Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yishlah 5763/ November 23, 2002

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.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Va-Yishlah 5763/ November 23, 2002

Why Did Esau Go Off to Edom?

Rabbi Dr. Isaac Dov Paris

"To My Lord Esau" (Gen. 32:5)--the Sages and Nahmanides criticize Jacob's excessive self-abnegation when he addressed Esau in the beginning of this week's reading, arguing that this later led to Israel falling into the hands of Rome [for the Sages, Edom was the term used in the Midrash for the Romans]. In particular, they took note that Jacob's address to Esau was made after the latter had already left Canaan and moved to Edom and nevertheless he was so obsequious. From the end of the Parashah, however, it appears that Esau did not move to Edom with his family until after Jacob's return. Nahmanides (commentary on Gen. 36:6) explains this difficulty by saying that initially Esau moved to Edom with only a few of his people, leaving most of his family in Canaan. Later, he returned to Canaan to meet Jacob, who was coming back from Laban's home, and only afterward did he take the rest of his family to Edom. This is a somewhat far-stretched interpretation and is compounded by another difficulty raised by Ibn Ezra (Gen. 32:4): the lands of Seir and Edom, mentioned here, are located in Transjordan, so the route from Haran to Canaan would have passed closed by, which as we know, was not the case. The oblique expressions, "in the land of Seir, the country of Edom" (32:4), and especially the words, "and went to another land because of his brother Jacob" (36:6), also require explication.

Note that in Joshua 15:10 a place called Mount Seir is mentioned as one of the boundaries of Judah, in addition to the place by this name in southern Transjordan. According to Rashi, the name Seir means forested - an expression which well-suits a person such as Esau, and perhaps was named after him, for he was born "red, like a hairy mantle (Heb. aderet se'ar) all over" (Gen. 25:25). If so, then Esau had not left the country at all prior to Jacob's return from Aram, and therefore Jacob addressed him, ready for "gifts, prayer and battle"; for Esau was living in Seir which was in Canaan, close by, and Jacob had not summoned him from afar in order to arouse an ancient hostility. After meeting Jacob, Esau returned to Mount Seir which was in Canaan (Gen. 33:15-17), and it was there that he invited Jacob, and from there he left for the Transjordan after his re-encounter with Jacob. This hypothesis also fits with the idea that Jacob's route did indeed pass close by Seir which lay in Judah, and that was the place which he had in mind when he said to Esau, "until I come to my lord in Seir" (Gen. 33:14).

Why indeed did Esau leave the country without any argument or negotiations, and at that, precisely upon Jacob's return? This can be resolved by what we said above. The beginning of this week's reading mentions "the country of Edom," which was not his land but only a part of the inheritance in the land of Canaan; the end refers to "another land" without specifying what land, for Esau wanted a land that would be entirely his, the "land of Edom," which was not yet named after him. Now Esau, as a hunter and man of the outdoors, lived by the sword on the fringes of society, whereas Jacob was a simple man who dwelled in tents. Although the Sages interpret this as a reference to "dwelling in the tents of Shem," nevertheless we cannot ignore the plain sense of Scripture that he was a shepherd, as he had been with Laban, and that he returned with many flocks. When he returned, Jacob sent a detachment of his flocks to Esau, so that the latter would be able to open a new page in his life, leave the sword and return to the occupation of his forefathers, earning a good and honest living from raising sheep. Esau had taken a wife from the daughters of Ishmael in order to please his parents, and now he had a chance to please them again. To this end, however, one of them would have to leave the land. As a hunter, Esau had been able to live in the same land as Jacob, but with both of them owning herds there was not sufficient room for the two of them, just as had been the case with Abraham and Lot. Indeed, the verse explaining why Esau migrated away from Canaan parallels the verse explaining Lot's departure from Abraham, although with notable differences.

Of Abraham and Lot it is said, "the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together" (Gen. 13:6), and their shepherds were quarreling (v. 7). Of Jacob and Esau it is said, "For their possessions were too many for them to dwell together, and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock" (Gen. 36:7), without any mention of a quarrel, past or present. Moreover, it does not say of Jacob and Esau that "they could not remain together," as Scripture emphasizes in the case of Abraham and Lot, but only that the land could not support them both.

Also the objective reason that is given - their many possessions - appears in the middle of the verse regarding Abraham and Lot because it was not the main point, but with regard to Jacob and Esau it appears at the beginning of the verse, since with them this was precisely the point. Hence we conclude that Lot's departure from Abraham was more grave than Esau's from Jacob. Lot was indebted to Abraham for bringing him up and educating him, and because of Abraham he had grown wealthy. Abraham was fully entitled to expect of Lot that he continue to follow in his ways and inherit from him, not only materially but also spiritually. But Lot was an ingrate, leaving Abraham and not remaining true to his upbringing by deciding to live in the wicked city of Sodom.

In contrast, Esau was not beholden to Isaac and did not betray him by going to live in another land. Moreover, he actually acknowledged spurning his birthright and sold it to Jacob because of the duties and responsibilities that went along with it (Gen. 25:34). Esau and Jacob were destined to go separate ways from birth (Gen. 25:23); Esau neither wished nor was he able to continue the tradition of his forefathers, and he learned from Lot's fate, seeing that Lot had been punished for seeking a portion in the land even though he knew he was not deserving of it. Therefore, when Jacob returned, Esau went off to Edom, in Transjordan, peacefully and of his own accord.