Esau: pitiful or triumphant? Re-examining what sages say

Esau: pitiful or triumphant? Re-examining what sages say

Rabbi Scott Aaron
Rabbi Scott Aaron

Vayishlach Genesis 32:4-36:43

As you probably know, the members of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association take turns writing the weekly Torah commentary for this paper.  What you probably don’t know is that the final drafts are due to the paper two weeks in advance of the week they will actually be published.  This means we often turn them in without any awareness of what our colleagues are writing on the preceding Torah portions that often overlap with the same stories and people.

Quite by chance, while I was working on this week’s commentary, the paper for that week (Oct. 31) arrived at my office and I opened it to find that my colleague, Rabbi Sara Rae Perman, had written a commentary on Toledot focusing on Esau that was eerily similar to what I was compiling for this week. I am going to chalk that up to “great minds think alike” and actually offer this week’s comments in the light of her well-framed observations.  

Rabbi Perman’s commentary focused on the famous story of the birthright and blessing that Jacob finagles away from Esau, and how Esau has gotten a bum rap by our sages as deserving of that trickery rather than being acknowledged as mistreated by a dysfunctional family. She writes, “Esau is not as bad as he is made out to be.  Maybe we should think of him as the victim of this story instead of the bad guy we often consider him to be.”

I couldn’t agree with her more, but as the story progresses to this week I think we can honestly ask if, when all is said and done, Esau had a better life than Jacob.  

As Rabbi Perman noted, “Esau got a bum rap from the traditional sources.” Esau is understood to be the polar opposite of his twin brother Jacob, and of the two he is considered by our sages as physically stronger but mentally weaker.

Genesis 25 describes Esau as a rugged, physical outdoorsman and Jacob as a “mild man” who preferred to stay in the camp near his mother.  We are told in Toledot that Esau, coming home from a long hunt, is famished and asks his brother for a bowl of lentil soup that Jacob has simmering on the fire.  Jacob tells him he will trade him a bowl for his birthright to which Esau agrees out of hunger to give him.  That Esau gives it away so easily marks him among our sages as an impulsive and petulant man with no real intellect.  Add to that the anger he experiences when Jacob succeeds in tricking his father Isaac in to giving him the blessing that is reserved for the firstborn Esau, and Esau is marked as a gullible dupe as well.  Jacob ends up fleeing for his life because Esau is so angry over this situation that he threatens to kill Jacob, which only reinforces for the sages his dangerous reliance on instinct rather than intellect.  

The big story of this week’s Torah portion is about Jacob wrestling with the angel/demon/G-d at the river Yabbok all night and emerging maimed, but victorious, with the new name of Israel.  The part of this story that often gets overlooked though is why Jacob was spending the night on the riverbank at all.

Decades have passed since the stolen birthright/blessing incidents and both men are now well established in their own independent lives.  Esau is described as having amassed great wealth, becoming head of a large clan.  Jacob and his clan are traveling in the direction of Esau’s lands and Jacob knows there could be some hard feelings on Esau’s part to say the least, so he sends him a message that says in effect “Hey bro, I’m all grown up now and successful and headed your way so what say we let bygones be bygones?”  Esau returns a message that says “Awesome!  Can’t wait to see you.  I and 400 of my best friends will meet you along the way.”

Rather than seeing the best of intentions in Esau, Jacob assumes Esau still wants him dead and splits his clan and herds in to two groups so that if Esau attacks he can’t destroy everything Jacob has acquired.  He then flees to the riverbank with half of his clan and sends along goats, sheep, camels, cattle and donkeys in hopes of placating his brother with gifts and quelling his anger.  

After the wrestling event, Esau and his posse arrive but rather than attacking Jacob he embraces him warmly and invites Jacob to come live with him on his lands. He meets all of Jacob’s family with pleasure and even tries to return the livestock Jacob sent, stating that he is quite wealthy in his own right and does not need such a costly present. Jacob, though, cannot accept that Esau has forgiven him completely and still fears his wraith. For this reason, he tricks his brother again by accepting his invitation to visit Esau’s lands but insisting that Esau and his people go on ahead of them.  Jacob claims the large number of children and animals he has will slow them all down and he would not want to inconvenience his brother.  Esau does as requested and starts the return journey ahead of Jacob but instead of following Esau to his home, Jacob waits until Esau is over the hill and sneaks off to the south without so much as a “thanks anyway” for his brother.  

So in the light of this final phase of the story, we can see an Esau who has grown and matured, who has become his own man independent of his dysfunctional childhood and manipulative brother.

But our sages still see Esau as the bad seed. As Rabbi Perman noted, the sages saw Esau as the ancestor of Rome, which was a great persecutor of our people. They also saw him as the ancestor of Christianity and saw our mistreatment through the ages by Christendom as a fulfillment of Esau’s oath of revenge after the stolen blessing.

But the Torah text itself does not show the same attributes of the clan patriarch as the sages saw in his supposed descendants. Instead of being embittered through the years at his mistreatment by his brother, he grows into a mensch who forgives his brother, welcomes him to his home with warmth, asks nothing from him and even comes together with him to bury Isaac peacefully even after this last insult.  In this light it seems fair to reflect upon which brother should be pitied because of his dysfunctional childhood and which brother should be lauded as triumphant over it?  

We Jews are not the descendants of Esau but of Jacob; our covenant with

G-d flows through him. As critical to our identity as Jacob is though, we need to recall that he was not perfect. Maybe, just maybe, our sages, in their zeal to honor our ancestor and his descendants, may have wrongly dishonored another member of our extended family.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)