Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Yishlah, 5761/ December 1, 2001

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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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat Va-Yishlah, 5761/ December 1, 2001

Jacob and Esau: A Parting of Ways

Menachem Ben-Yashar
Department of Bible

The beginning and end of Parashat Toledot -practically the entire parasha-are concerned with the competition and struggle between Jacob and Esau, the sale of the birthright and Jacob's blessing, in short, who would be the one chosen to carry on Abraham's line and destiny. Since Toledot concludes with Jacob's flight from Esau and from the land of Canaan, destined for the patriarchs, it appears as if Esau won the struggle, since he remained in Canaan, the home of his father. Indeed, at the beginning of this week's reading, when Jacob returns from his prolonged and difficult exile at Laban's, he is compelled out of fear to acknowledge the victory of his older brother: Jacob sends Esau an offering, a tribute of submission, referred to as a gift sent "to my lord Esau" from "your servant Jacob" (see Gen. 32:18).

Yet in the final analysis, Jacob carries on the heritage of Abraham and builds Abraham's line, for only Jacob and his household remain in the land of Canaan. Now, we may attribute Jacob's victory as due to Divine intervention. Indeed, aside from the blessings that Isaac bestowed on Jacob through the latter's deceit, he later adds another blessing of his own will, and blessings work as agents of the divine. Moreover, the Lord Himself confirms the blessings and extends them, both as Jacob goes into exile (Gen. 28:13-15), and shortly before his return (31:3, 12-13). Also, a miraculous figure contends with Jacob and blesses him (32:24-30), and the prophet Hosea reveals to us that this figure was an angel-"He strove with an angel and prevailed" (Hos. 12:5).

In the world of Scripture, however, Divine destinies and promises come to pass through human endeavor. Direct intervention by G-d through miracles is extremely rare. Usually things happen by natural means, with Divine providence operating behind the scene. The real story of Esau's retreat in the face of Jacob is told towards the end of this week's reading (36:6-8). It does not attract our attention, since it is secondary to the history of Esau and his clan. To the casual reader, not attuned to the fine points of the Torah, the passage appears fairly inconsequential:
It reads as follows, beginning with the end of verse 5:

[5] Those were the sons of Esau, who were born to him in the land of Canaan. [6] Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that they had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob. [7] 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. [8] So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir - Esau being Edom.

To this we must add the contrasting verse which opens Chapter 37 and Parashat Vayeshev: "Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan."

This passage resembles a parallel passage in Genesis 13, where we read of Lot leaving Abraham. Even the language used there is similar; note especially the similarity of Genesis 13:6 with verse 7 above: "so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together." Both subject matter and language are similar, however in the case at hand it is unclear why Esau had to leave. In Lekh Lekha, chapters 12-13, the sequence of events is clear: When Abraham and his household were in Egypt because of the famine, Pharaoh treated him well, bestowing economic benefits on him, on account of having taking Sarah into Pharaoh's house. Thus both Abraham and Lot, who accompanied him, amassed extensive flocks. While the areas of lush vegetation in Egypt could support all of their livestock, the meager vegetation on the edge of the desert in Canaan could not; therefore Abraham had to part ways with Lot.

But what happened with Esau? Esau, after all, was a "skillful hunter, a man of the outdoors." As a farmer and hunter, how did Esau have so many flocks as to make it necessary for the brothers to part ways? This is told us at the beginning of the parasha: as an offering of submission and pacification, Jacob sent him many flocks. Henceforth, both brothers had much livestock, similar to the condition of Abraham and Lot. We have no way of knowing if that had been Jacob's intention when he sent numerous flocks to his brother Esau, or whether this result was directed by the hand of Providence.

Be that as it may, the acts of buying the birthright and deceitfully stealing the blessing, about which we read in Parashat Toledot, teach us about the character of the brothers and their aspirations. One scorns the birthright, while the other struggles to obtain it, and in its wake also the blessing, i.e., to be the one who will continue the line. But these same actions, buying the birthright for a bowl of lentil soup and receiving the blessing by putting on a strange disguise, are not serious acts and do not have the power to change and determine status. So how was Jacob to achieve these things that he desired?

As a result of these unfruitful attempts, Jacob is forced to flee from his home and his country and become indentured to Laban, serving him hard. By working industriously, day and night (Gen. 31:38-41), Jacob acquires flocks of his own, and from these he sends offerings to his brother Esau. With these he appeases Esau and, due to the abundance of flocks and paucity of grazing land, Jacob finally brings about Esau's departure from Canaan (which Esau had anyway scorned as destined for him, just as he had scorned the birthright) and his move to the land of Seir.

From this analysis we see that the important messages of the Torah, the explanations for crucial turning points in history, are not necessarily found in the great narratives that tend to be carefully read and heavily interpreted: for example, in this week's reading, the story of Jacob's encounter with Esau, or his struggle with the angel, or the story of Dinah or the death of Rachel. The great and fateful turning point is concealed, as we have shown, at the end of the weekly portion, amidst the enumeration of the clan of Edom.

Further, we also learn about symmetry in the Torah. In the selection process that evolves in Genesis, the first separation between "brothers" - Abraham and Lot - takes place in the same manner and is described in similar language to the last separation - between the brothers, Jacob and Esau.