hazzan Diana Brewer was ordained through the aleph ordination program. she leads prayer services regularly at the jewish community of amherst, and is on the staff of the davvenen leadership training institute.

By your sword you will live: The power of resentment

In this week’s parasha, Toldot, we see the continued unfolding family drama between Yitzhak, Rivka, Esav and Yaakov. Deceit, theft, favoritism, leftover blessings... Are these really our spiritual role models? It’s easy to feel a sense of disappointment in the behavior of these folks. And, it’s also why we love them. Anyone who has a lifelong record of perfect behavior, please drop me a line. I’ll be happy to contact the folks at the Guinness Book for you!

What really caught my attention today was Yitzhak’s blessing for Esav in his despair. “By your sword will you live, and you will serve your brother. It will happen, when you will break loose, that you shall shake his yoke from off your neck." This speaks to me of the arc of Esav’s resentment towards Yaakov. 

I’ve heard it said that resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. I’ve also learned that it is of dire importance to work to rout resentment from my spirit the moment I detect its presence. This is not the first time Esav and Yaakov have had such a run-in. This is the final straw in a struggle that’s been going on since they were in their mother’s womb together. The straw that turned a growing resentment into out-and-out murderous hatred.  

Just after he receives his father’s blessing, Esav declares that he will kill his brother. He has made a conscious decision to live by his sword. He also takes on the yoke of servitude to his brother in that moment. When we coddle a resentment, we give ourselves over to obsession. We serve the resentment, and, in effect, the person we resent. Another pithy saying I’ve head about resentment is that we have let that person take up residence rent-free in our heads. It is truly an oppressive state of servitude.

The good news is, the blessing also ensures that Esav will be freed from this resentment. “It will happen, when you will break loose, that you shall shake his yoke from off your neck.”


A couple of parshiot (and about 20 years) down the road, the brothers are reunited, and greet each other with a loving embrace. Esav greets his brother with open arms. While he has been plied with gifts sent in advance by Yaakov, it is unlikely that  this is the reason Esav greets him so warmly. We don’t get to see the 20 intervening years of Esav’s life. (I guess this is where this little midrash comes in...) He is not, after all, the one who gets to claim the name Yisrael. However, I think he can be a great spiritual teacher to us.

In my experience with resentment (yep - no perfect behavior record here, either), it’s not something that just goes away by itself. I need to work at it. The tools I use are spiritual - primarily prayer. I pray for the welfare and success of the person I resent every day. I look for the goodness in that person, and keep my focus there. It’s hard work, and sometimes it takes a very long time. (I can’t take credit for this formula for curing a resentment, by the way. I credit the wisdom of recovery.) 

In my mind, Esav could not possibly have greeted his brother with open arms had he not been doing the work. Perhaps it took him all of those years to shake the yoke of resentment. After all, a resentment that is big enough to drive one to murder is not going to vanish in short order, as Rivka suggests when she tells Yaakov to go stay with her brother Laban for a few days until the rage subsides.

On this Shabbat Toldot, may we all be blessed with the courage to face resentment that we may have in our lives, and the strength and perseverance to do the work of shaking the yoke from off of our necks.

Shabbat Shalom. 

VAYISHLACH: Reflections Before a Family Reunion

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