Labor Day: Jacob and Esau

Labor Day: Jacob and Esau
Type: Oil
Dimensions: Width/Height (in inches) 48/60
Year: 2004

This painting depicts the existential and phantasmagoric epic struggle between Jacob and Esau, the sons of Isaac and Rebecca. The painting fuses multiple space-time coordinate imagery and biblical verses from the brother’s earliest intrauterine battle, including the battle over their father’s blessing, their competing world philosophies and visions, and their ongoing division and dissent through the ages far into the future. The major character here is the very pregnant Rebecca giving birth to the twins, Jacob and Esau, on the day of her labor. Esau is the red hairy twin on the right with his foot poking out of the birth canal denoting his first –born status. Written around Rebecca’s birth canal is the biblical statement, “and two nations derived from your uterus will separate”. Written at the bottom of her uterus, on the right, are the words “and the sons battled within her”. Written on the lower left of her uterus are the words, “and behold there are twins in her belly” The blood emanating from the birth canal symbolizes the act of giving birth and the bloody battle of the nations. Jacob, on the left, the relatively hairless twin, except for his beard, is grasping Esau’s heel, hence his name Yaakov (heel).

This painting studies the intense psychological interactions amongst each of the family members. The pivotal shattering moment in the family is when Jacob based on the advice and encouragement of Rebecca, is dressed up by her, to look like Esau, and hence fool Isaac in order to obtain the choicest first-born blessing.

Isaac is portrayed in Rebecca’s’ womb dispensing the blessings. His hand on the left is held out with priestly benediction over Esau. Note how Rebecca is holding that hand with all her might preventing Isaac from laying his blessing upon Esau. Her face is contorted with fear and exertion. Sweat pours down her brow. Note also how on the left, her other hand is placing Isaac’s hand on Jacob’s sweating head ensuring that her favorite son get’s blessed. On her arm is written “Upon me are your curses”, meaning she accepts full responsibility and culpability if the ruse is exposed. Her two breasts are lactating milk robustly. The breast on the left on Jacob’s side is labeled “Ahava”, “Love”, the breast on Esau’s side, is labeled “sinuh”, “hate”. Her earring on the left Jacob side is labeled “to God”, “Lahashem”, however, on the right Esau side, is labeled “Lazazel”, basically to hell (Refer to the Yom Kippur painting explanation).

A very important symbolic word repeated throughout the narrative, and incorporated here is the word “Gedee” or “Gedeeyay”, “he goats”. The grand deception begins when Rebecca overhears that Esau is on his way out to hunt some savory food for Isaac, and upon Esau’s return, he will get Isaac’s blessing. Rebecca then comforts Jacob’s doubts concerning his capacity to fool his father, and instructs Jacob to “get me, from there, two male goats, Gdeeyay eezing.” This is written on her arm on the left of the painting. These two male goats are symbolic of Jacob and Esau. Indeed two twin goats are used in the Yom Kippur ritual (see above, Yom Kippur). She takes the skin of one of these goats and drapes it around Jacob’s arms and neck so that when the blind Isaac palpates him, he will be tricked into thinking that Jacob is Esau. Note that the green (grassy fields) arms of the angel goat wrapped around Jacob have hairy arms symbolizing that he is Esau’s goat doppelganger. Note also that the goat’s arms are tied to Jacobs’s arms simulating “the binding of Isaac”. To emphasize this analogy, written on the goat’s foot elevating Jacob’s cup are the words “eykev asher shamata bekoli”, “because you harkened to my voice”, which is what G-d tells Abraham after the sacrifice of Isaac. That is the first time the work “eykev” is used in the bible, until it is used as the root of Jacob’s name. Thus “eykev “has a double meaning; “heel” and “because”. The goat’s other leg is kicking Esau’s blue goat’s face, and Jacob’s other leg is similarly kicking Esau’s face. Written above Jacob’s kicking heel/foot are the words “Vayakvenu pamayim” literally translated “he Jacob’ed me twice”, meaning “he kicked/heeled me twice”, or more precisely “he fooled me twice”.

The tragic element of this story begins when Isaac’s favorite son Esau walks in immediately after Jacob successfully obtained Esau’s blessing. Esau is carrying and presenting to Isaac the blue he-goat which he just killed and prepared for him as promised. The conversation, written on Isaac’s beard, on this painting begins with Isaac nervously asking “My son?” Esau responds “Here I am”, written on Esau’s neck. “Your brother came in trickery and took your blessing”, states Isaac. “He trembled a great tremble”. Tears stream down Isaac’s eyes. Esau bursts into tears and says “Please bless me too. Have you not saved me one blessing?” This is written in Hebrew on Esau’s arm. Isaac blesses Esau as written on Isaacs’s elevated arm “On the sword shall you live, and you shall release your brother’s yoke from your neck”. Jacob’s choice blessing is that his brother shall serve him and that “cursed are those who curse you, and blessed are those who bless you”. This is written on Jacob’s right arm on Jacob’s head.

The blue goat which Esau presents to Isaac is another one of Esau’s doppelgangers representing the angel that Jacob meets, and wrestles with, prior to reconciling with Esau, many years later. The language which Jacob uses to converse with this angel is linguistically and structurally identical to the linguistic commands used to converse with Esau. Hence the angel, with whom Jacob wrangles with, undoubtedly represents the spirit and power of Esau who appears to Jacob in a dream state when he is anxious about confronting Esau after so many years. Written on Jacob’s hand, grasping Esau’s leg, are four statements made by Jacob either to Esau or to the angel. From top down they are: “And his hand is grasping Esau’s heel”, “I will not release you until you bless me”, “Sell me today, your birthright”, “Swear to me”. Each separate line is a quote from Yaakov to either Esau or the angel, taken from both seemingly disparate stories. They are virtually identical with respect to tone, command and structure. Written on the arms of the blue angel goat are the words “Release me, for the sun is rising” which we can imagine Esau saying to Jacob, as he tries to exit Rebecca’s womb ,feeling dragged back in by Jacob’s grasp on his heel. Written on the blue angel goat’s other arm, which is holding on to Jacob’s sciatic nerve are the words “and he grasped the sinew of his thigh.” This is perfect symmetry for this battle. Just as Jacob once grasped a portion of Esau’s leg, the spirit of Esau /the goat/angel/ Esau doppelganger now similarly grasps a part of Jacob’s leg, and as a result makes him limp away; measure for measure, leg for leg, twin point and counterpoint.

The name of this Esau blue angel is “pnee-el”, “face of God”. Written on the blue goat’s horns, I have juxtaposed the words of “pnee- el” on one horn and “gdee –ez” on the other. These two words have the same number of letters, and are phonetically and poetically homologous providing further proof that “the spirit of Esau”, “pnee-el”, and “gdee- ez” are one and the same. Written on the horns of the green goat bound to Jacob are the words “ketonus passim”, “coat of many pieces (or colors)”. What happened to Jacob’s mock-Esau clothing once he was finished with it? I have hypothesized that he kept it and gave it to his favorite son Joseph, as an heirloom, and as a symbol of tribal leadership, and that indeed this is Joseph’s “coat of many pieces or colors”. In fact, prior to Joseph’s brothers approaching Jacob with Joseph’s coat, they killed a he-goat (gdee ez) and sprinkled the he-goat’s blood on the coat. When Jacob sees the coat with the drenched goat blood, he has prima fascia evidence that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Here again the goat symbolizes a strong tribal leader, be it Jacob and Esau, or Jacob’s rightful successor, Joseph.

Jacob is portrayed in the painting elevating a cup to Isaac. This cup serves a dual purpose. It is collecting the milk of Rebecca’s love, and it is also a wine offering to his father, stating “I am your son Esau”, and Isaac kissed him (Pun on drank; “Vayiskuho” vs “Vayystooho”).

Residing outside of Rebecca’s body are the two opposing and contrasting worlds of Jacob and Esau. On the left side is the ladder of Jacob’s dreams bridging heaven and earth. The goat angel wrapped around Jacob, also doubles as one of the angels ascending and descending the ladder. Written on different rungs of the ladder are dietary commands derived from Jacob’s life using the word “gedee”. “Israel should not eat of the “geed hanadsheh”, “the sciatic nerve”, “do not cook a kid goat (“gdee”) in the mother’s milk. This is juxtaposed next to the milk pouring out of Rebecca’s breast filling Jacob’s cup. Jacob asks the blue angel goat “HaGeedee Nuh shemecha”, tell me your name. On the top most rung of the ladder, the word is again used in” chad gadya “, “one goat”, no doubt representing Israel/Jacob, who is attacked endlessly by a series of zoomorphic nations at the end of the Passover Haggada .In the painting on the upper left, under the galaxy is the moon representing Rebecca’s lunar ovary with nine eggs representing her nine months of pregnancy. Written on the vertical rung of the ladder is “Yisrael”, the name Jacob receives after struggling and overcoming the angel.

To the right of the painting is Esau’s world. Jacobs’s world was called “shaar shemayim”, “the gates of heaven”. Written in Hebrew are the words “shaar Esau”, “gates of Esau”. As opposed to a ladder bridging heaven and earth, portrayed is Esau’s sword and crossbow bridging heaven and earth amidst a wheat field, Esau’s natural habitat. The sword is dripping blood with the word “Amalek” one of Esau’s tribal descendants, and Israel’s most bitter arch-enemy. Written on the bow are complimentary statements made by Moses with regard to the word or name “Esau”. On the bottom of the bow is written “My words are like dew on the grass (Esev)”. On the upper crossbow it is written “do not tetav (hate) the edomite, because he is your brother”. I have added an additional letter, K to the word” to “tetav” which spells “tisakev”, i.e. “do not fool the Edomite”. On the lower most ladder rung on the left is the admonition “Do not put an obstacle before a blind man”, words of caution to Jacob. Written on the red cloud on Esau’s sky are the words from Deuteronomy, “G-d came forth from Sinai and his light shone from Seier (Esau)”. All these statements impart a tone of reconciliation from Jacob to Esau, a continuation of that spirit which began between the two warring and ultimately semi-reconciled brothers.