Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Toledot 5764/ November 29, 2003

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 Toledot 5764/ November 29, 2003
Is not Esau a brother to Jacob?

Rabbi Judah Zoldan
Midrasha for Women

This week's haftarah portion (Malachi 1) opens with a dialogue, apparently between The House of Israel and the Lord. "I have shown you love, said the Lord", and Knesset Yisrael asks: "How have you shown us love?" The Lord responds : "After all - declares the Lord - Esau is Jacob's brother; yet I have accepted Jacob and have rejected Esau. I have made his hills a desolation, his territory a home for beasts of the desert". Esau is Jacob's brother, they share the same father and mother, he is even the eldest. Nevertheless the Lord prefers the beloved son to the eldest, hated son (according to Deut. 21:16-17).[1]

Love and hate also characterize the relationships in our parasha - between Isaac and Rebecca, between Jacob and Esau. "Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game; but Rebecca favored Esau (Gen. 25:28); "Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob" (ibid. 27:41).

The comradeship between Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom) is mentioned several times in the Bible, for instance: "From Kadesh, Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: 'Thus says your brother Israel' (Numbers 20:14); "You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau" (Deut. 2:4); "You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman" (Deut. 23:8). Even when devastation is prophesied for Esau-Edom, their brotherhood is mentioned: "For three transgressions of Edom...Because he pursued his brother with the sword" (Amos 1:11); "And not a man on Esau's mount shall survive the slaughter. For the outrage to your brother Jacob (Obadiah 1:9-10).

What is the meaning of the Bible's emphasis on the closeness between Jacob's and Esau's descendants? What is the place of the hated Esau, and what can be understood from this about the complicated relations between Jacob's descendants and those of Esau in the course of history?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook deals with these questions in a number of sources in his writings, amongst them in his comments on the haftarah verses:

It is not the absorption and destruction (=of the nations) that is the goal of Israel's being "a light unto the nations", just as we do not intend general destruction of the world and all its nations, but rather their repair and their elevation, the removal of their wickedness, which will then join them to the source of Israel, to shower them as well with droplets of light. Of this process it is written, "But I will clean out the blood from its mouth and the detestable things from between its teeth. Its survivors, too, shall belong to The Lord" (Zech. 9:7). If this is the practice even regarding idol worship, all the more so for religions that are partially based on the foundations of the light of Israel's Torah.
How wondrous are the words of the Vilna Gaon, of blessed memory: "And I hated Esau" (Malachi 1:3) - the reference is to the minor parts of Esau, but not to his head, that is buried with the fathers of the world.[2] And therefore Jacob said to his brother "I saw your face as one sees the face of The Lord", and since he is called 'the man of truth' his words are no empty statement. The brotherly love between Esau and Jacob, between Isaac and Ishmael, will surpass all the tumult brought on by the evil embedded in the uncleanness of the dead body, will overcome it and replace it with light and eternal lovingkindness.[3]

Here is our explanation of the above comments: Jacob and Esau are brothers who represent different nations. We are told that Esau made his way to Seir, Jacob to Canaan. The tension is tremendous, there were and are conflicts between the two, but in the long run Esau too, the elder brother, will join with Jacob.
As a nation, we have no desire to destroy and annihilate the peoples of the world. Among the organs of the world body, the people of Israel is the heart (Rabbi Judah Halevi, Kuzari 2:36) and the heart does not fight the other body organs. Our destiny is to lead and raise up the entire world, to install the Kingdom of Heaven in the world so that all will recognize and acknowledge His rule. This is true also of pagan peoples and certainly with those that are even closer, the children of Esau, the brother of Jacob. [editor's note: In Jewish sources, Esau as a nation stood for Rome, later Christianity]

The quoted words of the Gaon Elijah of Vilna make reference to an aggadic midrash that tells of Esau's head being buried in the Cave of Machpelah.[4] The ideological meaning is that in the upper part of his body, the head, Esau has ties to the dimensions of holiness, and in the words of Rabbi Hayyim of Wolozhin, a pupil of the Gaon:

Our sages speak of Esau's head buried in the cave with Jacob and figuratively this means that his head was filled with holiness. This is the meaning of the future destruction of the evil power as stated by our sages. Because only his head will remain in the sacred place and will be separate so that it does not roll down into the evil...because through repentance his acts of sinning committed below will be cancelled and no condemnation of them will remain above.[5]

Esau's head is detached from his body and is buried alongside the fathers of the nation. His body, however, is buried elsewhere, in a distant place, which teaches us that with his material-physical side, the part found on Mount Seir, he fought Israel. [this is probably what R. Kook meant when he spoke of the evil embedded in the uncleanness of the body—ed.] The meaning is that spiritually Esau has a connection with the Jewish people and is even destined to entwine his fate with them when the kingdom of The Lord is revealed on Mount Seir as well: "For liberators shall march up on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the Lord's" (Obad. 1:21). Or, in the words of our sages, to which Rabbi Kook refers:

"Its survivors, too, shall belong to our The Lord" (Zach. 9:7) - these are synagogues and study halls in Edom. "They shall become like a clan in Judah, and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites" (ibid.) - these are theaters and circuses in Edom in which the leaders of Judah are destined to teach Torah to the multitudes (Megilla 6a).[6]

Perhaps Isaac's positive view of his son Esau, "although he certainly knew that he was not perfect like Jacob" (Sforno for Gen. 25:28) was a result of a far-reaching vision of what might come of him in times to come. And it might explain Rashi's comment on the verse: "And Isaac favored Esau because he had a taste for game" [literally, "there was hunting in his mouth"] (ibid.) - "in Isaac's mouth". Through their good verbal communication, Isaac wanted to 'ensnare' and preserve Esau for the great days of the future. Isaac wants Esau to remain his son, the brother of Jacob, and to assure that he not sever himself completely; that the spiritual side of Esau, his head, should remain connected with and joined with the fathers of the nation.

Rebecca is practical, and her view focuses on the present. She loves Jacob "only, because she recognized Esau's evil" (Sforno, ibid.). She places Jacob in Esau's place when it comes to receiving the blessings, prepares the necessary food and dresses him in the appropriate clothing, even initiating Jacob's flight from Esau. She does not concern herself with what will happen in the end of days.

Rabbi Kook concludes with the following:
This broad view [of our relationships with other nations], sweetened with the sweetness and honey of the truth of the Bible, must accompany all our acts in the end of days, "to seal the Torah in the palace of the Messiah by changing bitterness into sweetness and darkness into light" [this line in Aramaic no doubt is from a kabbalistic source which I cannot identify—ed.].

It is this profundity of Isaac's vision that should guide us in the end of days. The long view should make us aware that the final outcome of all those struggles between the descendants of Jacob and Esau will be a renewed discovery of the bonds of comradeship between them "for is not Esau a brother to Jacob?" (Mal. 1:2)



[1] See Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and R. Joseph Qara to Malachi ad loc.
[2] These words of the Gaon are found at the end of the book Se'arat Eliyahu.
[3] Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, Iggerot Ha-Ra'iya Part I, p. 142.
[4] This according to Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer (Higger), Chapter 38, and Sotah 13b. In Pseudo-Jonathan [the Aramaic translation of the Bible ascribed to Jonathan ben Uzziel] (Gen. 50:13) it is stated that Esau's body was buried in the field of the Cave of Machpelah: "And Esau's head rolled until it entered the Cave of Machpelah and rested in the bosom of Isaac, his father. And the children of Esau buried his body in the Field of Machpelah and then [Jacob's] children buried Jacob in the Cave of the Field of Machpelah that Abraham had purchased from Efron". Other rabbinic sources, commenting on "in the grave which I made ready for myself" (Gen. 50:5) tell of a great sum of money paid by Jacob to Esau in his lifetime so that Esau would not be buried in the Cave of Machpelah. See also Bereshit Rabba 100:5; Shemot Rabba 31:17; Tanhuma Vayehi 6;
[5] R. Hayyim of Volozhyn, Ruah Hayyim al Masekhet Avot, Introduction, "All of Israel has a share".
[6] We found similar words regarding one of Esau's descendants, Amalek (Gen. 36:16). Amalek is the toughest and most bitter enemy to rise up against Israel and the war against him is total and all-encompassing: "you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" (Deut. 25:19) Yet even about this descendant of Esau Rabbi Kook wrote similarly: "Even Amalek is not to be erased except under the sky, but through purification and moral cleansing he can rise up to the roots of goodness that are above the heavens (Musar Avikha, Middot HaRa'ia, Ahava (On Love), 6). Under the heavens, in the real world, there is no place for Amalek, but at the higher level, above the heavens, and in a repaired state, he also has a place, in common with what was said about his father, Esau.