Yaakov and Esav: Closeness and Alienation

Yonat Lemberger is the Principal of  Ulpanat Oriya

Yonat Lemberger

In our portion of Toldot, a relationship is forged – between Yaakov and Esav, between Israel and Edom; a relationship so complex, yet so fascinating.  Much like a suspense novel with twists and turns, our story is both sensational and sensual.  It is a story that holds true even now, and continues to shape our worldview till this day.

Esav’s character, as an idol worshipper and a killer, is well known.  The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 63, 8) says: 

“‘…ruddy all over…’ – Rabi Aba bar Kahana said: a murderer in his entirety…’And Esav came from the field, and he was faint’ – after having killed a man.  As is written in Jeremiah (4, 31): ‘…my soul is faint before the murderers.'”

Let me suggest another prism through which to view Esav.

The Torah commanded us – “You shall not hate your brother in your heart” (Vayikra 19, 17).  The Torah also instructed us – “Thou shall not abhor an Edomite for he is thy brother” (Devarim 23, 8).  Edom is Esav. 

Our Sages expanded on this idea:

“‘You are to pass through the borders of your brethren, the children of Esav’ (Devarim 2, 4) – ‘your brethren’ – these are the sons of Esav.  Despite the fact that they are the sons of Esav, they are still your brethren!  As is written: ‘Your brethren that hate you have said’ (Isaiah 66, 5) – although they hate you, they are still your brethren!  The same idea is expressed in the following verse: ‘For the violence done to your brother Yaakov’ (Ovadiah 1, 10) – although he spills your blood and robs you, he is still your brother.”  (Devarim Rabbah, Otzar HaMidrash, Devarim 2, 4)

A brother who murders? What kind of relationship is this?

Let’s revert to the beginning of the story.  Rivka is barren.  God hearkens to Yitzhak’s prayers.  Rivka conceives and “behold, there were twins in her womb”.  This Gordian Knot between Yaakov and Esav is described in a very picturesque manner as early on as Rivka’s pregnancy. 

The twins in Rivka’s womb were both the fruits of Yitzhak’s prayers.  Can there be greater closeness than this?  However, right from the outset, the Torah dampens any hope for an idyllic existence and optimism.

“And the children struggled within her” – the Hebrew word, va’yitrotzatzu [they struggled], conveys discomfort, dispute and even the desire to be set free.  But all of this happens “within her”, the struggle is confined to a limited space, from which the twins cannot break away.  They hold onto each other inside their mother’s womb, and they don’t let go even when they emerge – Yaakov’s hand “had hold on Esav’s heel”, and this very heel will be etched into the younger brother’s name – “And he was called Yaakov [from the Hebrew word akev = heel].

The Midrash foresaw the grim future, the struggles and clashes that would go on for generations yet:

“‘And the children struggled’ – Rabi Yochanan said, both run to kill each other.  Reish Lakish says, both violate that which the other deems important.” (Bereshit Rabbah, 63, 6).

The call or code which guides the conduct of any nation, or by which its identity is defined, is usually determined by the conflicts and clashes with the competing nation.  The strife described here is expected to impact the way in which the identity of the sons of Yaakov and the people of Esav are ultimately shaped.

Furthermore, God’s words to Rivka do not reflect a real separation or detachment:

“And the Lord said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.”

This verse, too, depicts the complexity of the relationship between Esav and Yaakov: two distinct nations that will “become separated” the minute they leave the womb.  However, the separation is not a complete one, as the Torah immediately adds “and the elder shall serve the younger.”  They will always be connected.  They might be different nations, but tied to each other nonetheless.

After God’s words to Rivka, the Torah emphasizes the following fact – “and behold there were twins in her womb.”  The Hebrew word for twins is written with one letter missing – tomim – instead of te’omim, and the exegetes saw this as an expression of the separateness within the closeness.  The Netziv writes as follows: “It is written tomim and not te’omim to teach us that it was not as she [Rivka] had thought – that the distinction between them will only be visible upon birth, but in her womb they are like one; rather, even inside the womb they were already tomim – the incomplete word, missing the letter alef – to show us how disconnected they were one from the other.”

Twins yet distinct; joined yet separate.  One might call it a hybrid reality of sorts: detachment and attachment existing concurrently. 

The Torah speaks equivocally in other matters concerning Esav and Yaakov: Each of the brothers shaped his own identity.  Yaakov is “a quiet man dwelling in tents” while Esav is “a cunning hunter, a man of the field.”  The Torah describes explicitly the parents’ attitude to both:  “And Yitzhak loved Esav because he ate of his venison; and Rivka loved Yaakov.” 

Our Sages maintained that Esav’s predetermined fate, while still in his mother’s womb, would be that of an idol worshipper and murderer.  Interestingly, his father never viewed him as such.

Rather confusing.

The ambivalent attitude towards Yaakov and Esav can also be found in the story of Esav’s selling his birthright to Yaakov.  We will not elaborate on this matter, but the question remains: Who is ultimately considered the firstborn?  Furthermore, how is being the firstborn significant?  Is it a mere technicality, nothing more than a description of who emerged first from the womb?  Or perhaps it is a legal status that is even tradable; or a social/family rank that can be passed on?

Let’s revert for a moment to Yitzhak’s love for Esav.  The Torah describes this love as a profound one, which leads Yitzhak to believing that Esav is the son most deserving of the Blessing of Avraham; Esav is the son that will continue the family line.  This can be clearly seen from the way Yitzhak reacts to the trickery used by Yaakov to obtain the blessing. It is quite obvious that Yitzhak’s decision to give the blessing to Esav was not arbitrary, but based on principle.  Yitzhak is hardly amused when he realizes he had been deceived: “And Yitzhak trembled very exceedingly, and said: Who then is he that has taken venison, and brought it me, and I have eaten of all before you came, and have blessed him? Indeed, he shall be blessed.”

And Esav’s response is likewise solemn: “When Esav heard the words of his father, he cried with an exceeding great and bitter cry, and said unto his father: Bless me, even me also, O my father.  And he said: Thy brother came with guile, and has taken away thy blessing.  And he said: Is not he rightly named Yaakov? For he has supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he has taken away my blessing. And he said: Have you not reserved a blessing for me?”

Much like when the birthright was sold, in this matter of the blessing, we are once again left with questions.  Indeed, Yitzhak blessed Yaakov with the Blessing of Avraham.  However, when he gave
the blessing, he was sure he was giving it to Esav, and his intentions were directed to the latter.  In such a situation, who is, in fact, the son who is blessed?  Who is the ultimate receiver of the blessing – the person standing before the one who bestows the blessing, or is it the person to whom the blesser’s intention was directed?

Prima facie, the Torah seems to give a clear-cut answer: Yaakov is the blessed son.  However, it is no coincidence that the Torah creates struggles and complications when depicting the relationship between the two brothers, the latter’s relations with their parents as well as that of the two nations-to-be.  Consequently, we are left with a bitter-sweet blessing. 

This once again takes us back to the words of God to Rivka during her pregnancy:  “Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.” The various exegetes, much like our Sages, are not decisive as to who shall serve whom, who is the master and who is the servant.  According to the Midrash, the Torah is deliberately ambiguous:

“God uses an ambiguous formulation deliberately.  If He had wished to clearly say that the elder shall be a slave to the younger, He would have used the Hebrew formulation verav ya’avod la’tza’ir, and had He wished to say unequivocally that the younger shall be slave to the elder, He would have said – verav ya’avod ba’tzair.  But the Torah’s formulation, leaves the meaning equivocal – each of the parties may serve the other, depending on the times.”  (Ha’amek Davar on Bereshit 25, 23)

The two nations will never become truly separated.  The connection between them is perpetual and, according to the Midrash, it is hardly clear who is superior and who is inferior; who is the head and who is the tail – it all depends on the times.

Yaakov’s conduct, as well as that of his mother Rivka, remains disputed.  After receiving the blessing, Yaakov is forced to flee to Charan, and remain in exile for many years, falling victim to recurring acts of manipulation and trickery, even on the part of his own children. 

The blessing attained using slyness; the purchase of the birthright; the Torah’s emphasis on Yitzhak’s love for Esav – all of the above present the Torah’s complex position on Esav himself, on the relationship between Yaakov and Esav and, later on, the relationship between the Israelites and the Edomites.  One might even say that the dichotomy between these two nations is intentionally blurred. 

In the first chapter of his book titled Two Nations in Your Womb, Israel Yuval identifies the differences between Yaakov and Esav as originating in their parents:

Yitzhak was a man of the field: “And Yitzhak went out to meditate in the field at eventide.”

The first encounter with Rivka took place in the field.

When Rivka sees Yitzhak for the first time, it is written of her: “And she took her veil and covered herself.”  The veil is much like the covering of the tent, as is written immediately afterwards:  “And the servant told Yitzhak all the things he had done.  And Yitzhak brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah.”  Rivka is brought into the tent, and is concealed within, while Yitzhak is a man of the field. 

Same holds true for their sons:  “And Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.” 

Hence, it is clear why “And Yitzhak loved Esav (because he ate of his venison); and Rivka loved Yaakov.”

Yitzhak’s love for Esav and Rivka’s love for Yaakov is not whimsical.  The love of both was profound because it reflected their values and worldview. 

Yitzhak the farmer, the man of the field, sees his son Esav, a man of the field himself, as his successor.  Rivka, who is hidden in her tent, loves her son Yaakov, “the dweller of tents”, and views him as the successor.

Esav is the son of Yitzhak:  “And it came to pass, that when Yitzhak was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esav his elder son, and said unto him: My son; and he said unto him: Here am I.”  Yaakov is Rivka’s son: “And Rivka spoke unto Yaakov her son, saying: Behold, I heard thy father speak unto your brother…”

But ultimately, the separation between the two brothers, Yaakov and Esav, is not so extreme and final; they remain connected, tied in a Gordian Knot that cannot be untied.  Furthermore, Esav’s world cannot be looked upon as being all-bad.  After all, Esav’s core traits, as a man of the field, are rooted deeply in Yitzhak.  Esav is Yitzhak’s beloved son.  This is not a superficial love; rather, a love that penetrates the very essence of Esav’s soul.

The intricate relationship between the two brothers is further manifested during their encounter upon Yaakov’s return from Charan, after many years in exile.  This is how the Torah describes the crux of this meeting:

” And Esav ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.”

On the above verse, the Midrash says as follows: “Rabi Shimon bar Yochai says: It is a known fact that Esav hates Yaakov, why then did he kiss him?  Because at that moment, his [Esav’s] heart was filled with compassion and he kissed him [Yaakov] with his whole heart.” (Sifre on Beha’alotcha, 69)

The Midrash on the portion of VaYishlach says thus: “The word vayishakeihu [and he kissed him] has punctuation markings above it.  Rabi Shimon ben Elazar explained it thus: This teaches us that his heart was filled with compassion at that moment, and he kissed him with his whole heart.  Rabi Yanai responded and said:  If this be so, why do we need special markings [above the word]?  The reason must be that he did not really intend to kiss him, but approached in order to bite him.  However, Yaakov’s neck turned into marble and Esav’s teeth broke.  Why then is it written ‘And they wept’?  One [Yaakov] wept for his neck; Esav [wept] for his teeth.”  (Bereshit Rabbah, 78, 9)

Our Sages deliberate on this sibling relationship, focusing especially on Esav’s attitude to Yaakov and what this might teach us about Esav’s personality.  Who then is Esav?  What is his true nature?  One thing is clear – the Torah depicts a warm and loving encounter between the two: ” And Esav ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.”  But immediately following this description, we are told of a cautious separation: “And Esav returned that day on his way to Seir… and Yaakov journeyed to Sukkot…”

This encounter comes to a close with the extraordinary words uttered by Yaakov: 

“Nay, I pray thee, if now I have found favor in thy sight, then receive my present at my hand; forasmuch as I have seen thy face, as one sees the face of God, and you were pleased with me.”

Yaakov says to Esav that looking at his face – the face of a hunter and idol worshipper – is like “one who sees the face of God“.

The Talmud (tractate of Sotah 41) and various Torah exegetes (like Rashi) discuss this exceptional verse and try to tone it down by saying that these are either words of flattery uttered in fear, or else they are a threat.  Be it as it may, these words were uttered.  Yaakov could have chosen less powerful words, be they flattery or threat.  This could only mean that the words Yaakov chose to describe his experience when looking into Esav’s face are meaningful, if only for the fact that they were uttered by Yaakov. 

Esav, the twin brother who sold his birthright and went on to lose his blessing, never lived to see Yitzhak’s sincere love for him truly materialize.
  Esav, the murderer, the idol worshipper, is nonetheless – a brother.  “Although he spills your blood and robs you – he is still your brother.” (ibid.)

The brothers struggled within their mother’s womb, and this strife will forever lie heavy on the two nations, walking side-by-side along the path of history, jointly and separately. 

Shabbat Shalom!


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