Rabbi David Walk
This is a hard parsha. Please, forgive me, but when I read this Torah reading, I can't help but imagine what a movie of this episode would look like if directed by Quentin Tarantino. And then I have nightmares. If I have a reader out there who doesn't know who that is: Bless you, my child. And don't go check! The images in our parsha are disturbing. Ya'akov is in dread of his reunion with his brother. He appears to be in the process of fleeing the scene when he encounters his night protagonist. Who is that masked man? Later we have a rape and a massacre and a tragic death while giving birth. That last vignette is almost Shakespearean in its drama and death scene conversation. But the incident which most haunts me is the reunion of Ya'akov and Esav. We are moved by the hugs and tears, and at the end of the encounter they discuss reuniting as a family. Esav will go ahead with his army of adults, and Ya'akov with his brood and flocks will follow along later, at their own pace. This seems like Ya'akov the deceiver of previous parshiyot has become the ish emet (man of integrity) of our tradition. But it never happens. Immediately after assuring big brother that he'll be along shortly, he goes off in another direction. Did he ever intend to visit Esav? Was there any reconciliation? Esav seems so gracious; Ya'akov, again, so sneaky.
I'd like to present two approaches to resolving this problem. One is an introduction to our parsha; the other a post script. Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) is one of my favorite commentaries. A wise friend of mine once said that he is the most important commentary not included in the traditional texts (Mikraot G'dolot). He wrote a prologue to every Torah reading based upon a verse in Proverbs. This week his text is: Like a muddied spring and a polluted well, so is a righteous person who gives way before the wicked (Proverbs 25:26). Clearly, we are to understand that Ya'akov is the water, the precious source of life and its sustenance, while Esav is, well, the pollutant. The point which Rabbeinu Bechaye takes from King Solomon is that Ya'akov can't go settle near Esav. That situation would lead to the destruction of the Avrahamic Revolution. There's a lot to be assimilated here, but the bottom line is that when our children are involved, we must maintain as much control over the environment as possible. Therefore, when Esav offers to travel the route side by side, Ya'akov says, 'My master knows that the children are tender, and the flocks and the cattle, which are raising their young, depend upon me, and if they overdrive them one day, all the flocks will die. Now, let my master go ahead before his servant, and I will move at my own slow pace, according to the pace of the work that is before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my master, to Seir (Genesis 33:13-14). Ya'akov is lying, again. This first attempt to understand this exchange is that Ya'akov was trying to be straight and sincere with his brother, but he's not willing to risk his family and future to keep his word to Esav. Because Esav's home would be toxic for this tender community, he'd prefer to deceive him, again. Esav travels to his wild destination of Seir; Ya'akov journeys to the gentle shade of Sukkot (verse 17).
So, the first answer is that, indeed, Ya'akov, even after he's become Yisrael, must revert to his deceitful ways to protect himself from the dangers which Esav represents. That's why, throughout this encounter, our Patriarch is referred to as Ya'akov. Don't we all revert to childhood behavior when challenged by close family? It's embarrassing, but I often hear my adolescent voice speaking when I address my sister. I may be a rabbi and educator to many, but to my sister I'm still the little brother, who has flaws and faults.
However, our parsha also has a postscript and it's called the Haftora. Our Sages arranged these readings from the prophets to enhance our experience of the weekly Torah readings, and this one definitely does the job. We read the entire book of Ovadiah (it's only one chapter!), and it tells us the end of our parsha's story. Here's how Rabbi Abahu in the Midrash explains Ya'akov's statement that he will shortly follow Esav to his home in Seir: I have reviewed all of the Torah and have not found written anywhere that Yaakov ever went to Esav at Har Se'ir. Could the honest Yaakov have been lying when he said this? No, rather he indeed meant that he would come to him – in the Messianic Age, as it is written, 'and the deliverers shall ascend Har Tzion to judge the mountain of Esav' (Ovadiah 1:21, Bereishit Rabba, 78). According to this interpretation, Ya'akov isn't lying. He's explaining that his fragile family can only arrive at the wilds of Seir when it is safe to confront that community, and that will only be possible after his descendants have established control over the Temple Mount. We're still waiting.
How does Ovadiah know that Esav and his descendant would be untrustworthy and, actually, encourage Israel's enemies? According to Rebbe Meir (Sanhedrin 39b), Ovadiah himself was an Edomite who converted to Judaism. He experienced firsthand the intensity of that brother's hatred.
We hope and pray for a reconciliation between the descendants of the twins, and, indeed, of all those who claim descent from Abraham and his covenant. But in the interim the warning of Rabbeinu Bechaye is very important. We must make overtures to those who profess loyalty to ethical monotheism, but keep our own spiritual sources of inspiration pure and unadulterated. I remember when the Roman Catholic Church made overtures to the Jewish community during Vatican II, Rabbi Soloveitchik was very skeptical of their motives. I think that it's time to have contact with the descendants of Esav and Yishmael, but with vigilance for our Torah and tradition.