It all started in a bar. The place had all the touches. Dim lighting. The smell of some wood polish. A scattering of mass market mementos that were meant to look cool. And the sorts of perfect lines and surfaces that told you this was a mass-market beer-flogging chain, not some place full of real history and relationships. But… they sold beer. And my brother Liam and I liked beer. We weren’t craft types, we just liked beer. And so, as was our custom, we were hanging out having a few.
And then our lives changed, forever.
It was pretty innocuous at first. These two women came up to us. One was beautiful, her name was Chloe. The other wasn’t much to look at. Her name was Emma.
Back in our home town, I might have been a bit suspicious of Chloe. Our grandfather was an oilman with the kind of fortune considered vast in that kind of place. He had north of $50 million dollars. We were his only two grandkids and our parents weren’t beloved by the old man. Liam loved that money, it gave him such a boost being the grandson of such a rich man. For my part, I loved the old man himself. He was a coot; kind of a throwback to another reality. He was great to talk to and hang out with. So, we were it when it came to a destination for all that money. In that town, women even came up to me all the time. Liam and I were a chance to strike it rich, or at least live like you might for a few days. Just trying to date us was like buying a lottery ticket and not knowing whether it was the one.
But, in this city, we were total unknowns. Nobody was playing for our money. The beautiful one was interested in my brother, for all the obvious reasons. The other was just tagging along so Liam’s ‘friend’ didn’t interrupt things between us.
We’d been in this rodeo a few times before. But this time my brother didn’t react with the normal flirtatious “you’ve got me for a few days” kind of thing. He reacted with something a heck of a lot more potent. He actually stuttered once. For my part, I talked to Emma and she to me. Turns out Emma and Chloe were sisters. Emma seemed to like me, but it was really one way. Somehow, though, all four of us decided to go out on a double date. Two brothers and two sisters.
I didn’t know why, but from the get go, it didn’t seem like a tremendously good idea.
Time hasn’t changed that assessment.
But we went out. And Liam – his born name was Leonard – pulled out every trick in his book. He was into this woman. And before a month was out, they were engaged to be married. It just blew me away.
Emma and I were still puttering along then. But then my brother got this idea that I should also get engaged.
“Marry her, marry her, marry her.” My brother just kept repeating it, time and again. I was luke-warm on the subject, but that didn’t stop him.
“I don’t find her terribly attractive,” I told him once, although I was ashamed to say it – being as I was sure I’d been on the other side of that particular assessment.
“Good!” said Liam, “You shouldn’t marry a looker. You aren’t a looker. A looker won’t be satisfied, her priorities will be in the wrong place. And she’ll, let’s say, find other targets for her affections. This girl’s not a looker. But she’s good. She’s kind. She’s focused and goal-oriented. And she loves you. Her being a bit ugly is a good thing.”
He was right. She was good and kind and focused and goal-oriented. And she liked me.
“You’re marrying a looker,” I’d argue.
“Yeah, man,” he’d say, “but I am the showboat. I’ll keep her busy.”
I just laughed.
“Listen,” Liam would say, “I am sooo happy. I just want you to have some of what I’ve got.”
I didn’t have what he had. I knew it. But eventually, I sort of gave in. On some level, I guess I didn’t want to let Emma down. She was a good person. So the four of us got married in this big double wedding.
I remember the day. Liam and Chloe (born name Claire) were all over each other.
Emma and I were more reserved.
But everything was kind of cool between the four of us.
At least it was until my grandfather died.
“Do me a favor.”
Those four words redefined my life.
We were in a bar and Chloe pointed out a guy. He was gorgeous. Not really my style, but definitely hers.
“What about him?” I asked.
“He’s with a friend,” she said. I knew what that implied. Chloe needed a friend to go with her. Normally, we’d let the men come to Chloe; men like a challenge. Normally my job was fending them off.
But this time, she wanted to act.
I really didn’t know why, but I agreed. And it worked. She really hit it off when the gorgeous guy, Liam. Somehow, she managed to play coy despite making the first move, I’ll never really understand that magic. The funny thing was, I actually liked the other guy, Michael. He seemed decent and hard-working and straightforward. But he wasn’t really into me, I could tell. As the weeks passed, I got to like him more and more. I really got into him. But he didn’t reciprocate.
Nonetheless, after Chloe got engaged, she decided that I should have Michael, and that was that.
I knew Michael was being pressured, but I was somehow okay with that. The more I got to know him, the more I admired him and wanted him to want me back. I told myself I was willing to settle for having him close. And somehow, she got him to agree to marry me.
We married, but I was envious as I watched Chloe and Liam at the wedding. They were so in love. And I just didn’t have what Chloe had. And I was scared that no matter how close I held Michael, I never would.
The brothers’ grandfather died not long after the wedding. When it came to his fortune, the brothers were the obvious inheritors. But instead of gifting the two of them equal shares, he gave everything to Michael. Everything. The will said why. Michael was hard-working. Michael valued things beyond money. Michael was serious. And Michael had loved the old man, not just his cash.
That was not a happy day. Liam was furious. Chloe was furious. I tried to involve Chloe in my life. I tried to invite her into the luxuries I had. I knew she would have done the same for me. But she pulled away. And what else could I do?
Anyway, it turned out I was good with money. We started with $50 million. But I took it out of the oil business and sunk it into a wide variety of investments. Michael worked his tail off, monitoring and shepherding our investments. But I made the big choices. And I was good at it. Within a few years, we had $150 million and it kept growing from there. I kept hoping maybe it would draw Michael in, but it never did. Our relationship wasn’t getting any better.
It was crass, but the way I began to figure it was that I didn’t have Chloe’s relationship with her husband – so I had to think of the money as some kind of compensation. I was rich. I had a nice car. And I donated tens of millions of dollars to a whole host of causes. Medical research, poverty alleviation, women’s shelters, you name it. It was wonderful to be able to help. And I didn’t feel guilty when I spent money on myself.
Nonetheless, I kept trying to bring Chloe back. Chloe just drifted further and further away, though. She and Liam moved back to his old home town. And Michael? Michael just beavering away, watching the money, doing his part – but barely noticing me.
When we bought a yacht, I invited Chloe to the christening. I wanted her to spend time with me, to get some of the benefits of our wealth. But she showed up drunk and angry. She cursed me. She cursed the yacht. And then it sank three weeks later. I thought maybe there was foul play, but apparently the cause was bad wiring.
I remember when we bought our own jet. We were going to use it to keep tabs on investments. But I could use it for other things. I invited Chloe again – first-class trips anywhere she wanted to go. But I never heard anything back.
And then Michael asked to move home. We had over a billion dollars then. He’d never been the most gifted person socially and I didn’t exactly fit the profile of a trophy wife. So, I guess maybe he thought his old home town was as good as anywhere else. Maybe he thought he belonged there.
I wanted him to be happy. And I held out hope that maybe, if things slowed down, we could finally become a real couple.
Come to think of it, I still hope that’ll happen.
I love my wife. She is the most beautiful person you’d ever meet. But she’s also one of the saddest. I guess they go together. When she married me, I knew some of it was about the money. And I didn’t mind that. The money was part of why I liked being me. I was gonna be rich and I didn’t mind a girl who wanted to come along for the ride. And she had some kindness. She pushed me hard to get Ugly Emma married to my brother. She took care of her sister. And I went along. It was worth it. It was all gonna be great.
At least it was gonna be great up until the point where the money vanished.
You see, that scheming brother of mine, quiet and reserved and stupid around girls, somehow convinced my granddad to give him everything. And I got nothing. I was furious, but what the hell could I do? I moved back home to be with my equally dispossessed parents. And the four of us stayed there. Mom, dad, Chloe and me. We were mad as hell as we watched Emma and Michael zip around the world making their billions. Chloe was madder than anybody else. Hell, she tried to take her own life one time, that’s how miserable she was.
And then we heard Michael had decided to come on home.
Well, guess what, this was one place he couldn’t just show up. I had friends here and everybody knew the wrong he’d done. And so, we gathered at the airport. Near on a hundred of us. We were locked and loaded and waiting for that thieving, greedy, sonfabitch to come gliding in on his private aeroplane. I was gonna kill him, and nobody was gonna give me a hard time about it.
Half the police force and the county judge were there on the tarmac with me.
And then this FedEx truck shows up. And the driver hops out, looking all nervous when he sees all our guns and our mean faces. And he says “Leonard?”
“Leonard who?” asks one of my friends named Leonard.
It’d been a long time since anybody had used that name for me. But I took the bait.
“Here,” I said.
And just like that, the FedEx guy handed me this small package. And I opened it up. And inside there was a certified check for $50 million dollars.
$50 million. In a check.
And I didn’t know what to feel. And the FedEx guy was still pulling away when my brother’s jet appeared in the sky on final approach. And I stepped forward. And all my boys stepped in behind me. And I didn’t know what I was gonna do.
And then the plane stopped and the door opened and my brother popped his head out and he said, “Liam!”
And I looked at him, still confused.
And he said, “Liam, you came to the airport to welcome me home?”
And I was really confused. And then he walked down the stairs and right up to me and he gave me a huge hug. And he said, “I know you’ve been upset about the inheritance. We just wanted to make enough that you could have the whole thing, you know. Like you deserved. You’ve always been such a great brother to me.”
And I just felt silly and confused and happy. $50 million dollars was worth a lot more than killing my brother. And so, I hugged him back. And I watched Ugly Emma get off the plane. And then Michael and I went out to a bar while Emma went to the house they’d bought just off Main Street.
When I got home, I’d worked it all out. I wasn’t gonna kill Michael. I might not quite forgive him, but we could move on. I told Chloe about the money, expecting her to squeal with happiness. I wanted her to squeal with happiness. Nothing makes me happier than her being happy. But she didn’t squeal.
She was furious.
“That %*&*$ thinks she can buy us off with MONEY!” she shouted.
I wanted to say, “Well, yeah.” After all, money was what this was about, wasn’t it.
But apparently that wouldn’t have been a good choice because Chloe went on for another hour or so about how she wasn’t gonna be bought off with MONEY. I didn’t really follow the argument. Something about a gift not being a replacement for a debt. In truth, I kinda zoned out. But I got the underlyin’ meaning. She wanted to destroy her sister, and then take her money.
Then, about three months later, Emma went ahead and endowed a hospital. The town sure had a shortage of medical care. The whole county did. So, she bought a hospital. It was the talk of everywhere. And because she bought a hospital in this rural county with a huge opioid crisis, she decided to build a huge mental health wing. She said it was to help with that very crisis. It made total sense to me.
But Chloe? Chloe was mad. She said it was meant as a message for her. Her sister was buying a mental hospital because she thought Chloe belonged in one. You believe that? Buyin’ a hospital just to piss off your sister? Who does that?
So, Chloe started throwing dishes. And shouting. But I could tell it was different this time. There was murder in her voice. Whatever was gonna’ happen, it wasn’t gonna’ be good.
So, I just up and left. I went out for a beer with some of my boys and I bought a round for everybody. $50 million has its perks.
What else could I do?
I made that *^*%. She was ugly and stupid and awkward and I got her married to Michael Stewart. I knew who the Stewart brothers were even before I walked into that bar. I knew they’d be there.
I used my beauty and my skills and my charms and I made her.
And how’d she pay me back? She didn’t.
When she got the money, she didn’t give me anything.
Instead, she moaned about what a great relationship Liam and I had while she rolled around in cash like an Ugly Pig in you-know-what. Liam was a monkey in jeans. That’s who I got stuck with. A poor monkey in jeans.
And Emma thought she could give me gifts to make it even. Trips here and there. Salons. Nice clothes. Rides in her *&^*% Maserati. But I didn’t want gifts. The money belonged to me.
The only reason that she had any of it was because I made her who she was.
She moaned about Liam and I. But I would have been happy to let her have some of my love, so long as I got what I deserved. But she wasn’t giving it to me. I did her a massive kindness and she didn’t repay me with anything.
Then she bought that yacht. A YACHT. Not a dime for her sister mind you, and she gets a yacht. I got real drunk that day. And I went to a bar in town. And I picked up this tough-looking guy. And I convinced him to sink that yacht. I even paid him a little cash to do it.
And he did. Took a few weeks, but he got it done. I was happy when I heard about it, for a millisecond. Then I heard about the insurance. Ugly Emma didn’t lose a dime. And it just wasn’t fair.
This life, living poor with Liam – it wasn’t what I deserved. I was the beautiful one. I was the graceful one. I was the one everybody admired. And I got nothing.
Then Emma bought her own plane. A plane! I’m working at the burger joint and my own sister has her own plane. I couldn’t take it. Somehow, things had gotten screwed up. When she invited me to fly with her, it all just rushed in on me and I couldn’t take it anymore.
That was when I tried to take my own life. It didn’t work, but I tried.
And then, a few years later, Emma, Ugly Emma, decided to move to my town. She couldn’t even let me have that. When Liam got together with his drinking buddies – the whole damned town – I wanted them to kill Emma. But, of course, they didn’t. Like a nice puppy, Liam took Michael’s buy-off and left with his tail between his legs.
That wasn’t the straw that broke the camel, but it was close. The final straw? That was when Emma decided to build a mental hospital. It was like she wanted the entire town to know she wasn’t the one who tried to slit her own wrists. And she was willing to spend tens of millions to do it.
That was when I knew I’d had enough. I screamed and I shouted and my coward-monkey Liam left the house. And then I called the guy who’d sunk the yacht. And I had him come over. And I told him I’d pay him a lot of money to go and kill my sister.
He agreed. He even took a down payment. And then he left. And I waited, like he was a winning lottery ticket and I was about to get my winnings. But that scumbag didn’t do what he promised, not when it came to me. Nothing worked out the way it should’ve when it came to me.
I realized that as soon as the patrol car pulled up to the front of the house.
Two cops walked up and they started knocking on the door. And I decided I wasn’t going to let them in. I ran off to the living room and I opened the gun case and I got out an automatic shotgun Liam is so proud of. And then I marched back towards the front door.
Somebody was going to die.
As I raised the barrel of that gun, I remembered Ugly Emma when we were kids. We were friends then. But I was the one who was going to have the man and the money and the fame. I was the beautiful one people liked. She was the one who was going to hang out in my house and live off the gifts I gave her. It didn’t work the other way around.
Somehow, my whole life had gone backwards. And I couldn’t take it anymore.
The cops broke down the door just before I fired.
And that’s the last thing that ever happened to me.
I’ve long been struck by Rachel’s final action. She bears her second son, but dies in the process. She has time, however, to name him. She chooses Ben-Oni. Ben-Oni is translated by many sources as “son of my sorrow” (Gen 35:18). It can also be read as “son of myself.” She was dying, so the sorrow was reasonable – but it is such a sad name that you have to wonder whether there is more to it than spur of the moment resignation. Why not choose something ultimately hopeful?
In contrast to this poignant moment, the end of the reading seems long and boring. An entire chapter (Gen 36) is dedicated to the many many descendants of Esav. All 43 verses focus on the descendants of a character who is not the main thrust of the story. The question is, why?
To me, the answer to both questions lays in the relationships between siblings. The first relationship we see is that between Esav and Yaacov. They enter the story at war. As Esav sees it, Yaacov stole his inheritance of money and power. So Esav shows up with four hundred men, ready to kill. Yaacov defuses the crises by sending his brother extensive gifts and then honoring him when they finally meet. In a way, he returns the inheritance just as Michael does in this telling. Theirs is not a loving relationship, but it is not permanently poisoned by war. Yaacov, Israel, survives the day and Esav is seemingly rewarded with glorious descendants who occupy a prime place in the story kept alive by the Children of Israel. Despite its many challenges, this is a relationship that can be emulated.
The relationship of Leah and Rachel is very different. The Torah describes the two sisters by saying: “Leah’s eyes were weak; but Rachel was of beautiful form and fair to look upon.” (Gen 29:17) Rachel is the one who snags Yaacov – she is the Chloe. She is the one loved by her husband. But Leah is unloved. She is Ugly Emma. And, almost as compensation, Leah is blessed with a brace of children. And as we see in their names, she is always hoping that the children she brings to the marriage will lead her husband to love her. It is just like the money Ugly Emma makes. But it never seems to work.
To her credit, Leah is focused on her own situation. But Rachel seems consumed by jealousy. The desire to beat her sister is so strong it seems to overwhelm her desire for survival. As the Torah writes: “Rachel envied her sister; and she said unto Jacob: ‘Give me children, or else I die.’” (Gen 30:1)
Then, when Rachel’s handmaid has her first child, Rachel says: “With mighty wrestlings have I wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed.” (Gen 30:8). She is fighting her sister, not searching for her own blessings. Perhaps she is angry that her sister stole what her own beauty should have secured. She also seems to disregard her husband’s love – she’s willing to sell it for some flowers. And when they flee, Rachel strikes out against her father – who gave Leah to Yaacov. She takes his gods. She robs him of his powers. And she does not tell her husband, perhaps revealing that her motive was revenge, not self-protection. This, indirectly, appears to lead to her death.
In this light of this history, it is not surprising she names her second child Ben-Oni. Perhaps, she looked back on her life and saw only loss. Despite the husband she had and the glorious and good sons she was blessed with, she was sorrow itself. There is no blaze of glory or attempts to physically harm her sister, but the sadness remains.
She had had such potential. But, in her eyes, all of it had been lost.
There is a third sibling relationship in this reading, that of Shimon and Levi and their sister Dinah. They are willing to go to war and destroy a city in order to protect something. But it isn’t the family’s pride or honor. Instead it is a key concept: they are fighting tumah. Tumah is the loss of potential. Later, the tribe of Levi is given the full-time job of fighting tuma, although by primarily symbolic mean.
This week’s reading coincides with the United States holiday of Thanksgiving. In a way, it is fitting. If we focus on beating those around us, and on getting what we ‘deserve,’ then we earn nothing but sorrow. If we focus only on that which we do not have, we never discover our blessings.
But if we accept peace with our rivals and focus on that for which we can be thankful (while protecting our core purpose), we will be blessed. Yaacov and Esav are both examples of this.
And so, in a way, are we.
When Leah named Judah – from whose name the word ‘Jew’ is derived – she said: “This time will I give thanks to G-d.” (Gen 29:35)
Image: Pia Ranslet, Commons.Wikimedia.org