Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4 – 36:43)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)
Years ago, a college classmate provocatively announced that he planned to name his first son “after the most maligned figure in the entire Torah: Esau.”
Let’s consider Esau’s defense. After we are introduced to Esau as Isaac’s favorite son since ‘the hunt was in his [Isaac’s] mouth’ (Genesis 30:28), we are immediately taken to the fateful scene where Jacob is cooking lentil soup when Esau came home exhausted from the hunt. The hungry hunter asks for some food, but Jacob will only agree to give his brother food in exchange for the birthright. Who is taking advantage of whom? Is not a cunning Jacob taking advantage of an innocent Esau?
Then there is the more troubling question of the stolen blessing. Even without going into the details of how Jacob pretends to be someone he’s not, Esau emerges as an honest figure deserving of our sympathy. After all, Esau’s desire to personally carry out his father’s will meant that he needed a long time to prepare the meat himself. Indeed, it was Esau’s diligence in tending to his father that allowed enough time to pass to make it possible for his younger brother to get to Isaac’s tent first. Surely, Rebecca must have realized the profound nature of Esau’s commitment to his father, for she masterminded Jacob’s plan.
On his return from the field, Esau realizes that Jacob has already received the blessing originally meant for him. His response cannot fail to touch the reader; poignantly, Esau begs of his father, ‘Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept” (Genesis 27:38).
But it is the beginning of Vayishlach that clinches our pro-Esau case. Jacob finally returns to his ancestral home after an absence of twenty years. Understandably, Jacob is terrified of his brother’s potential reaction, and so in preparation, Jacob sends messengers ahead with exact instructions as to how to address Esau. Informed of the impending approach of Esau’s army of four hundred men, he divides his household into two camps, so that he’s prepared for the worst. But what actually happens defies Jacob’s expectations: Esau is overjoyed and thrilled to see him. The past is the past. ‘And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept’ (Genesis 33:4).
The defense rests. Thus described, Esau hardly seems worthy of the oﬃcial censure of Jewish history as the personification of the anti-Jew. In fact, my college friend had good reason to name his son after Esau.
So, why are our Sages so critical of him? I would suggest our analysis so far overlooks something central in Esau’s character. Yes, there are positive characteristics of Esau to be found in many Jews across the Diaspora. Many are aggressive, self-made people who weep when they meet a long-lost Jewish brother from Ethiopia or Russia. They have respect for their parents and grandparents, tending to their physical needs and even reciting – or hiring someone to recite – the traditional mourner’s Kaddish for a full year after their death. Financial support and solidarity missions to the State of Israel, combined with their vocal commitment to Jewry and Israel, reflect a highly developed sense of Abrahamic (Jewish) identity, just like Esau seems to have. Esau feels Abrahamic identity with every fiber of his being.
But when it comes to commitment to Abrahamic (Jewish) continuity, a willingness to secure a Jewish future, many of our Jewish siblings are found to be wanting – just like Esau. Undoubtedly, one of the most important factors in keeping us ‘a people apart’ and preventing total Jewish assimilation into the majority culture, has been our unique laws of kashrut. Refusing to break bread with our non-Jewish work colleagues and neighbors has imposed a certain social distance that has been crucial for maintaining our identity. But Esau is willing to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Hasn’t the road to modern Jewry’s assimilation been paved with the T-bone steaks and the lobsters that tease the tongues lacking the self-discipline to say no to a tasty dish? Like Esau, the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry has sold its birthright for a cheeseburger.
Esau’s name means fully-made, complete. He exists in the present tense. He has no commitment to past or future. He wants the freedom of the hunt and the ability to follow the scent wherever it takes him. He is emotional about his identity, but he is not willing to make sacrifices for its continuity. Primarily, it is on the surface, as an external cloak that is only skin-deep. That’s why it doesn’t take more than a skin-covering for Jacob to enter his father’s tent and take on the character of Esau. Indeed, Esau is even called Edom, red, after the external color of the lentil soup. Esau has no depth; he is Mr. Superficial!
And what’s true for a bowl of soup is true for his choice of wives. Esau marries Hittite women. And that causes his parents to feel a ‘bitterness of spirit’ (Genesis 27:35). No wonder! The decision of many modern Jews to ‘marry out’ has reached an American average of 62%! The ‘bitterness of spirit’ continues to be felt in many families throughout the Diaspora. Even those who marry out and continue to profess a strong Jewish identity cannot commit to Jewish continuity. Perhaps Esau even mouthed the argument I’ve heard from those I’ve tried to dissuade from marrying out. ‘But she has a Jewish name! She even looks Jewish!’ He may have said, ‘Her name is Yehudit [literally meaning a Jewess; from Judah]; she has a wonderful fragrance [Basmat means perfume]’ (Genesis 26:34). But once again, Esau only looks at externals!