Parshat Toldot: An analysis of Esav

Dr. Joseph Frager,

Dr. Joseph Frager
Dr. Joseph Frager
Courtesy of Dr. Frager

"The first one came out with a reddish complexion (Admoni) covered completely with what was like a hairy robe and they named him Esav."(Genesis 25:25).

"Esav said to Yaakov, "Please give me a swallow of the red (pottage) for I am exhausted." "He was therefore named Edom (Red)" (Genesis 25:30). Rabbi Berel Wein points out that sibling rivalries are the fiercest. Yaakov and Esav were no exception. How might it have been different? How was it supposed to be? After all sibling rivalry exists but it does not lead to bloodshed and torment for the most part. Most families do get along. What went wrong? Why did it go wrong? Furthermore, Esav (as a brother of Yaakov) how is he viewed by our Sages? I will start with the last question first. Esav is Edom. Edom is considered the Roman Empire.

No one considers the Romans to be "brothers" of the Jews. Although the relationship of the Emperor of Rome Antoninus and the Compiler of the Mishnah Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was exemplary and perhaps is the paradigm of how the relationship should have and could have been, that has not been the case for the most part. According to the Gemara in Kedushin (18) Esav was a "Yisroel Mummar"(a defective Israelite).

Although Esav himself received a circumcision (Milah) on day eight like Yaakov, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (59b) says that descendants of Esav are not obligated in the Mitzvah of Milah because the commandment of Milah was given to Abraham and his children ("G-d said to Abraham, "And as for you, you must preserve my covenant, You and Your descendants after you, throughout their generations.") (Genesis 17:9) and the Torah says "B'Yitzchak" ("But I will establish My covenant "with" Yitzchak who Sarah will bear to you at this time next year."(Genesis 17:21). Rav Tzadok HaKohen (Takanat "Ha"Shavin 19a) explains that Esav is called a Yisroel Mummar because he began with the potential to be called a Yisroel but when he chose to become a Mummar he lost the opportunity and is therefore no longer considered a Yisroel.

Now how did Esav lose his way? The source of Esav's problems seem to date to his birth, his red, ruddy complexion sending a frightful message to those who saw him. But the Sages tell us that another individual was born with a similar exterior-King David. "And Samuel said to Jesse, "Are these all your children?" And he said, "There remains still the youngest, and behold, he keeps the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and fetch him; for we will not sit down till he comes here." And he sent, and brought him in. And he was red-haired with beautiful eyes and good looking. And the Lord said, "Arise, anoint him, for this is he." (1Samuel 16:11-12)

Rabbi Abba Ben Kahana said, "Altogether a shedder of blood. And when Samuel saw that David was red-headed...he was smitten with fear, thinking he too might be a murderer. But the Holy One, blessed be He, reassured him that he had beautiful eyes which meant Esav slew by his own impulse whereas David would only slay on the sentence of the court (Middrash Rabbah Genesis 63:8). So how did Esav end up going off the Derech (way)? Clearly, his destiny was supposed to be vastly different than the way he ended up.

The blessing that Yaakov got that was intended for Esav, "And may G-d give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness (riches) of the land and abundance of grain and wine."(Genesis 27:28) speaks entirely of the material world. When Yitzchak blesses Yaakov before sending him away he says, "May the Almighty, Shakkai, bless you, make you fruitful and multiply you. May you become an assembly of peoples. May He give you the blessing of Abraham to you and your descendants with you, that you may inherit the land of your dwelling which G-d gave to Abraham."(28:3-4) This was the blessing always intended for Yaakov. It was to inherit the world of spirituality. The original plan was more along the lines of the Yissocher-Zevulun partnership.

Yissocher would learn Torah and Zevulun would provide sustenance. Yaakov would learn, and Esav would provide income. Esav was supposed to inherit the material world in order to sustain Yaakov. Esav failed so Yaakov had to be blessed with both the material and spiritual worlds. So why did Esav fail? After all he was the son of two great tzaddikim- Yitzchak and Rivka, and the grandson of two great tzaddikim -Abraham and Sarah? What went wrong? Many answers are given.

Rashi says "As long as they were youngsters they were indistinguishable by their deeds and no one could know their character-Once they turned thirteen one Yaakov went his way to the houses of the Study of Torah and the other Esav went his way to worshipping idols"(25:27) The real turning point in the life of Esav occurred at age 15 and his grandfather Abraham was 175. Rashi says that the day Abraham died (age 175) earlier than planned so as to not see Esav fall into bad ways. Apparently, the day Abraham died was also the day that Esav killed Abraham's arch enemy Nimrod.

Esav came back fully expecting Abraham to be alive so he could tell him he had finally taken care of his Grandfather's arch nemesis. Esav may well have been devastated to find out that his beloved grandfather had died. He did not receive that special "sugar cube" that might have changed his whole life. He was sure he would have gotten positive feedback from his Grandfather for this deed. Esav may well have been wrong on this point and that is a large part of his problem. Regardless, he was devastated that he could not tell his Grandfather. I believe this traumatized Esav for the rest of his life. Esav never recovered. The rest is history.

There are valuable lessons to be learned. Esav was not born Evil. He was brought up in a great household. He was supposed to inherit a different destiny. He became evil because of running after improper influences and life's hard lessons. The relationship of Antoninus and Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was indeed more of the relationship that should have existed between Esav and Yaakov. Even Rashi says this was a relationship that Hashem intended when he said, "Two nations are in your womb" (25:23). The trauma Esav suffered from the death of Abraham indeed led him to failure. This did not have to be the way it all went. Unfortunately, the Jewish People suffer to this very day because Esav went off the Derech.

As the Haftorah from Malachi sums up, "I loved you," said Hashem, and you said "How have you loved us?" Was not Esav a brother of Yaakov?-the words of Hashem-yet I loved Yaakov." But I hated Esav and I made his mountains a desolation, and his heritage for the desert serpents."(Malachi 1:2-3)

Shabbat Shalom








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