Monday, November 05, 2007

Toledot: Is Esav The Bad Brother? Is Yaakov? Part I

After reading the parsha year after year the same way, we can decide to look at the parsha with fresh eyes. Is Esav really the bad brother? If Esav is not, need we say that Yaakov is?

We obviously approach the parsha with specific preconceived notions. Yaakov is a forefather, and God is on his side. So obviously, he must be in the right! But this need not be so. Midrash certainly colors otherwise gray characters in starker black and white, but on a peshat level, there can be ambiguities there.

Or perhaps, not even ambiguities. For we should also be careful not to retroject our conceptions of right and wrong, or of religious/ethical struggles, onto a text which does not deal in such terms. What me might consider morally questionable might not be in a different culture.

There most certainly is sibling rivalry present, and one which anticipates a later international struggle. But sibling rivalry is natural when two brothers compete for a father's attention, and this does not mean that one brother is wrong and the other brother right.

Let us look to Cain and Abel (Kayin and Hevel). In Bereishit 4:

ב וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת, אֶת-אָחִיו אֶת-הָבֶל; וַיְהִי-הֶבֶל, רֹעֵה צֹאן, וְקַיִן, הָיָה עֹבֵד אֲדָמָה. 2 And again she bore his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.
Thus, two brothers, with opposing roles or natures. One is a shepherd, and thus more for the nomadic lifestyle, while the other was a farmer.

Both compete for attention from their Father in Heaven:
ג וַיְהִי, מִקֵּץ יָמִים; וַיָּבֵא קַיִן מִפְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, מִנְחָה--לַה. 3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD.
ד וְהֶבֶל הֵבִיא גַם-הוּא מִבְּכֹרוֹת צֹאנוֹ, וּמֵחֶלְבֵהֶן; וַיִּשַׁע ה, אֶל-הֶבֶל וְאֶל-מִנְחָתוֹ. 4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering;
ה וְאֶל-קַיִן וְאֶל-מִנְחָתוֹ, לֹא שָׁעָה; וַיִּחַר לְקַיִן מְאֹד, וַיִּפְּלוּ פָּנָיו. 5 but unto Cain and to his offering He had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell.
When their Father favors one over the other, Kayin becomes very wroth. A midrash gives a reason for God's favoring Hevel, but on the plain meaning of the text, the reason does not matter. It is a pretext for the events that follow.

But still, being wroth is no sin. So long as he takes no action, he is a fine person. Thus,
ו וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אֶל-קָיִן: לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ, וְלָמָּה נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ. 6 And the LORD said unto Cain: 'Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?
ז הֲלוֹא אִם-תֵּיטִיב, שְׂאֵת, וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב, לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ; וְאֵלֶיךָ, תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ, וְאַתָּה, תִּמְשָׁל-בּוֹ. 7 If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted up? and if thou doest not well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it.'
Of course, Kayin acts on his anger, and incurs a punishment.

In parshat Toledot, we once again have two brothers. They are very different from one another:

כה וַיֵּצֵא הָרִאשׁוֹן אַדְמוֹנִי, כֻּלּוֹ כְּאַדֶּרֶת שֵׂעָר; וַיִּקְרְאוּ שְׁמוֹ, עֵשָׂו. 25 And the first came forth ruddy, all over like a hairy mantle; and they called his name Esau.
כו וְאַחֲרֵי-כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו, וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו, וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, יַעֲקֹב; וְיִצְחָק בֶּן-שִׁשִּׁים שָׁנָה, בְּלֶדֶת אֹתָם. 26 And after that came forth his brother, and his hand had hold on Esau's heel; and his name was called Jacob. And Isaac was threescore years old when she bore them.
We don't hear much about Yaakov here, but no mention of Yaakov being hairy is made there, and indeed, later in 27:11, he contrasts himself with Esav, saying:
יא וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ: הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר, וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק. 11 And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother: 'Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man.
Thus, from birth they are different. Esav would seem to be the more wild and Yaakov the more civilized. But that does not mean that one is "better" than the other.

Just like Kayin and Hevel, these two brothers choose different professions. In Bereishit 25 once again:
כז וַיִּגְדְּלוּ, הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים. 27 And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.
As Rashbam writes, based on another verse as prooftext, dwelling in tents means that Yaakov was a shepherd. Thus, like Kayin.

See Bereishit 4:20:
כ וַתֵּלֶד עָדָה, אֶת-יָבָל: הוּא הָיָה--אֲבִי, יֹשֵׁב אֹהֶל וּמִקְנֶה. 20 And Adah bore Jabal; he was the father of such as dwell in tents and have cattle.
The contrast here is to one who hunts in the wild, on the one hand, to he who has domesticated animals, on the other. The wild vs. civilization. And this plays out later when Esav goes to hunt while Yaakov just takes one of the goats.

There is rivalry between these siblings, even before birth.
כב וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה. 22 And the children struggled together within her; and she said: 'If it be so, wherefore do I live?' And she went to inquire of the LORD.
But this does not mean that one is more righteous than the other. There is the built in rivalry and competition. Midrashim add the idea that one wishes to run to Avodah Zarah and the other to the Bet haMidrash, but on a peshat level, all we have is rivalry.

So too, the interpretation:
כג וַיֹּאמֶר ה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵךְ, וּשְׁנֵי לְאֻמִּים, מִמֵּעַיִךְ יִפָּרֵדוּ; וּלְאֹם מִלְאֹם יֶאֱמָץ, וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר. 23 And the LORD said unto her: Two nations are in thy womb, and two peoples shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.
So this rivalry is to play out on a national level. The fact that these are two nations is a good thing. That is, just like Avraham was to be an av hamon goyim, Rivkah was going to be the mother to not just one nation, but two! Yet there is this striving relationship, with the older serving the younger.

Perhaps we should say that with this prophecy originating from Hashem, we should read in a value judgment. To the extent that this is in Torah, directed towards the descendants of the "younger," this is so, in that the younger is going to be in a favored position. But is this because Esav is a bad person, even in the womb? He has not done anything yet, and hakol biydei shamayim chutz miyir`at shamayim. This prediction would seem to be based not on good or bad behavior, but more along the lines of fate and Divine guidance of history.

What about Rivkah's favoring Yaakov?
כח וַיֶּאֱהַב יִצְחָק אֶת-עֵשָׂו, כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו; וְרִבְקָה, אֹהֶבֶת אֶת-יַעֲקֹב. 28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob.
Well, just as Rivka favors Yaakov, so does Yitzchak favor Esav. There are nitpicks we can have to this. Thus, Rashbam states the reason for her loving Yaakov is, as was in the preceding verses, his righteous, nature -- he was an ish tam, as in the preceding verse, and also because of the prophecy. But we need not read these links, and the pasuk does nothing to make this connection explicit.

We also have the somewhat trivial reason for Yitzchak's love of Esav -- he ate of his venison -- with no such triviality by Rivkah, connoting a deeper, realer reason for this love. But this kind of close reading approaches what we do with midrash, and is optional. We might ignore this. If so, there is no value judgment that one son is more righteous than the other.

What about the contrast in the preceding pasuk?
כז וַיִּגְדְּלוּ, הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים. 27 And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.
Midrashim base themselves on this, that only when they grew up did their different natures manifest themselves. But we might take Yaakov being straightforward while Esav is cunning in another way, in which being cunning is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, this might be simplt setup for Yaakov's craftiness, taking the blessing and the firstborn right from Esav, what would not otherwise be expected. He thus develops his character, and goes beyond it in order to succeed.

What about the selling of the birthright? There are many midrashim which cast Esav in a bad light. He came in from the field having done all sorts of sins. But on the level of peshat, Esav does not come out so badly here:
כט וַיָּזֶד יַעֲקֹב, נָזִיד; וַיָּבֹא עֵשָׂו מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה, וְהוּא עָיֵף. 29 And Jacob sod pottage; and Esau came in from the field, and he was faint.
ל וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, הַלְעִיטֵנִי נָא מִן-הָאָדֹם הָאָדֹם הַזֶּה--כִּי עָיֵף, אָנֹכִי; עַל-כֵּן קָרָא-שְׁמוֹ, אֱדוֹם. 30 And Esau said to Jacob: 'Let me swallow, I pray thee, some of this red, red pottage; for I am faint.' Therefore was his name called Edom.
לא וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב: מִכְרָה כַיּוֹם אֶת-בְּכֹרָתְךָ, לִי. 31 And Jacob said: 'Sell me first thy birthright.'
לב וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ לָמוּת; וְלָמָּה-זֶּה לִי, בְּכֹרָה. 32 And Esau said: 'Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?'
לג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, הִשָּׁבְעָה לִּי כַּיּוֹם, וַיִּשָּׁבַע, לוֹ; וַיִּמְכֹּר אֶת-בְּכֹרָתוֹ, לְיַעֲקֹב. 33 And Jacob said: 'Swear to me first'; and he swore unto him; and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.
לד וְיַעֲקֹב נָתַן לְעֵשָׂו, לֶחֶם וּנְזִיד עֲדָשִׁים, וַיֹּאכַל וַיֵּשְׁתְּ, וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלַךְ; וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה. {פ} 34 And Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way. So Esau despised his birthright. {P}
If anything, Yaakov takes advantage of the situation, and Esav is hapless and helpless. One value judgment against Esav would seem to be in the last pasuk:
וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו, אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה.
But this might connote that he plundered his birthright for some other purpose. Or that at this point, indeed, he had no complaints about the matter.

That would not be that he necessarily did something wrong. Rather, this is being told over to the Benei Yisrael, so it is important they realize that at the time, he truly gave over his birthright.

But what about Yaakov? Is he acting righteously here? And what about when he "steals" the blessing? We see trickery there, and Esav acting really unhappy, and hurt.

As we read in Bereishit 27:
לה וַיֹּאמֶר, בָּא אָחִיךָ בְּמִרְמָה; וַיִּקַּח, בִּרְכָתֶךָ 35 And he said: 'Thy brother came with guile, and hath taken away thy blessing.'
לו וַיֹּאמֶר הֲכִי קָרָא שְׁמוֹ יַעֲקֹב, וַיַּעְקְבֵנִי זֶה פַעֲמַיִם--אֶת-בְּכֹרָתִי לָקָח, וְהִנֵּה עַתָּה לָקַח בִּרְכָתִי; וַיֹּאמַר, הֲלֹא-אָצַלְתָּ לִּי בְּרָכָה. 36 And he said: 'Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.' And he said: 'Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me?'

But this may well be retrojecting our own, modern attitudes onto the text. It could well be that such dealings, and striving, was perfectly natural and acceptable at the time, such that Yaakov is a hero here.

The one sequence of pesukim which paints Esav in a bad light appears later, after the blessing is stolen. Bereshit 27:
מא וַיִּשְׂטֹם עֵשָׂו, אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, עַל-הַבְּרָכָה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ אָבִיו; וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו בְּלִבּוֹ, יִקְרְבוּ יְמֵי אֵבֶל אָבִי, וְאַהַרְגָה, אֶת-יַעֲקֹב אָחִי. 41 And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him. And Esau said in his heart: 'Let the days of mourning for my father be at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob.'
מב וַיֻּגַּד לְרִבְקָה, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי עֵשָׂו בְּנָהּ הַגָּדֹל; וַתִּשְׁלַח וַתִּקְרָא לְיַעֲקֹב, בְּנָהּ הַקָּטָן, וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, הִנֵּה עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ מִתְנַחֵם לְךָ לְהָרְגֶךָ. 42 And the words of Esau her elder son were told to Rebekah; and she sent and called Jacob her younger son, and said unto him: 'Behold, thy brother Esau, as touching thee, doth comfort himself, purposing to kill thee.
מג וְעַתָּה בְנִי, שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי; וְקוּם בְּרַח-לְךָ אֶל-לָבָן אָחִי, חָרָנָה. 43 Now therefore, my son, hearken to my voice; and arise, flee thou to Laban my brother to Haran;
Contemplating murder is not the act of a righteous man, even though there are reasons for that anger. Still, he does not act on this anger, in contrast to Kayin. This might well be for lack of opportunity.

But that then takes us to parshat Vayishlach, where the brothers face off. Yaakov is worred about a battle, but in fact, either because of the peace offering, or because he had already forgiven him, Esav does not attack, and at least overtly behaves to him like a brother. Again, there were good reasons perhaps for Esav to be angry, but this does not necessarily imply a value judgment, that one brother is a good one and the other evil.

Perhaps another post later, stressing on a peshat level the thematic elements which paint Esav is a worse light.


Soccer Dad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Soccer Dad said...

Mark Twain
Joseph became rich, distinguished, powerful--as the Bible expresses it, "lord over all the land of Egypt." Joseph was the real king, the strength, the brain of the monarchy, though Pharaoh held the title.
Joseph is one of the truly great men of the Old Testament. And he was the noblest and the manliest, save Esau. Why shall we not say a good word for the princely Bedouin? The only crime that can be brought against him is that he was unfortunate. Why must every body praise Joseph's great-hearted generosity to his cruel brethren, without stint of fervent language, and fling only a reluctant bone of praise to Esau for his still sublimer generosity to the brother who had wronged him? Jacob took advantage of Esau's consuming hunger to rob him of his birthright
and the great honor and consideration that belonged to the position; by treachery and falsehood he robbed him of his father's blessing; he made of him a stranger in his home, and a wanderer. Yet after twenty years had passed away and Jacob met Esau and fell at his feet quaking with fear and begging piteously to be spared the punishment he knew he deserved, what did that magnificent savage do? He fell upon his neck and embraced him! When Jacob--who was incapable of comprehending nobility of character--still doubting, still fearing, insisted upon "finding grace with my lord" by the bribe of a present of cattle, what did the gorgeous son of the desert say?

"Nay, I have enough, my brother; keep that thou hast unto thyself!"

Without Midrashim and without knowing the original Hebrew it's certainly a superficially convincing case.

Anonymous said...

"Midrash certainly colors otherwise gray characters in starker black and white, but on a peshat level, there can be ambiguities there."

Besides Midrash, I trust you'll address Malachi 1:3 when you get around to developing this post?

joshwaxman said...

true. I'll try to include at least some reference.
The way a story is understood by later Biblical books/authors is similar to the way midrash understands it. There may be some reinterpretation as the story means different things to different generations. Plus, such interpretations are known to people saying midrash, and can have real influence. For example, the way Pilegesh beGiveah interprets the story of Sodom. Or the way Rut makes use of the story of the daughters of Lot.
Malachi 1:3 makes no real value judgment, though God favors Yaakov and "hates" Esav. This may be in the context of a national struggle/rivalry. The sefer (/perek) of Ovadia might also be good to engage.

Anonymous said...

The Torah is not complete without the Midrash, and the Midrash makes clear that Esav is the bad brother. That's the Jewish interpretation.

The "Edomite" --the Christian-- interpretation has not the advantage of the Oral Torah, and thus for Christians their patriarch Esav can be seen in a better light than Jacob.

joshwaxman said...

considering the midrash the only legitimate "Jewish" interpretation certainly has basis. Thus, e.g., Ran and Alshich consider midrash aggada to be MiPi HaGevurah on Har Sinai, such that one cannot argue. But there is surely room for other interpretation, without considering it non-Jewish. See e.g. Shmuel haNagid for an example.

In terms of Christians having Esav as a patriarch ... well, wait for my next post.


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