effect.

Finally the day came for Jake to arrive. Red rolled out the “red” carpet (so to
speak) to welcome his brother back to the States. He didn’t want Jake and his
family to have to negotiate cabs and traffic from Kennedy, so he sent word that he
was coming with a bunch of friends and cars to meet them all at the airport.

The plane landed, and Red and his friends stood in the waiting area, holding up
signs, saying “Welcome home, Jake!” Red eagerly watched the disembarking
passengers. A bunch of people came out, and then, slowly, Jake walked out
through security and up to his brother. Red grabbed Jake and hugged him. He
couldn’t believe he was finally seeing him, after all these years. But Jake seemed
more restrained. Then after a while, his family came out, too, also hesitantly –
Jake’s wife and girlfriends, and all the kids with their nannies. Jake let Red hug
him but seemed to be avoiding eye contact, as if embarrassed.

Red, all bluff and hearty: “Say, man, it’s great to see you again! But tell me –
what’s with all those gifts you sent? I’m doing real well here, I really don’t need
that stuff.”

Jake: “I thought you’d still be angry… y’know, about Dad’s pocket watch…”

Red was taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to him that Jake would still feel bad about
the watch. But – if giving expensive gifts made Jake feel better – fine, he wouldn’t
say anything else about it.

Changing the subject, Red continued, “We’ve brought some cars and vans, so we
can transport you folks and all of your stuff back to town. Just start loading up and
piling in.”

Jake responded, “Uh, thanks, but we’ll take cabs and meet you there. Just give us
the driving directions… Uh, we’re all tired out from the long flight, so we might
stop in a motel for the first night, then catch up with you later…”

Red was puzzled by this, and to be honest, a little hurt, but he let it roll off his
back. He and his friends drove back home, with Red expecting – hoping – to hear
from Jake in the morning.

You know the rest of the story. Jake didn’t catch up with Red the next morning,
nor the morning after that. He settled in another town altogether and sent Red his
new address a few weeks later. Red soon realized that although he and Jake
certainly weren’t officially “estranged,” neither were they ever going to be close.
In fact, though they exchanged occasional e-mails over the years, they didn’t see
each other again until their father’s funeral, many years later.

* * *

Author’s comment: This story is obviously one-sided, favoring Esau over Jacob. I am not
seriously suggesting this as the “correct” interpretation of the Torah account. But I’ve always
been struck by the traditional midrash which goes so far in the other direction, turning Jacob into
a pious yeshiva bocher & Esau into the ancestor of all that’s evil. I thought it would be
interesting & thought-provoking to turn the tables, even if only briefly!