5763 - #35
ESAV AND YAAKOV: ACTION-REACTION
This week we begin Sefer Devarim and the epic of Bnei Yisrael's entrance into the land of Israel unfolds before us. Counter posed with this momentous event, we are in the midst of the Nine Days, a time of great mourning over the loss of our homeland and the Temple which made Eretz Yisrael home. It is a jolting experience to commemorate the glorious beginning and devastating end of an era in the same week. Even more confusing is the knowledge contained in this week's parsha that the Jewish People encountered their future enemy before they even entered Canaan but were forbidden, by God, to act against him.
The Galut, Exile, within which we suffer today was brought about by the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D. It is generally accepted that the Romans were the descendants of the nation of Edom which, in turn, was the nation to come out of Esav. In Devarim 2:4, Moshe recounts Bnei Yisrael's initial meeting with the Edomites who inhabit Seir and God warns Bnei Yisrael not to aggravate them. Why? Because God has promised this land to the other son of Yitzchak and any battles would result in a defeat for Bnei Yisrael. The outcome, however, is that the greatest future enemy of the Jewish People was given the opportunity to grow into its destiny and, sadly, affect the Jewish nation's destiny.
Rashi, Devarim 2:5 elaborates upon God's explicit instructions regarding the lands of Edom and the two descendants of Lot, Ammon and Moav. He states that the lands of ten nations were given by God to the descendants of Avraham: seven went to the children of Yaakov; one went to the children of Esav; and two went to the children of Lot. Why Yaakov's descendants received a share needs no explanation. Rashi, though, feels compelled to clarify why Lot received his portions. When Lot was present in Egypt with Avraham and Sara, he kept silent about Sara's real identity; thus, he was rewarded. Rashi also sees no need to explain Esav's right. But why? Why is Esav included while Yishmael and the other children of Avraham are excluded? Ramban, Devarim 2:4 clarifies that only the descendants of Avraham and Sara, namely Yaakov and Esav through Yitzchak, were to be included in this birthright of land. Esav is the full brother of Yaakov and there is a unique connection between them.
Both Esav and Yaakov have an inherent claim to land in this area and therefore God declares that He "will not give [Bnei Yisrael] from their [Edom's] land even the amount upon which the sole of a foot treads."1 However, Rashi refuses to accept this statement as immobile; he
extrapolates that a time will come when Edom will be conquered by Bnei Yisrael -- after Edom trespasses upon the land of their brethren. The Jewish People cannot act against Edom but only react if Edom attempts to infringe upon the rights of Yaakov's descendants.
In Devarim, 23:8, the Jewish People are given a command not to hate the Edomite because Edom and Bnei Yisrael are brothers. Rashi, once again, provides a clarifying footnote -- the Jewish Nation should hate Edom because they attacked us but this command forbids the nation from hating Edom completely. Yet, this hatred remains passive as does the hatred Esav is known to have for Yaakov. One must wonder why Edom, a nation of such strength and potential,2 lay dormant throughout so much of Jewish history.3 Why was it not fueled on by its ever-present hatred of the Jewish nation? Conversely, why didn't the Jewish people destroy this threat while Edom was under Jewish rule? Both nations seem to be bound by a role that refuses either nation the right to act out upon its fears or hatred. But, given this volatile state of existence, why wasn't Esav sent far away, like Yishmael or Avraham’s other children? Why are these two brothers forced to live beside each other with such constantly repressed emotions?
In T.B. Megilla 6a, it is stated that Rome and Jerusalem are in constant opposition. If Rome is flourishing then Jerusalem is lying in ruin and vice versa. This reality is evidenced by the nature of Esav's curse-blessing from Yitzchak.4 Esav will be the weaker brother who will be subjugated by Yaakov. However, should the children of Yaakov stray from God's commandments, then Esav's descendants will temporarily gain the upper hand. In Ovadia 1:2, Edom is introduced as a small nation, not the powerful progeny one might expect from Esav. Yet history records the majesty and magnitude of the Roman Empire on the same page where one might find the destruction of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Biblical Images, Yitzchak discusses Yitzchak's faulty judgement in considering his successor. Why did Yitzchak think Esav was the next in line? Rabbi Steinsaltz postulates that Yitzchak feared Yaakov's passivity. Yitzchak himself had been a passive leader and he saw in Esav the fire of activity that had been in Avraham. Esav did not merely trick Yitzchak; he had within himself a potential to be a leader. However, Esav was evil and lacked the qualities of righteousness and self-discipline that the leader of the Jewish Nation required.5 Esav's obvious qualities attracted Yitzchak and forced Yaakov to prove that he too was capable of such initiative.
When Esav returned and learned of his brother's deception, he vowed to murder Yaakov once their father, Yitzchak, had passed away.6 Yaakov reacts to Esav's plans by retreating for a number of years to his mother's family. However, despite Esav's original murderous intent, upon Yaakov's return and Yitzchak's death, Esav does not even attempt to kill Yaakov. Instead, he moves his family from Canaan. Both Rashi and Ramban agree that Esav acted in recognition of the structure of his and Yaakov's blessings. Canaan belonged to Yaakov. Esav retreated with full understanding that he would only have the opportunity to act out his hatred if, and when, his brother weakened.
Esav and Yaakov are brothers and neither they nor their descendants can escape the bond formed by this reality. The Jewish People are sometimes shrouded in the illusion that our place cannot be occupied, that the sins of the Jewish people and subsequent downfalls leave a gaping hole in the fabric of society. The truth is that Esav and his descendants are ever ready to fill this hole. They have a standard of their own that is fed by Esav's equal understanding of the ways of God; Esav left Canaan because he was aware that it did not belong to him. He knew that he could not challenge God so openly. Yet, Esav did not leave until Yaakov returned -- Esav was willing to take what he could get until Yaakov physically prevented it. Edom does not challenge the Jewish People in their times of prominence and, in return, the Jewish people rule over, but do not destroy, Edom. There is a mutual respect for each other's boundaries. The line is only crossed when the Jewish People have sinned or Edom has attacked in a time of Jewish observance. Otherwise, Esav and Yaakov live side by side and fully adhere to the precepts of their relationship -- the constant action-reaction that is the race between two chosen runners: the one who is favoured to win and the one who forces the winner to earn his victory with the full knowledge that he can only win if the other runner falls.
1 Devarim 2:5.
2 See, further, T.B. Megilla 6b.
3 Most mentions of Edom in the early books of Nach reflect this idea; Edom is never the major adversary of Shaul, David or Shlomo. Towards the end of Shlomo's reign, Edom does revolt but it is only after Shlomo lost favour in the eyes of God that this revolt took place. See Melachim I, c. 11.
4 See Bereishit 27:38-40.
5 See T.B. Megilla 11a.
6 See Bereishit 27:41.
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