Today, it is widely accepted that Eisav is irredeemable…even evil, and that his path is incompatible with the destiny of Yaakov – and the Jewish people.
Delving into the story of Yaakov and Eisav’s reunion shows that things are not always how they seem on the surface and provides a window into the possibility of how our own actions can shape what we see in return.
And Eisav ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Bereishit 33:4)
For violence against your brother Yaakov,
Shame shall cover you, And you shall be cut off forever. (Ovadiah 1:10)
While the plain text in Bereishit of the brothers’ reunion provides a positive impression, the prophecy of Ovadiah defined the Jewish attitude toward Eisav and Edom in an overwhelmingly negative light. This isn’t just theoretical; our sages identified Edom with Rome, and by extension, Christian Europe.
The suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of the Europeans would seem to justify the attitude of the Sages towards Edom/Rome. It is difficult to deny the uncanny prophetic nature of the following statement found in Tractate Megilah 6a-b:
- Isaac also said: What is meant by the verse, Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked, draw
not out his bit, so that they exalt themselves, selah? Jacob said before the Holy One, blessed be
He: Sovereign of the Universe, grant not to Eisav the wicked the desire of his heart, draw not out his bit: this refers to Germamia of Edom, for should they but go forth they would destroy the whole world.
Our tradition seems to have passed judgment on Eisav. We are all familiar with the famous statement by R. Shimon Bar Yohai, “It is a well-known fact [Halakha] that Eisav hates Yaakov.”(Sifrei Bamidbar 69)
But the relationship between brothers even if they are estranged is rarely simple.
James Carroll, a believing Christian with a deep sense of morality, is plagued by the question in his book, Constantine’s Sword: “Could relations with the Jews have turned out differently?” Was the cross on Golgotha in effect the cross hairs of a rifle scope pointed irrevocably at Auschwitz?
As Jews we need to ask an analogous question from our perspective: Do the statements of our Sages like those regarding Eisav, and their application to the real historical circumstances of the Roman Empire and its Christian successors, act as a self-fulfilling prophecy? Does this kind of pre-judgment poison the atmosphere, narrowing our points of view even further and foreclosing an opportunity to see other alternatives or approaches?
To be sure, Eisav is no Tzaddik; as a consequence of Yaakov’s underhanded acquisition of the blessings, Eisav bides his time and plots the murder of his brother. But the question still remains – is Eisav evil or irredeemable?
I believe that the following Midrash addresses this problem:
And where was Dinah [when Yaakov presented his children to Eisav]? He[Yaakov] put her in a chest and locking her in, saying, ’This wicked man has an aspiring eye; let him not take her away from me.’ […] The Holy One blessed be He, said to him […] ‘You have withheld kindness from your neighbor; You would not give her in marriage to a circumcised person [Eisav]; lo! she is now married to an uncircumcised one [Shchem]. You would not give her in legitimate wedlock; lo! She was taken in illegitimate fashion’; thus it is written, And Dinah the daughter of Leah went out… (Bereishit Rabbah 76:9)
In this Midrash, the Sages severely criticize Yaakov for withholding his daughter Dinah from Eisav. Perhaps she would have been successful in tempering his passions and make an honest man out of him, so to speak.
What are they getting at? What role would Eisav have filled as Yaakov’s son-in-law? As a senior member of Yaakov’s tribe, Eisav’s strengths and virtues, his physical prowess and powers of persuasion (ztayid be fiv) could have been put in the service of the fulfillment of the historical mission of the Jewish People – bringing the knowledge of the God of Israel to the world…a God of history who cares passionately about righteousness and justice.
Eisav could have been the thirteenth tribe. This is one reason why Yitzchak favored his older son, so that his strength and skills would be enlisted to support the destiny of his progeny.
Taking this line of thinking one step further…our sages’ identification of Eisav with Rome actually excites our imagination. What would have been if Rome, rather than adopting Christianity as a consequence of Constantine’s vision on the Milvian Bridge, had joined with the Jews instead? The Sages of the midrash are trying to imagine the might of the Roman Empire as an instrument of bringing the Torah to the world and not as an enemy bent on its destruction.
Yaakov faced a difficult and fateful choice; should he imperil his only daughter by exposing her to Eisav in the hope that this might align Eisav in the destiny of the nascent Israelite nation – or should he play it safe and hold out for a more conventional shidduch (husband) for her?
And here we come to a very important take-away from this Midrash. The “safety” of the cautious/conservative approach was an illusion…which ultimately led to disaster. “Life is an extreme sport” a Breslover friend of mine always says. Sometimes there is no safe option.
The Sages here are courageously self-critical. Yaakov, they understood, squandered the opportunity to draw Eisav in. Would the effort have been successful? We will never know…but Yaakov is held accountable for his failure to try, whether because he lost faith in his brother or lacked the self-confidence to make the attempt. (see the Sfat Emet Vayishlach 5657).
So, is there no hope for a more constructive and even loving sibling relationship in the future? R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the rosh yeshiva of Volozhin, thought that there was hope when he wrote,
”And they cried: They both cried. This comes to teach us that Yaakov’s love for his brother was awakened at that moment and he loved Eisav. So it is in future generations when the descendants of Eisav are awakened by a pure spirit and they recognize the qualities of the seed of Israel, then we too awaken to recognize Eisav because he is our brother…” (Haemek Davar Bereishit 33:4)
Rabbi Herzl Hefter is Rosh Beit Midrash at Beit Midrash Har’el, the only orthodox Rabbinic Fellowship program for men and women who study together. The Beit Midrash offers high level learning and study for thoughtful students and provides a compassionate and compelling voice in our community, steeped in Torah and a willingness to grapple with thorny issues. More information can be found at www.har-el.org.