Vayishlach: Esau's Love

Is it real love or something else?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

“[Jacob] said to [Esau]: ‘My lord knows that the children are tender, and the flock and the herd are suckling. If they will be driven hard for one day, all the flocks will die. So let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will make my slow way at the walking pace of the herd before me and the pace of the children, until I will come to my lord, to Seir’. And Esau said: ‘Please – I will present to you part of the people who are with me’. And he said: ‘Why is this? Let me find favour in my lord’s eyes’. So Esau returned on his way to Seir that day, and Jacob travelled to Succoth” (Genesis 33:13-17).

Two aspects of Jacob’s behaviour here seem puzzling. Firstly, after not seeing his brother for over twenty years, he was terrified at the encounter. He made every preparation to protect himself and his family from Esau’s murderous fury – so when Esau seemed to have completely forgiven Jacob’s “usurpation” of his birthright and blessing and welcomed his twin brother back home with hugs and kisses (Genesis 33:4), why did Jacob reject his reconciliation?

Secondly, Jacob’s overriding characteristic was truth (“Grant truth to Jacob, loving-kindness to Abraham, which is what You swore to our fathers in ancient days” – Micah 7:20); so why did Jacob lie to his brother here, promising to meet him in Seir?

Jacob was returning from Paddan Aram, hundreds of miles to the north; he encountered Esau while he was passing southwards through the vicinity of the River Jabbok (Genesis 32:23) on the east bank of the River Jordan, about 60 km (36 miles) south of the Kinneret.

Seir is some 200 km (125 miles) south and slightly east of the River Jabbok in southern trans-Jordanian Israel (the region currently occupied by the Kingdom of Jordan). While “Esau settled in Mount Seir” (Genesis 36:80), Jacob headed just a few kilometres south to Succoth (Genesis 33:17) where he dwelt for a year and a half (Megillah 17a, Bereishit Rabbah 78:16), then moved to Shechem (Genesis 33:18) about 30 km (19 miles) west and slightly north of the Jabbok, then southwards from there to Beit El (35:1-7), and finally southwards via Ephrath and Beth Lehem to Hevron, there to be reunited with his father Isaac (35:16-27).

When he finally left Hevron, decades later, it was to go down to Egypt to escape the famine and to join his son Joseph who was viceroy of Egypt. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 25a) makes it clear that though Jacob told his brother Esau that he would meet him in Seir, he never intended to go to there.

So why the apparent subterfuge?

In fact, Jacob was speaking absolute truth when he told Esau that “I will come to my lord, to Seir”. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 78:14 and Sechel Tov, Vayishlach 14) quotes Rabbi Abahu: “We can search the entire Tanach, and we will never find that Jacob our father went to Esau in Mount Seir throughout his life… When, then, will he come to come to him? – In the future time, which is the meaning of ‘Saviours will ascend Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau’ (Obadiah 1:21)”.

The Midrash Lekach Tov adds a few details: “‘Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant’ – this refers to temporal authority in this world; but in the World to Come, Israel will lead. [Esau] said to [Jacob]: Are you not afraid of being subjugated to other kingdoms? He replied: ‘I will make my slow way’ – I will go le-honi le-honi [either “with my possessions”, or “at my natural pace”, or “with my health and sanity intact”], slowly and calmly…‘until I will come to my lord, to Seir’. But he has not yet gone there! When will he ever go to Seir? – In the future time, as it is written ‘Saviours will ascend Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau’ (Obadiah 1:21)”.

Yes, Jacob was telling Esau the truth when he told him that he would one day meet him – indeed, confront him – in Mount Seir. Not in his physical lifetime – but one day, Israel will yet confront Esau in Mount Seir.

Abram, Sarai, and Jacob all earned new names for themselves: Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah – they both merited the extra letter heh, representing HaShem. Jacob became Israel by his courage and determination. Esau, too, earned a new name for himself: Edom, related to adom, red, because of his blood-lust (Genesis 25:30).

Esau – Edom – evolved into the nation of Rome – the nation which would destroy the Second Temple. The subjugation and exile which began with Rome has lasted until today.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the final letters of the phrase avo el adoni se’ira (“I will come to my lord, to Seir “) spell the word eleiha (“to it”), and the gematria of the word avo (“I will come”) is four: “This is a veiled reference that after the four exiles [Egypt, Greece, Babylon/Persia, and Rome], they [Israel] will come to it [Mount Seir], ‘before the coming of the great and awesome Day of HaShem’ (Malachi 3:23), and then ‘Saviours will ascend Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau’ (Obadiah 1:21)”.

The Haftarah for Parashat Vayishlach is the entire Book of Obadiah – the shortest Book of the entire Tanakh, with just one chapter, 21 verses, 291 words, and 1,120 letters. “Obadiah was an Edomite convert, who prophesied against Edom that ‘there will be no surviving remnant of the House of Esau’ (Obadiah 1:18)” (Vayikra Rabbah 18:2). And as the Talmud expresses it, “Obadiah was an Edomite convert, which is why people say: The axe-handle that fells the forest comes from the forest” (Sanhedrin 39b).

Indeed, the subject of the Book of Obadiah is the prophecy of Edom’s downfall, how “though you arise like the eagle, and even if you place your nest among the stars, from there I will bring you down, says HaShem” (Obadiah 1:4). Edom’s – Esau’s – downfall will be the final conflict before the ultimate redemption of Israel, which is what the prophet means with his closing words, “Saviours will ascend Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau – and then the Kingship will be Hashem’s” (Obadiah 1:21).

At the beginning of our Parashah, when Jacob sent the angels ahead of him, the message he sent with them to Esau was, “Thus said your servant Jacob: I have dwelt with Lavan, and I have delayed until now” (Genesis 32:5). The Midrash ha-Gadol interprets the word garti (“I have dwelt”) to imply that Jacob observed all the taryag (613) Mitzvot even despite the corrupting influence of Aram and Lavan (garti being an anagram of taryag).

Based on this, the Ba’al ha-Turim sees a coded message in Jacob’s message to his brother: “If you want to claim that you too kept the Mitzvot, then come and fight against me. ‘And I have delayed until now’ – that is to say, I must delay until atah [‘now’, spelt ayin-tav-heh]: ayin [numerical value 70] – the 70 years of Babylonian exile; tav [numerical value 400] – the 400 years of Egyptian exile; and heh [numerical value 5] – 5,000 years. But when the sixth millennium, which is the time of Mashiach, will come, then ‘Saviours will ascend Mount Zion, to judge Mount Esau’ (Obadiah 1:21)”.

We are today on the threshold of the sixth millennium, the time beyond which Mashiach and Israel’s final redemption cannot be delayed. Israel can delay no longer, and the final conflict between Israel and Esau is not far off. We are both heading swiftly towards our long-awaited final confrontation on Mount Seir, the Mountain of Esau.

When Israel and Esau met all those long centuries ago, “Esau ran towards him, and hugged him, and fell upon his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). In every Torah-scroll, there is a dot above each of the six letters of the word vayishakehu (“and kissed him”). Dots above letters (which happens several times throughout the Torah) are always there to call our attention to something unusual, and in this case those dots are ambiguous: according to some, they denote that Esau’s kiss was insincere; according to others, they denote that despite Esau’s usual hatred for his brother, on this one occasion his kiss was pure and wholehearted and genuine (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 34; Sifrei Bamidbar, Beha’alotkha 69).

The question is as yet unresolved: did Esau kiss his brother Israel with genuine love or not? Esau – Edom – evolved into Rome, the Roman Empire, which in time evolved into western civilisation. We have all experienced the kisses which western civilisation showers upon us, from the most patently insincere to the most genuine love.

In recent decades some of the most vicious Jew-haters have explained that their murderous hatred of Israel is really love – a passionate desire to “save the Jews from Zionism” in the words of Jim Allen, who wrote a truly evil Israel-bashing play called “Perdition” (a distortion of Ben Hecht’s Perfidy).

And we know only too well the “love” of our “friends” who hate the idea of Jews living in most of Israel, lovers of Israel who express their love by forcing Israel to withdraw from our historical heartland and to set up a “Palestinian” state cleansed of Jews. We have all heard the hypocritical cant of self-appointed “protectors of Israel” who in their burning desire to “save Israel from itself” yearn to expel every last Jew from the most ancient of Jewish cities, to surround Israel in a murderous embrace of Arab weaponry.

Only last week another “friend of Israel”, John Kerry, threatened us with another Intifada and international isolation if we do not heed his loving advice and make peace.

And we have experienced the hugs and kisses of Christian missionaries, who want our souls.

And we have also experienced the genuine altruistic love of Christians who risked and often lost their lives rescuing Jews during the Nazi era, who have come to Israel to fight for the nation with nary a thought of reward, who have fought for Israel in battlefields and government offices from Israel to the USA to Kenya to Micronesia.

Our final meeting with Esau is swiftly approaching, and Esau will soon have to make his final decision. Are his kisses genuine, or do they mask his inner hatred? The answer to that may be encoded in some of the more esoteric commentaries on the Torah, the Talmud, the Midrashim, and the Kabbalah. And the answer may also be found between the lines of tomorrow’s newspapers and radio news broadcasts.