Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayishlah

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayishlah 5761/ 16 December 2000

Esau-Edom: Profile of a People

Dr. Tzvi Weinberg
Kfar Ha-Roeh

This week's reading completes the story of Esau (figuratively Edom), providing a suitable opportunity to take a fresh look at this figure. The concluding verses of parashat Vayishlah relay information about an important part of the familial, tribal and national history of Esau/Edom. Although the life of Esau may have drawn to a close, the ramifications of the Esau story continue to reverberate throughout Scripture in a variety of forms: in the Torah, in parashat Hukkat (Num. 20:14, 26), in the Early Prophets (I Kings 11:14), in the Latter Prophets (Isaiah 34), and even in the Writings (Ps. 137). This is a brief list of recommended sources illustrating the many facets of the subject and its significance in Jewish thought. In this limited setting we can only give a few highlights and suggest they be used to study the subject more deeply.

It is not surprising that the figure of Esau the man continues to intrigue us after reading about him two weeks ago, in parashat Toledot. Isaac and his wife Rebekah had no other children than Esau and Jacob, twins by birth but quite different in the way they behaved and thought. Each one went in a different direction, and by the time we reach this week's reading we realize that relations between them developed to the point of Jacob having to flee and remain in distant realms for twenty years because of his brother's hatred towards him. In this week's reading the brothers meet again after a long period of estrangement. Naturally, we await the description of their renewed encounter with bated breath to see and hear how things will turn out. We share Jacob's fears for the fate of his family, even more than his own personal fate, and therefore as we read the story we are surprised at the course of their encounter.

The nature of biblical narrative is to reveal new insights on each rereading, for there are "seventy facets to the Torah." Classical texts naturally relate to the central issues that concern human beings, and this is especially true of Scripture. In terms of its writing and redaction Scripture is also pragmatic and didactic, and its degree of influence is determined by its objective content and its mode of presentation. Of course the subjective evaluations of the reader, his or her view of the world and a variety of factors affecting the reader, also come into play. Thus a person's interpretation of a text is affected by events taking place in the time in which he lives; changes in the course of one's life can even lead the reader to a different understanding of the same text at various times.

The Jacob-Esau narrative, including the story of the two brothers meeting again, provides a good example for illustrating the different ways of understanding a text that is ostensibly simple and unequivocal. In his commentary on this text Nahmanides applied the principle that "the ways of the father serve as a sign for the son" - an exegetical principle which he used repeatedly throughout his interpretation of Scripture. He illustrated this principle through the text of Parashat Va-Yishlah (32:4, s.v. "va-yishlah Ya'akov"). Nahmanides saw Exile and Redemption as being reflected in this story. By this he meant that the detailed narrative of the brothers' meeting prefigures the grimness of life in exile experienced by the exegete and his hopes for redemption. Here Nahmanides applied the principle that "the ways of the father serve as a sign for the son," viewing the symbolic as a prophetic sign. Such signs are the guarantee that the prophet's prediction will indeed come to pass. For example, Jeremiah's smashing the jug (ch. 19) reinforces his words and serves as the guarantee that his prophecy will indeed come to pass and the city will be destroyed. Nahmanides viewed Jacob's prostrating himself before Esau, in the story of their encounter, as an omen pointing to the condition of the Jews in the exile in which he lived and to the period in which he wrote his commentaries. This type of approach is rooted in the words of the Sages and was shared also by Rashi, who live a century and a half before Nahmanides. Nahmanides lived in the time of the Reconquista, the renewed rise to power of the Christians in Spain (13th century). As the Christians gained power, gradually reconquering Spain from the Moslems and establishing the rule of the Church in Spain, the condition of the Jews there deteriorated markedly.

It is easy to see why this idea that Esau prefigures an oppressive force began developing in Christian realms, in the lands of Franco-Germany (Ashkenaz). This idea is widely reflected in Rashi's commentary on the Torah, which follows in the footsteps of the Sages, who first developed the idea that Esau was embodied by Rome. Esau's brutal strength and Isaac's words to him, "Yet by your sword you shall live (Gen. 27:40), were embodied by the Romans, who destroyed the Second Temple and put an end to the independent existence of the Jewish people in their land. This interpretive approach became deeply rooted, despite the fact that the real Edom was actually a neighboring land to Israel. Rome was perceived as the incarnation of Esau; and in the Middle Ages, Christianity, the heir of the declining Roman Empire, inherited the title of Rome. Around the time of Rashi's death trouble came to the Jews at the hands of the Christians (Rome; witness the massacres during the Crusades), and about one hundred and fifty years later spread to the Jewish communities in Spain. The events of 1096 (the First Crusade) and 1492 (expulsion from Spain) affected biblical exegesis, and relations between Esau and Jacob came to symbolize the Jews' understanding of their condition under Roman (Christian) domination. The Jacob-Esau story found expression in current events of the times. The text has not lost its relevance to this day, for even after the establishment of the State of Israel, the history of these nations has not changed.

This exegetical approach was put on a firm foundation by Rashi, who could not but take such an attitude towards Esau. For example, Gen. 25:23 reads: "Two nations in your womb," which Rashi took to be Anthony and Rabbi, representing Rome and Israel in their mother's womb. Esau, who in this week's reading is about to have his fateful encounter with Jacob, was presented by Rashi as an enemy; so that when he kissed Jacob (Gen. 33:4), Rashi said that he did not embrace him with all his heart. Earlier, when Isaac blessed Esau, "Your abode shall enjoy the fat of the earth" (27:39), Rashi interpreted this as the lands where Esau dwells, namely "Italy of Greece," the birthplace of Rome, despite the fact that the historical land of Edom is situated close to the land settled by Israel. Also the angel that struggled with Jacob he interpreted as being the angel of Esau. Rashi wrote (v. 32:27) that after failing to subdue Jacob, the angel gave thanks for the blessing Jacob had received from their father.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (18th century German exegete) interpreted Jacob's limping after the struggle with the angel as signifying a certain degree of inferiority in contrast to Esau. According to him Jacob has been limping through his entire march of history, but he has never been vanquished.

Unlike Nahmanides and Rashi, Rashbam, who tended towards more literal interpretation of the text, presented Esau in a gentler light. Rashbam did not feel bound to the Esau-Rome-Christianity model, even though he lived between the first and second Crusades. The four hundred people who escorted Esau as he set out to meet Jacob, in Rashbam's opinion were coming to honor Jacob. Nor did Rashbam identify the angel that struggled with Jacob as Esau's angel. In contrast to Rashi, who ascribed wickedness and hatred to Esau (see his commentary on 32:6-7), Rashbam saw the same context as reflecting brotherly love. Rashbam did not exactly portray Esau as the righteous person of his generation, but his criticism of the man was far more restrained.

Reference to this week's reading is made by the prophet Hosea (ch. 12), where Jacob's struggle with the angel is mentioned, but without saying that this was Esau's angel. In the writings of the classical prophets Esau came to stand for an idea. He represented the force that opposed all that Israel stood for, and he had to be vanquished in order to bring salvation not only to Israel but to the entire world as well (cf., for example Is. 34, 63). In Isaiah 63, G-d Himself is presented as waging war on Esau; for only thus can the Lord's kingship be assured in the world (Obadiah 21). These ideas worked their way into Rashi's commentaries (33:14, in this week's reading). Jacob's rejection of Esau's invitation to accompany him ("Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, ... until I come to my lord in Seir"), is interpreted by Rashi as something that will not happen until the Messiah comes.

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