A message from Father Nick 35

On having an older brother: Jonathan Sacks (I)

The death of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks leaves many of us with a feeling of bereavement: we think of him more as an older brother than a friend. The relationship between Judaism and   Christianity has sometimes been described as “sibling rivalry” – if only we had shown more willingness to understand our closeness in such terms! But with Rabbi Sacks we had a wise and learned guide to the traditions we share.

One of the fascinating aspects of Jewish scholarship is the way it continues to grow in understanding of its own traditions. This week and next I should like to acknowledge important lessons I have learned from Lord Sacks.

The first comes from his reading of the great stories of the book of Genesis: the beginning of God’s dealings with creation. If we take them as a sequence, the stories do indeed tell a tale of sibling rivalry: Cain and Abel; Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob and Esau (even Rachel and Leah); Joseph and his brothers… A great deal of quarrelling goes on. But how are we meant to read those stories?

First, we must be ready for their complexity. As Rabbi Sacks reminds us, “God always uses the minimum number of words to say what he has to say.”  That gives us some work to do.

Secondly, even in the telling of its big story, Rabbi Sacks insists that Scripture offers us a kind of counter-narrative, which we only understand as we mature. Yes, the promise of countless offspring will be fulfilled through Isaac not Ishmael; yes, Jacob who cheats Esau of his birthright will become the destined patriarch “Israel”.  But all the time, another emotional response is being drawn from us – on behalf of the “un-chosen” one. Rabbi Sacks would read aloud the account of Jacob and Esau and show that our emotional response is being directed to Esau by the very language of the text. It is impossible to read it, he says, without feeling real sympathy for Esau.

And thirdly, all the time something deeper is happening in the big narrative. The first story of brothers ends with Abel dead and Cain a fugitive for life. With Ishmael and Isaac, at least they can stand together at their father’s grave. Jacob and Esau are able to embrace each other and make peace before going their separate ways. And finally, Joseph and his brothers become fully reconciled with each other. In other words, life does not doom us to be forever trapped by sibling- or any other kind of rivalry. The very dynamic of Scripture teaches us differently and gives us hope.