Parashat Toldot: An anti-hero or a hero against his will?
The Esau of the Bible undergoes a change of image. He is portrayed differently in the biblical text than in rabbinical texts. His character is furthered transformed in Hebrew poetry.
Yonat Lemberger is the principal of OTS’ Oriya High School for Girls.
Esau is the antihero of Parashat Toldot. He is a begrudging antihero; after he decided to sell his birthright, the blessings meant for him were stolen by his brother, Jacob. Esau expressed his frustration with painstaking precision: “Was he, then, named Jacob that he might supplant me these two times? First he took away my birthright and now he has taken away my blessing!” (Genesis 27:36). Esau wasn’t just an anti-hero toward himself. In effect, he was Jacob’s “empty space”. He was the opposite of everything Jacob received. These decisions would stand for generations.
Esau isn’t the one who shapes his own character. Instead, external forces guide him. He is denied the ability to control his own destiny, either because he had renounced his birthright for a pot of lentils, or because his mother, Rebecca, kept him from receiving this right.
Astonishingly, something else has sealed fates: food! The blood-red stew took away a birthright, while food brought to Isaac became the reason the blessings were given. Esau was hungry (“… give me some to gulp down”), and Jacob wants to eat (“…and go out into the open and hunt me some game.”), as we read in Genesis 57:3. Food is described as a carnal need, rather than a spiritual substance.
Esau, the hunter, is tied to Isaac’s blindness, while the mild Jacob is connected to Rebecca’s wisdom. Esau doesn’t have control over his own destiny. Even back when Rebecca was still pregnant, we read the “the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Esau is a son who honors his father and toils in the field to bring him fresh game. He avoided marrying a Canaanite woman, and married Mahlat, the daughter of Ishmael, instead.
Esau, the “Twisted Hero” in rabbinical midrashim and exegesis
According to our sages, Esau is depicted as a despicable and shunned individual. Esau’s negative image had taken hold even as an unborn fetus, when he and his brother, Jacob, were in their mother’s womb. The Torah gives us a neutral description of the struggle between the two boys: “… but the children struggled in her womb…” (Genesis 25:22).
Bereishit Rabbah (63:6) comments that “when she [Rebecca] passed by houses of idol worship, Esau wanted to come out, but when she passed by synagogues and study halls, Jacob wanted to come out.” In other words, Esau is portrayed as an idol worshiper even while his mother was still pregnant with him.
The Torah describes Esau as “a proficient hunter” (Genesis 25:27). Our sages interpret this verse in a different context, which Rashi quotes in his own commentary:
[one who knew] how to entrap and deceive his father with his mouth.
He entrapped his fellow men with their mouths
Hunting, which is described in the biblical text as a profession, is likened to deception by our rabbis.
In that context, Midrash Tanhuma (Toldot chapter 8) states: “He ensnared the righteous Isaac with his mouth … you find that Esau committed every sin which the Holy One, blessed be He, detests.”
The Midrash continues describing how Esau ensnared his father:
Whenever Esau entered the house, he would ask his father: ‘My father, is one obliged to tithe for salt?’ Isaac would exclaim in amazement: ‘Observe, how scrupulous this son of mine is concerning the commandments!’ And when his father would ask him: “Where were you today, my son?” “At the house of study,” the youth would reply and he would add: “Is this not the law under certain circumstances; are not these things prohibited and these permitted?” By such remarks, he entrapped his father with his mouth. That is why he loved him.
The biblical text even associates Isaac’s blindness with Isaac:
Why did Isaac’s eyes become weak? They became weak because he beheld the countenance of the wicked Esau; also because he ate the venison he brought him, as it is said: For the gift blinded them that hath sight. (Midrash Tanchuma, ibid.).
The Midrash ties the fact that the divine presence left Isaac with Isaac’s wives:
Though the Shekhinah hovered over Isaac’s home, Esau had married Canaanite women who sacrificed and burned incense before idols. The Shekhinah, thereupon, departed from Isaac’s home. When Isaac beheld what was transpiring within his home, he was sorely distressed. And so the Holy One, blessed be He, said (to Himself): I will dim his sight so that he may no longer see what is transpiring and become even more disturbed. Therefore, his eyes were dim. (Midrash Tanhuma, ibid.).
The Midrash even states that Abraham never “merited” to meet Esau, and this was to spare him the heartache:
The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: ‘thus have I promised Abraham, I said to him “and you shall lay with your ancestors blissfully, at a ripe old age, and [lest he should] see the son of his son murder, perform idol-worship, and commit incest, better that he expire peacefully.(Bereishit Rabbah, 63:12).
Yet Esau has one positive character trait that our rabbis laud him for: he honored his father.
R. Nahonya said, in the name of R. Tanhum Bar Yodan: who did more to honor [another] than Jacob in this world? It was a great honor that Esau honored his father… he said [that his father] was deserving [of wearing princely attire]. (Pesikta Rabati, Ch. 23).
Esau is described as the ultimate villain. Someone who transgressed the very commandments which we are supposed to give up our lives for, rather than transgress. It is this nature of Esau that our rabbis wanted to portray and etch in our consciousness.
New Hebrew poetry, from anti-hero to hero
Haim Guri describes Esau as an anti-hero as well, “not so wise, and a bit slow to catch on”, but he also explains that the source of Esau’s power is in the “stones and metals”. Moreover, in his poem, “The Smell of the Field”, he portrays Esau as someone who was deceived, as a powerful person.
Esau, Esau, open and warmer than usual.
You go down the basalt road to the broad fields.
The smell of the field, and the sweat, and the smoke.
Not so wise, and not so holy, and a bit slow to catch on.
And there’s a certain sadness in you, and real power, Esau.
Maybe it comes from the dirt, and the stones, and the metals.
But when you’re needed, when others call for you, you are there.
The description of Esau’s character in Haim Guri’s poem is much more reminiscent to the biblical description. The dirt and the soil are imbued with power, and the smell of the field is a real smell, unlike Esau’s smell, which is fake.
Yehudit Kafri is rather empathetic toward Esau in her poem, “Esau”, “and the entire world is weeping with him”. Here, Kafri describes Esau as having been betrayed by his mother, and she also connects the “edges of the field”.
“And Rebecca loved Jacob,” it is written.
“And Rebecca said to Jacob her son,” it is written.
And what about Esau?
Sometimes, I hear his cry, so loud, so bitter, rising up from every corner of the field where he ran after the deer and tried to forget… And after many years and much love I see him Coming to meet his brother.
I have enough, brother,” he says, and weeps. And all the world weeps with him.
In his poem, “Esau, My Son, My Might and the First Sign of My Strength”, Eli Alon compensates Esau. He is described by Isaac as “my son, the love of my soul.” He also relates to the value of the land.
“And the land shall be for you.”
Esau, my son, my might and the first sign of my strength, we both know that Jacob is the one who will be given that blessing.
He belongs to the domain of blessings: smooth, shrewd, easily shape-shifting like a cloud.
In Hebrew poetry, the soil is described as the very source of Esau’s power. The smell of the field and the soil express an authentic idea. Esau’s description in Hebrew poetry more closely resembles the biblical description, taking a stand beside Esau, the one who was deceived. Perhaps we can understand this against the backdrop of Jewish settlement in Israel, the value of tilling the fields, and the fact that Esau, himself, was a man of the field.