Rabbi David Walk
Did you ever notice that at the beginning of many movies or shows there are certain characters who you expect to be villains? Then later in the performance you're disappointed if they turn out to be good? Shouldn't we root for everybody to be good guys? Well, we don't. I believe that, l'havdil (Let's differentiate between holy and profane.), we do a similar thing with Esav. Every year we look for ways to demonize this baby turned huntsman turned presumed bully. But to tell you the truth, the evidence against him is pretty thin. In every instance recorded in our text, we could concoct a plausible defense for his behavior. Of course, he sold his birthright. Wasn't he starving? Why wouldn't he be mad at Ya'akov after all he stole his blessing? And this week, he arrives to meet Ya'akov with 400 men. However, no threat is issued. Maybe this is how desert chieftains travel. He may have been full of himself, but that's only distasteful, not a crime. So, this week let's search for the smoking gun which will incriminate this character and explain our strong antipathy for our ancestral uncle.
In this week's episode of the Ya'akov-Esav saga, we expect the big showdown, the High Noon moment, if you will. But it doesn't materialize. There is anticipation of nasty Esav and his personal army of desert thugs ripping to shreds the encampment of Ya'akov. In fact he couldn't be more pleasant, even avuncular. Has Ya'akov appeased him with his gifts; disarmed with his deference? Maybe, but he's just nice. Our tradition even denigrates the effusive affection that he shows for his long absent brother. The verse says, 'And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept (Genesis 33:4).' However Rashi records the Midrashic tradition that our Sages debated if he kissed him sincerely or not. We twist every pleasantry into a controversy, because we want Esav to look the scoundrel.
But why? For many years I presented an answer based upon this verse: And Jacob gave Esau bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esau spurned the birthright (Genesis 25:34). Esav couldn't be the heir to our heritage because the way he ate and drank and behaved just wasn't in consonance with the value system of the Patriarchs. His behavior was constantly in survival mode rather than focused on a glorious destiny. His real denial of the birthright was his lack of concern for the future and the yet unborn generations. For Esav there was only the here and the now.
This year I'd like to amend that approach. The key to our antipathy for Esav was evident at his birth. Here's the scenario: And the first one emerged ruddy; he was completely like a coat of hair, and they named him Esau (verse 25). He came out of the womb a fully formed seemingly mature young man. Even his name Esav means 'fully formed.' 'What you see is what you get' basically became his motto. He wasn't really evil; he just wasn't connected to our world view. This fully formed reality shaped his thinking throughout his life. It begat self-reliance which encouraged a rugged individualism which didn't allow him to seek advice or listen to father and grandfather. Father was already impressed with Esav's prowess with bow and arrow. Esav felt like he could tell them a thing or two. I'm not convinced that this made him evil but it did make him unworthy of our patrimony.
The Shem M'shmuel goes one step further and says that the Gematria (numerical value of the letters) of Esav is 376, which is the same as that of shalom (peace; wholeness). Eisav was entirely at peace with himself. He did not and could not feel the discord that every normal human experiences, the realization that one is not perfect and must improve. This isn't what we want from our forefathers. Avraham had to grow and develop into the founder of our creed. Even Yitzchak knew he needed a helpmate. He couldn't recover from his mother death without the presence of Rivka. They understood that life is a journey. We are an eternal work in progress.
Ya'akov got it. This week his name is changed to Yisrael. Many have pointed out that Ya'akov means 'heel', while Yisrael contains the letters for rosh or head. Our lives must be a journey towards a better, loftier us. While Esav had the most debilitating of character defects: The inability to see or even consider that he had any flaws. How could he have a flaw? He was born perfect.
Please, forgive me for a small aside. I am so disappointed in many biographies of our Torah giants. They seem to follow the exact same pattern: perfect parents, ideal youth as a prodigy, wonderful marriage and many years as a revered leader and scholar. How unrealistic and also unappealing. Where's the tension, where's the reality? Thank God, our bible is so much better. Our great leaders became great through toil and strife and conflict. And their greatest conflicts were often with themselves. Who did Ya'akov wrestle with when he was all alone? Clearly, himself.
God proclaims, 'I fell in love with that youth Israel (Hosea 11:1).' The word for youth is na'ar, which comes from the root to shake (for Bond fans 'stirred'). God loves us because we are in constant motion, trying to improve, striving for excellence. When we observe the elderly, we have one of two reactions: sadness or inspiration. The difference? Some seniors look so very static, and that's sad. Others in their golden years continue to move and grow and improve, and that's inspiring. It's so wonderful to visit Israel and see that ancient land behave like the youngest of societies. Everything's up to date in Tel Aviv. We're the world's oldest surviving civilization, but we have a recipe for success. Bob Dylan taught it, because he was inspired by Ya'akov: May you build a ladder to the stars, And climb on every rung, May you stay forever young. Amen!