Esau's place in history

Esau's error is a foolish and sometimes tragic one that many of us make in our lives.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller ,

HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l
HaRav Avigdor Miller zts"l
INN:Toras Avigdor

Prophecy and Fulfillment

When Rivkah our mother approached the prophet of Hashem and was given the information that she was carrying twins, among the things she was told were three short words that would determine the course of history: V’rav ya'avod tzairThe older one will serve the younger (Toldos 25:23). That was the prophecy that Rivkah gained even before Jacob (Yaakov) and Esau came into this world.

Now some people take it to mean simply that because Esau would be wicked, therefore his progeny, the nation of Edom, would be forced to be subservient to Am Yisroel.

And to say such a thing is partially true – that Esau’s descendants would serve the children of Yaakov was certainly included in the words v’rav ya'avod tzair. It happened that way in our nation’s history again and again that this prophecy came true. In the days of Dovid Hamelech he went out with his army to conquer Edom and for many years after that the nation-state of Edom remained a tributary, a vassal state, for the Jewish nation; they were forced to be slaves to Am Yisroel.

And later, in the days of Bayis Sheini, the prophecy was fulfilled once again. Yochanan Horkanus, one of the Hasmonean kings conquered Edom and forcibly converted them; they were forced to circumcise and become servant-slaves to the Hasmonean kingdom, malchus Beis Chashmonai.

And so, there’s no question that the words the navi said to Rivkah meant that as well. Esau would have to yaavod tzair; he would have to enter into servitude under the control of his younger brother.

Wicked From Birth?

There’s something curious here because we know that when Hakodosh Boruch Hu told Rivkah that “the older one would serve the younger one,” Esau hadn’t done anything wrong yet – he hadn't even been born yet! A man who hasn’t yet exercised his free will should be sentenced to servitude because of sins he didn’t do?! It can’t be!

I understand that we already have ideas in our head from when we were children. Especially when we learn the aggadeta (Rashi 25:22) that when Rivkah passed by a place of idols, beis avodah zarah, Esau became agitated within her; he wanted to come out already and run inside. And therefore we think it means that from the beginning – even before the beginning – Esau was already an idol worshipper, oveid avodah zarah. That’s also how they make the pictures in the children’s books; Esau is portrayed as a wicked looking fellow adorned with weapons of war; according to one picture that someone showed me he was born wearing boxing gloves!

However, all this we have to know is not so. Not only is it not true but it's against the fundamental principles of Hakodosh Boruch Hu. There's no such thing! Wicked at birth has no place in our ways. Such doctrines you can find only in corruptions of Judaism, in foreign religions that speak about ‘original sin’ and other things that are alien to Torah. According to the Torah every man gets a new chance when he’s born; he doesn't have any sin on his head. He begins life anew with a clean slate and the full opportunity of free will, the choice,bechirah, to become a tzaddik or to become the opposite.

And it’s such a fundamental truth, that to make any exception – even in the case of Esau – is really a contradiction to belief, emunah. If you're going to learn Torah in that way, it means that you are contradicting all the principles of the Torah.

Esau’s Secret Persona

Actually Esau was much better than you imagine. The truth is that if Esau walked in here now, we would all get up for him out of respect. Now, I’m not interested in complimenting, being milameid zchus, on Esau but we have to know the truth of the Torah and the truth is that Esau was very great. I know that others laugh when they hear this but I know this from my Rebbe zichrono livrocho. Esau grew up in the house of Yitzchak and Rivkah! He grew up on the lap of his zeide Avrohom Avinu! He wasn't a nobody. Far from it!

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said – Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel was a great man and he had a great father too, and he said (Bereishis Rabbah 65), “I never was able to attain the greatness of honoring my father like Esau honored Yitzchak.”

When Esau wanted to go into his father, he put on his b’gadav hachamudos, his Yom Tov clothing. Imagine you want to go into your father to ask him for some money, for your allowance, and you put on your bigdei Yom Tov because you want to approach him; not because you’re trying to butter him up – because you really mean it.

Now, when Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel had to serve his father he did it, no question about it. But he couldn’t do it like Esau. You know, it’s very difficult when a number of times during the day you have to go on some errand for your father and you’re going to have to change into your Shabbos clothing every time he calls you in. It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of character, to do something like that. But Esau did it — he never walked into his father’s presence without changing into his better clothes. And if his father needed him many times during the day – Esau didn’t know that each time there was going to be another time – he changed his garments each time. And this one story is only one example of who Esau was. Esau was a very good person, with a tremendous amount of potential for greatness.

Why Forced Servitude?

And therefore we have to rethink what it was that the prophet told Rivkah on that day. We can’t understand v’rav yaavod tzair as a sentence, a punishment, and say that because Esau was born wicked therefore he was punished that he would have to serve his younger brother, because that’s absolutely not true. Esau could have been very great! As much success that Yaakov achieved, Esau could have achieved along with him.

And so, what does it mean that the older one would have to serve the young one? What kind of serving of Yaakov does it mean if Esau had the choice to be a tzadik gomur, a completely righteous man, and live a successful life of his own?

Esau’s True Function

And the answer is that this prophecy foretold Esau's role in history, how Esau could gain fulfillment in his life. Esau’s perfection in life was to be a helper, an assistant to Yaakov in accomplishing great things in the world. And although Esau was not going to be on top, he could still live a completely successful life if he would recognize his role.

That’s what the navi was saying to Rivkah: V’rav yaavod tzair the role of Esau, the success of Esau, is to help Yaakov fulfill his function in the world; “and the younger one will serve the elder one” was heavenly guidance for Esau to understand his role in this world and had he been willing to fulfill that role he could have changed history.

How sad it is that a person with such potential, such character and talents, should go lost because he won’t accept that. If Esau would have executed his role properly he wouldn’t have been any less successful than Yaakov Avinu. Had he used his given talents – his ruddiness, his gevurah – to help Yaakov, he would have become great no less than Yaakov Avinu. He would be in the World to Come, Olam Haboh right now, sitting next to his younger brother, next to Yitzchak and Avrohom and all the tzadikim.

A Tragic End

Esau wasn’t willing to accept his place in history. He wanted to be the leader! “I’m on top or I’m out of here.” That’s why when he saw that the blessings, brachos, had been given to his younger brother, when he saw now that the prophecy of, “And the older one shall serve the younger one,” was beginning to take shape, he couldn’t take it! “I should be subservient to Yaakov?!” said Esau. “I don’t want to hear stories about being a helper; about becoming great by means of being second!”

What happened? Vayeilech el eretz mipnei Yaakov achiv – he went away to another land because of his brother Yaakov (Bereishis 36:6). He felt that he just couldn't remain in the same country where his brother was the leader and he made the unpardonable sin of forsaking his family because he couldn’t tolerate being second. He ran away from his role and that was the makeh b’patish, the final blow, that ruined Esau and his family forever.

The truth is that the heart bleeds – it really is a tragedy of tragedies. Esau could have remained. Nobody sent him away. Imagine if he had accepted his role! How different the world's history would have been! He’d be a frequent visitor by us; he’d live a few blocks away, or a mile away and we’d be working together in the service of Hashem. But now he’s cut off entirely. He chose to let go of the great privilege of being a member of this noble family, the holiest people in the world.

Passing Up Opportunities

I remember many years ago in a congregation, a kehilla, there was somebody who lost out in matters of honor, kavod, and he became the second man in the kehilla; he wanted to be the President of the kehilla and now he became only the Vice-President. What happened? He became so discouraged that he left the shul – he moved away from Brooklyn and settled in California. What a tragedy!

You can’t be the best? So be the second best or the third best; that’s also a very great success in this world. So much good could have been accomplished in that kehilla had he remained and taken up his role of helping from behind, from working in the background.

Esau could have come along with us. Didn’t Yisro’s children come along? And they succeeded! וַיַּרְא אֶת הַקֵּינִי – When Bilaam saw the Keini, the descendants of Yisro, among us, he said: אֵיתָן מוֹשָׁבֶךָ – The place where you’re seated is a strong place, וְשִׂים בַּסֶּלַע קִנֶּךָ – you put your nest on the rock (Bamidbar 24:21). It means you chose to attach yourself to the Bnei Yaakov and now you’re ensconced with them forever and ever. And we know that “the children of Yisro sat in the Lishkas Hagazis in the Sanhedrin” (Sotah 11a). They didn’t make the error of Esau.

The Name Edom

Now, the truth is that we know that Esau's family never admitted that they made an error. The children of Esau forever held onto the thesis that they were the ones who were chosen to lead and it had been cheated away from them by their trickster uncle, Yaakov.

You can see that from their name. They called themselves Edom, The Red Ones. Why did the children of Esau call themselves Edom? So some people say we know the reason. It says in the chumash that it was because Esau came in one day when he was hungry and when he saw that Yaakov had made a red pottage, a red soup, he said, “Haliteini na min ha'adom ha'adom hazeh – Give me some of that red red soup.” “Al ken kara shemo Edom - and that’s why he was forever called Edom”

But does it make sense that Esau's children forever would call themselves by such an uncomplimentary name as a reminder that their ancestor had once been so careless as to sell his birthright over a bowl of soup? What shame, bizayon, can be greater than that? The Red Lentil people?! They should have attempted to forget that incident altogether instead of perpetuating it by calling themselves by that name.

Edom’s End

The answer is they didn't call themselves Edom because of the red soup. That’s the Torah’s reason for their name – the Torah is telling us the real reason they received that name. Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave them that name as a monument to the person who was willing to give up his future over a bowl of red lentils; for the sake of a desire of the moment he gives away everything – that's Edom.

But the nation of Edom had other ideas. They called themselves Edom because vayetzei harishon admoni — Esau came out first and he was ruddy. First and ruddy! To them that was a sign that Esau was the boss. He was red – a sign of strength and vigor – because he was the one chosen by Hashem to be the leader. The Edomites never thought anything else. The story of the red soup was not even known to Esau's posterity. To them they were the Edomites not because they were the Red Lentil People but because they were the vigorous ones, the leaders.

They couldn’t accept their role and because of that they’re cut off entirely. Va’avaditem bagoyim; that’s what Esau did. He went lost among the goyim. And that means that Edom is the story of a people who gave up the greatness they could have achieved because they didn’t recognize their function in this world.

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