The Water Bearer: Esau’s Story is a contemporary midrash. Midrash is a form of Jewish writing or story telling which always begins with Torah (the Bible). Midrash was first used in the rabbinic era of Jewish history (beginning in the Roman era, the 3rd century C.E.). The rabbis created midrash to address the many difficulties in the Torah as it was handed to them, such as mysteries (who did Cain marry?) and inconsistencies (Ishmael’s daughter who later married Esau is named Mahalath in one verse, and Basemath in another). Midrash always assumed that the Torah was given by God, and as such was perfect, so that anything which is unclear only needs more investigation or study.
Classical midrash fell into many categories – writings that elucidated the laws recorded in Torah, homiletic writings which function like sermons and draw moral points, and expositional midrash which give a verse by verse commentary on the Torah. Rabbis of many different generations used earlier midrashim to create new ones, creating a rich, layered, contradictory, confusing, exciting legacy of stories both ordinary and fantastical. Jewish stories and legends combined with myths, folk lore, and folk stories of all the lands the Jews lived in and traveled through, and together were worked in the tradition of midrash.
Most of these midrashim are difficult to access without Hebrew fluency and years of study of the Talmud, a collection of writings about Torah in which the writings of many different rabbis are printed in concentric squares around the relevant Torah verse. In the 19th century, Jewish scholar Louis Ginzberg undertook the massive project of gathering all of the stories from the Talmud and other collections of midrash and weaving together a narrative text into a seven-volume set called Legends of the Jews. Originally written in German, it was translated in English and published in the U.S. in 1909. In 1992, the Jewish Publication Society published a one-volume collection of his work called Legends of the Bible, in which I first started my research into how Esau has been understood in Jewish tradition.
The process of creating new midrash has never stopped, and, with the blooming of the Feminist movement, have entered a renaissance. Midrash was invented to explain and expand the “white space” in Torah – that is, everything contained between the letters, and everything not mentioned. With so little of women’s experience in the official record, the possibilities for new midrash were endless, and women, and men, began to create stories, songs, plays, and poetry to fill the long centuries of silence. Along side this creative burst was also a growing record of serious feminist scholarship in all areas of religion, including Biblical studies and Biblical archeology and cultural history. New answers were being uncovered or invented for both old questions and for questions which had not before been raised.
The Water Bearer is very much part of this new wave of midrash. The story began during a Torah discussion in my synagogue, Congregation Mishkan Shalom, in Philadelphia. Discussing the story of Jacob and Esau, we talked about the role of forgiveness – when is one obligated to forgive, and when is one not? – spurred deeply by a friend of mine, who spoke about her experience being battered by her then-husband. “We always empathize with Jacob, who needed to seek forgiveness,” she said. “But what happens when you’re Esau, and your whole family has conspired to do irreparable damage to you? Why don’t we ever talk about those of us to from whom someone else needs to seek forgiveness?” A survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself, and a former volunteer for battered women, this question gave voice to so much of my own frustration. I flipped ahead in the text, to find a sentence I had not noticed before: “Esau ran to greet him [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4). What? Esau went from being justifiably (in my view) angry enough to kill, and now he is running to embrace and kiss his brother? What had happened, how had he made this transformation, and why did we never talk about this? Then, in my head, I heard a voice clearly say, “I had years of nights alone in the wild, but who here knows my story?”
I decided to listen for more of what this voice had to say, and thus was The Water Bearer born into the world. The story as it stands is 90% inspiration, 50% re-creating of answers given in traditional midrash, and a remaining 90% writing and rewriting until all the pieces fit. As you can see, there is significant overlap in these three sources. Sometimes I would listen for what a character seemed to want to do, or write until she did what I wanted her to do, only to find in later research that some earlier writer had come to a nearly identical answer. To this, I can only acknowledge that midrash happens in dream time – stories move from past to present to future and back, plots circle and fold in on themselves, names and dates and settings change, but always there is a light pointing to way to make meaning of these stories, and so meaning of our own lives.
I have been on a long journey with these people – Esau, Rebekah, Deborah, Mahalath, Dina, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob – and I am loathe to say goodbye to them. But they are a wandering tribe, and have come to sojourn with you; now it is up to you to decide what their lives mean.