THE ESAV FACTOR
Rabbi David Walk
Esav gets a raw deal in Jewish tradition. Whatever he does is interpreted as evil and nefarious. He kisses Ya'akov, and the rabbis say he wanted to bite him (a la Bela Lugosi). He invites Ya'akov to visit his home, and we suppose he wants to corrupt his nephews. He offers gifts, and we accuse him of insincerity. Remember two readings ago, he was the one who was swindled, not once but twice. The Sages behave towards him like we treat politicians running for office. Always assume the worst. You know they're lying when their lips are moving. It really seems that he can do nothing right. Is this attitude a literary conceit, or is it really mandated by a careful reading of the text? To test out this situation I'm going to analyze one small incident and try to determine if the rabbis are being fair or overly critical of our ancestral uncle.
Let's set the scene. Towards the end of the reunion between Ya'akov and Esav after a separation of decades, Ya'akov is pressing Esav to accept the generous gift which he has offered. But Esav begs off claiming: I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours (Genesis 33:9). Ya'akov, on the other hand is adamant about his generosity, and declares: Please take this gift I have brought you, for God has been very gracious to me. I have everything (verse 11). Eventually Esav relents and accepts the present. This seemingly innocuous exchange is infused by our rabbis with great controversy. What did each party mean by their statements? The great medieval commentary Rashi follows the Midrash in explaining that Ya'akov's statement that he has everything means that he has all his bare (or bear for Jungle Book fans) necessities. Esav, however, spoke haughtily for when he said that he has plenty, he meant much more than he would ever need (Midrash Tanchuma). Is this really what they meant? I'm not sure that I see it in the words themselves. Maybe the rabbis are just picking on Esav.
By the way, Ya'akov's proclamation that he has everything (kol) has found its way into Jewish tradition as part of our Grace after Meals. We thank God for granting us blessings in everything, from everything and everything (ba-kol, mi-kol, kol). These three terms are used in various verses, one each for the three Patriarchs, describing their blessings from God.
The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 –1619) explains the theological ramification of Ya'akov and Esav's statements. When someone says that he has a lot, it does sound a bit like bragging because like many who have a lot, he wants more. However, when someone claims that they have everything it implies that they have no need for more, because that person already has all there is to possess. He then explains that an evil person with great wealth will often pray for more, even though this person has no need for it. I love the idea of evil people praying. I guess they don't make villains like they used to. I wish that I could get good people to daven. But the idea is that such a person who describes what he has as a lot is often ruled by the assets rather than the person controlling the wealth's influence over one's life. There is a suggestion of this at the end of verse nine, when Esav hints at the idea of what's mine is mine and what's yours and is yours. There is a suggestion of competitive greed in that statement. Sadly, our society often feeds into that sentiment that life is a race to see who can amass the most stuff.
One hundred and fifty years after the Kli Yakar, the Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (Rav Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar, 1696-1743) suggested a variant approach to this exchange. Esav is explaining in verse nine that he doesn't want the gift for two reasons. First, he says that I have so much I don't need your gift, and secondly, Esav calls Ya'akov a brother, because he's telling Ya'akov that the giving of this gift won't establish a brotherly love between us. Now Ya'akov responds by stating the word please (Hebrew: na) twice, once for each point made by Esav. Ya'akov makes clear that the gift isn't to reestablish a fraternal bond. The gift is proffered by an inferior to a superior: Then receive my gift. For I see your face as one sees the face of God. You have received me with favor (verse 10). The other point which Ya'akov makes is that Esav shouldn't be concerned about taking the gift, because Ya'akov has everything and will feel no loss if he receives the present. In this scenario there isn't any evil intent, but there's also no love lost.
I really think that Ya'akov is concerned with another issue in this exchange. Ya'akov is trying to undo the damage of his stealing the blessings from Yitzchak. In verse ten Ya'akov requests that Esav take his gift, but in verse eleven he begs that Esav take his blessings. I believe that the blessings he refers to are the stolen ones. The pilfered blessings were to rule over your brethren (27:29). Ya'akov is saying take back these blessings, and, please, be a political master over me. Ya'akov is displaying such subservience because Ya'akov really doesn't want this power. It's not in his nature. He's never been comfortable with the purloined blessings.
I think that we have some clarity concerning Ya'akov's interests, but what about Esav. I don't think that we know. Is the real Esav portrayed in chapter 27 when he harbors a grudge and plots fratricide? Or is it the gracious, avuncular Esav depicted here? We don't know. I'm not sure that our ancient Sages knew either. So, why do they paint such a dastardly picture of Esav? Because they were advising their followers to be wary of Esav's descendants, those with political power over us. We may never discover the true nature of the Biblical Esav, but the suggestion to be extremely cautious in our dealings with those who rule over us, is very good advice indeed.
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