(Some) Villains of Tanakh - Esau or Jacob? By Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

If you grew up on midrash-infused stories than you know that Esau is BAD. But if you read the text, you may be less certain about Esau’s poor reputation. We will take a look at this character that we love to hate, and at his twin brother as well. Just how good is Jacob?

Part I: Birth to Young Adulthood (Gen. 25:21-34)

1. How do you understand the pre-birth prophecy that Rebecca receives regarding her twins?

2. Why is it significant that Esau and Jacob are twins? What is their birth order? Of what significance is it? What is unique about their birth and how does it echo through their lives?

3. Esau’s appearance is stunning enough to warrant a description. Why is their difference in appearance important?

4. What is the profession of each of the twins?

5. How do you understand the parental relations with these two boys/men?

6. Verses 29-34: A transaction takes place between Esau and Jacob. What is traded, and what is your impression of each of the brothers?

Part II: The Blessing (Gen. 26:34-28:9) and Its Aftermath

At the heart of this story is a blessing. What does a blessing mean? A lot more than it does today. A blessing (and a curse) carries real power; it is able to make wishes come true.

As you read through the narrative, pay attention to the descriptive titles that people bear. Whose son are they at any given time, and when are they titled ‘brother’?

1) In your opinion, what blessing did Isaac intend to give Esau, and what did Rebecca expect the blessing to be?

Rebecca was willing to go through great personal risk to ensure that Jacob received the blessing. (In verse 13 she commits to receive any curse that is put on Jacob because he tricked his father). Why did Rebecca not confront Isaac, her husband, about her feelings rather than force Jacob to trick his father and cause Esau to hate him?

2) Is Jacob’s refusal to do as his mother wishes a technical or a moral one? Which is more powerful and why?

Read carefully through Isaac’s words to Jacob-acting-as-Esau in verses 18-27.

3) Did Isaac know that the person in front of him was Jacob? Try to ground you answer in the text.

It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for garments: בגדים shares its root with the term for treason. Clothing has a sinister ability. (You can also contemplate the English use of turncoat).

4) What is Esau’s reaction and how does Isaac respond? How do you feel about it?

5) What problem does Rebecca try to solve by sending Jacob away?

6) How does Rebecca enlist Isaac’s cooperation in removing Jacob from the house?

Jacob receives a blessing from Isaac before leaving (28:3). Compare it with the previous blessing that Isaac gave (27:27-30).

7) What light, if any, does it shed on the question we opened with – what blessing was Esau supposed to get?

8) The marriages: Who ‘directs’ the marriages? What is the significance of whom they marry?

Think about the trouble that Abraham went through to ensure a proper wife for his son, Isaac. (Genesis 24). Marriage is an alliance. Who does each son align himself with?

At this point of the story, who is the villain?

Closure: They Meet Again – Genesis 33:1-11

Read Genesis 32:4-33:17 to get the full picture.

9) What does Jacob seem to feel as he approaches Canaan after an absence of at least 20 years?

What could be the cause of such feelings? How much do past events play a part in his feelings? How much does his absence (justified as it may have been) cause him to feel like a stranger compare to his brother?

10) How does Esau behave when they finally meet? (Gen 33:4 etc) Does this fit with your expectations of Esau? Was Jacob just paranoid?

If you continue reading to verse 11, you will come across a good bit of irony. What is Jacob asking Esau to take?

Part III – Rabbinic Material

Within the framework of understanding how Abraham’s life was shorter than Isaac’s, various rabbis bring a common approach to Esau:

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה סג

ויבא עשו מן השדה וגו’ – ר’ פינחס [בשם ר’ לוי ורבנן] מש’ ר’ סימון: את מוצא אברהם חי קע”ה, יצחק חי ק”פ! אלא אותן חמש שנים שמנע הקב”ה מחייו שלאברהם מפני שבא עשו על נערה מאורסה והרג את הנפש. ההא דאמר “ויבא עשו מן השדה” שבא על נערה מאורסה שנאמר: “ואם בשדה ימצא האיש את הנערה המאורשה” וגו’ (דברים כב כה).

והוא עיף – שהרג את הנפש, כמה דאת אמר עיפה נפשה להורגים (ירמיה ד לא). ר’ ברכיה ור’ זכיי רבה: אף גנב, כמה דאת אמר “אם גנבים באו לך” (עובדיה א ה).

אמר הקב”ה: כך הבטחתי את אברהם ואמרתי לו: “ואתה תבא אל אבותיך בשלום תקבר בשיבה טובה” (בראשית טו טו). זו היא שיבה טובה יהא רואה את בן בנו עובד עבודה זרה ומגלה עריות ושופך דמים?! מוטב לו שיפטר בשלום, שנאמר: “כי טוב חסדך מחיים” וגו’ (תהלים סג ד).

Midrash Genesis Rabba 63

And Esau came from the field… – R. Pinhas in the names of R. Levi and The Rabbis from R. Simon: Abraham lived 175 years, Isaac lived 180! Rather, those 5 years that the Holy One Blessed Be He deprived from Abraham’s life [were] because of Easu who raped a betrothed girl and killed a person, as it says: “And Esau came from the field”, and it says (Deut. 22:25) “If the man finds the betrothed girl in the field…[and forcibly holds her and lies with her…]”

And he was tired” – since he killed a soul, as it says “for my soul is tired from killers” (Jeremiah 4:31). R. Berachia…: He also stole as it says: “If thieves came…” (Obadiah 1:5 – the book of Obadiah is about Edom, the nation that came from Esau.)

Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: I promised Abraham saying “You will come to your ancestors in peace, you will be buried in a good ripe age.” (Gen 15:15) Would it be a good ripe age seeing his son’s son worshiping idols, committing adultery and spilling blood? It is better for him to pass away in peace.

According to this Midrash, what were Esau’s sins? How do they get to that?

Pay attention to the great significance the sound of the language plays in connecting the verses to each other. (The similar words are in Italics.) The “proofs” are verses that share a word with the original verse in the story.

The quote from Obadiah is based on the content of that prophecy. Notice that at the end 3 sins are listed: Idol worship, idolatry, and murder. These are the “3 big ones” for which a Jew should allow himself to be killed rather than commit them.

בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה סה

טו) ותקח רבקה את בגדי עשו בנה הגדול החמודות אשר איתה בבית שבהן היה משמש את אביו. אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל כל ימי הייתי משמש את אבא ולא שימשתי אותו אחד ממאה ששימש עשו את אביו, שאני הייתי משמשו בבגדים מלוכלכין וכשהייתי יוצא [לשוק הייתי יוצא] בבגדים נקיים, אבל עשו בשעה שהיה משמש את אביו משמשו בבגדי מלכות, אמר אין כבודו שלאבא אלא בבגדי מלכות.

Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 65

And Rebecca took the garments of Esau her elder son, the choicest ones that were with her in the house – the ones that he used when he served his father. Rabban Shimon b. Gamilel said: All my life I served my father, but I did not serve him even one hundredth of how Esau served his father. For I would serve in soiled garments, and when I went out [in public] I would go out in clean garments. But Esau, when he would serve his father did so in royal garments, saying ‘it is not proper honor for my father in anything less than royal garments.’

1) Rabbinic sources see Esau’s honoring of his father as a powerful positive attribute of his. Did you see anything(s) in the Torah text that pointed in this direction?

2) Why were the garments chosen by the Midrash as a proof of Esau’s great respect for his father?

Of course, there is plenty of irony here. Jacob could not have tricked his father without Esau’s garments. And, the whole story is possible since Isaac’s eyesight is failing. None the less, Esau honors his father by wearing his finest robes…

3) Why is honoring of one’s parent considered such a powerful positive behavior?

True, there is such a commandment, and we are told that if we keep it we will be rewarded (or perhaps we shall say the out come will be) with a long life on our land. But what is it in the essence of such behavior that makes the rabbis put it on such a high level? (There is even a midrash that suggest that Jacob feared Esau’s merit when he returned after many years since Esau had been honoring their father, and Jacob had not.)

(ב) וישקהו נָקוּד עָלָיו; וְיֵשׁ חוֹלְקִין בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה בְּבָרַיְתָא דְּסִפְרֵי, יֵשׁ שֶׁדָּרְשׁוּ נְקֻדָּה זוּ, שֶׁלֹּא נְשָׁקוֹ בְּכָל לִבּוֹ, אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחָאִי, הֲלָכָה הִיא בְּיָדוּעַ שֶׁעֵשָׂו שׂוֹנֵא לְיַעֲקֹב, אֶלָּא שֶׁנִּכְמְרוּ רַחֲמָיו בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה וּנְשָׁקוֹ בְּכָל לִבּוֹ (ספרי במדבר):

(2) וישקהו AND HE KISSED HIM — Dots are placed above the letters of this word, and a difference of opinion is expressed in the Baraitha of Sifré (בהעלותך) as to what these dots are intended to suggest: some explain the dotting as meaning that he did not kiss him with his whole heart, whereas R Simeon the son of Johai said: Is it not well-known that Esau hated Jacob? But at that moment his pity was really aroused and he kissed him with his whole heart. (Sifrei Bamidbar 69.2)

1) Rashi is bringing, in a concise manner, the debate regarding the relationship of Esau and Jacob. What seems to be his conclusion?

2) Is R. Shimon b. Yochai speaking about 2 individuals named Esau and Jacob?

Already in biblical times 2 (rival) nations had grown out of these brothers. In its heydays Israel oppressed Edom, while Edom helped out with Israel’s destruction.

Of Interest: R. Shimon b. Yochai lived under the Roman rule in the land of Israel, and he was quite critical of the Romans. (The Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b, brings the story of his outspoken criticism of the Roman government and the Roman building projects. The Romans got wind of this and sought to kill him.) It is important to realize that Jews in the land of Israel in that period did not enjoy freedom of speech. To make it possible for them to speak out against the Roman decrees they had to name that nation a different name. The Roman Empire (and eventually Christianity) became known as Edom. When reading rabbinic material, one should read it on 2 levels: The Torah story about Jacob and Esau, and the national story of the historic conflict between Judaism and Rome/Christianity. (As for Rashi, remember that he lived through the first Crusade. He expresses his criticism of the Christian world very discreetly.)

*Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) was among the most influential leaders of modern Orthodoxy.

How does his commentary differ from the rabbinic midrash written about a millennium and a half earlier?

רש”ר הירש בר’ כה כז

המושיב את יעקב ועשו על ספסל לימודים אחד, ובאותם הרגלי החיים מחנך אותם כאחד לחיי לימוד ומחשבה – מובטח לו שאת האחד מהם הוא מקלקל. יעקב ישאב ממעיין החכמה בחפץ גובר והולך, ואילו עשו רק יצפה ליום בו ישליך מאחורי גבו את הספרים הישנים, ויחד אתם תעודת חיים גדולה, שהכיר אותה רק באופן חד-צדדי, ובדרך שמעצם טבעו הוא סולד בה. אילו העמיקו יצחק ורבקה לחדור לנפש עשו, אילו הקדימו לשאול את עצמם, היאך יכולים גם האומץ, הכוח והגמישות הרדומים בנפש עשו – היאך יכולים כל אלה להטות שכם לעבודת ה’, כי אז ‘הגיבור’ שלעתיד לא היה הופך ל’גיבור ציד’, אלא ל’גיבור לפני השם’ באמת.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Gen. 25:27

He who puts Jacob and Esau on the same school bench and educates them as one in the same habits to a life of learning and thought – is guaranteed that he is ruining one of them. Jacob will draw from the spring of wisdom with an ever increasing desire; but Esau will just wait for the day when he will throw the old books behind him and with them a great life that he only knew in a one-dimensional manner and that by his nature he despises. If Isaac and Rebecca had looked deeper into Esau’s soul, if they had asked themselves early on how could the courage, the strength and the agility that are latent in Esau’s soul – how could all these be shouldered to the worship of the Lord, for then the ‘hero’ of future would not have turned into a ‘mighty hunter’ but a real ‘mighty one before the Lord.’