The Red Badge of Cruelty
The major theme of our Torah portion introduces and explains the origin of the historic conflict between Jacob and Esau. The enmity that Esau developed toward Jacob in the context of the events that are described in Toldot has led to consequences that can be traced throughout Jewish history, and has served as the main cause of Jewish suffering through the ages in various forms.
The evil that descended from Esau includes:
- Amalek. The nation of Amalek, which is descended from Esau's marriage to one of Ishmael's daughters, was the first nation to attack Israel following the Exodus. (See Exodus 17:8.) Rashi quotes a Midrash that compares Amalek to a deranged person that jumps into the scalding bath. He gets burnt but in the process cools the water so that it becomes tolerable for others to enter it. (Rashi on Deut. 25:18) It was so important to the nation of Amalek to demonstrate that Israel was not invincible, that its forces came all the way from Mount Seir to the desert to attack Israel without the slightest hope of victory or shred of any motive for the action. The Haman of the Esther story who was the first one to attempt Hitler's "final solution" a total annihilation of the Jewish people came from Amalek.
- Edom. This kingdom established by Esau became the Roman Empire according to our Sages (Levicitus Raba 13,5). We are presently in our final Diaspora, which is called the "Diaspora of Edom" that began with the destruction of the second Temple at the hands of Rome. Today's Western world has evolved out of the Roman Empire which converted to Christianity in the 4th century CE and established the Christian Church.
- Germany. The Talmud also connects Esau with Germany as follows:
Rabbi Yitzchak said, "We find written, Grant not God the desires of the wicked one; do not grant his conspiracy fruition, for them to be exalted, Selah. (Psalms 140:9) This is a reference to a prayer that Jacob addressed to God: 'Master of the Universe, please do not grant Esau his heart's desire and do not grant his conspiracy fruition.' This is a reference to Germany [the name of a kingdom also of Edom, according to Rashi]. If it is ever released, it would destroy the entire world." (Megila 6b)
THE ENMITY OF ESAU
The enmity of Esau towards Jacob is summed up by Shimon Ben Yochai the author of the "Zohar" in the following words:
And he kissed him (Genesis 33:4) [This passage describes a meeting between Esau and Jacob, when Esau kissed Jacob; the Hebrew word describing the kiss vayishokehu, has a dot over each of the letters in the Torah scroll.] The hatred Esau bears to Jacob is as immutable as a law of nature; despite this, at that particular moment Esau was overcome by a genuine pang of love, and he kissed Jacob with all his heart. (Sifri, Numbers 69)
The phenomenon we are looking at is no simple grudge over the loss of a set of blessings. What are the origins of such monumental hatred? To understand Esau and his motivations a little better, we must gain some insight into the second of our patriarchs Isaac, who is, albeit against his will, the source of Esau's immense evil spiritual power.
THE MIGHT OF ISAAC
We begin the Shmoneh Esreh by introducing God to ourselves as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and introducing ourselves to God as their grandchildren. We also describe Him as the great, the mighty and the awesome God. Jewish tradition maintains that these descriptions of God are to be correlated with the earlier reference to the Patriarchs. We describe God as being great in terms of the God of Abraham, as greatness stands for benevolence, the chief character trait of Abraham. We describe Him as being mighty in terms of the God of Isaac, as might stands for the power of judgment, the chief character trait of Isaac. Finally, we describe Him as being awesome in terms of the God of Jacob, as awe stands for the power of truth, the chief character trait of Jacob.
Awe stands for the power of truth, the chief character trait of Jacob.
The correlation is based on the following concept. The feeling experienced by the recipient of an act of benevolence is the appreciation of the greatness of the giver. The feeling experienced by one undergoing judgment is a feeling of dread in face of the might of the one wielding the power of the law. The feeling inspired by perceiving the full beauty of enduring reality is awe of the One who could have designed all this. Thus these descriptions of God as great, mighty and awesome are uttered from the point of view of the recipient/observer coming into contact with His attributes.
Until the Patriarchs came along, these attributes of God were only visible in the world in a very general way. God made use of them to design and build the natural world, but no human being specifically interacted with God on a daily basis through these attributes. That is to say, there was nothing personal about the way God ran the world. The Divine-human relationship was totally businesslike and unemotional. It was the Patriarchs who altered this by reaching out to God and taking an interest in developing a personal relationship with Him founded on emotional attachment rather than on considerations of efficiency or mutual benefit.
KINDNESS VS. MIGHT
To make this more concrete, let us describe the traits of chesed, "benevolence/kindness," attributed to Abraham and contrast them with gevura, "might," attributed to Isaac in terms of the following metaphor.
We all know that smoking is a health hazard. There are two potential ways of tackling such a hazard.
- We could develop a lot of medicines that would cure lung cancer and emphysema, the chief dangers facing the smoker; we could build hospitals to care for sick smokers till they get better; and we could provide comprehensive social insurance schemes that would allow smokers to pay for all their treatments without becoming bankrupt. This method would be termed handling the problem of smoking through the attribute of benevolence/kindness.
- We could make a serious attempt to make smokers give up their habit. We could raise the price of cigarettes to astronomical heights. We could refuse to converse with people who smelled of cigarettes. We could make sure that they received no promotions. In short, we could demonstrate our intolerance and disgust for the addiction to nicotine in such powerful ways, that smokers would be forced to change their inner character, and voluntarily give up the habit. This method would be termed handling the problem through the attribute of might.
When we human beings face problems, we often have no choice between these two methods. For example, in the case of smoking, we have no cure for cancer or emphysema, and we have only limited means at our disposal, so we cannot financially support smokers who are suffering the downside of their habit. But God has no such limitations. Theoretically, both these methods are available to Him when considering tackling any problem.
Once a person experiences the joy of closeness to the Divine presence, he fears losing it.
Abraham went about the world spreading the name of God under the banner of benevolence. He told people, "Turn to God's benevolence and He will help you to surmount all your problems." In this way he taught people to love God. When someone learns to love God, he will automatically start changing his character as well. Once a person experiences the joy and uplift that comes from being close to the Divine presence, he becomes afraid of risking the loss of God's love by being unworthy of it. Thus He learns the fear of God through his love of God.
Isaac was drawn by his nature to the other method. He went around the world spreading the name of God under the banner of might. He told people, "God is good and He would love to help you more than anything in the world, but He cannot associate with evil. Control yourselves and your evil inclinations and you will observe that God will immediately begin to respond to your prayers and begin to help you as soon as He sees that you are attempting to make a change. All you have to do is open the tiniest crack in your heart and you will begin to experience massive inputs of Divine assistance. Open your heart to me like the eye of a needle and I will broaden the hole till you can drive a wagon through it." (Tanchuma, Toldos, 18)
In Isaac's system, a person first internalizes the fear of God and is led to love of God through fear.
Each of these approaches to God has a built in danger. The danger of Abraham's approach is the possibility that people might conclude that the day of reckoning will never come. God will continue to solve all the problems through his great love endlessly and there is no need to work on changing one's character so as not to risk the alienation of God's affection. In the absence of the need for restraint, harmless self-indulgence may develop into dangerous wildness.
This indeed, is what happened to Abraham's son Ishmael, who unlike Isaac, inherited Abraham's character trait of benevolence, but more intensified. Thus the angel informs Hagar about Ishmael:
And he shall be a wild man; his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him; and over all his brothers shall he dwell. (Genesis 16:12)
Ishmael's task in life was to continue the approach of his father Abraham, but he got lost in the love of God and never developed the fear and the consequent self-criticism and restraint that his love of God should have produced. Lacking the restraining power provided by the fear of God, he simply went wild.
PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
The danger in Isaac's approach is even more obvious. The pursuit of perfection can easily lead to arrogance, extreme cruelty and the excessive use of force. It is easy to forget that the purpose of the pursuit of perfection is only to ultimately reach the state where one merits the gentle benevolence of God's love.
The zealous pursuit of perfection through self-discipline requires the suppression of all forms of weakness.
The zealous pursuit of perfection through self-discipline requires the suppression of all forms of weakness, including softness and gentility. If these qualities are permanently destroyed instead of merely temporarily suppressed, you destroy the human being in the overzealous attempt of correcting his faults and produce a Nazi.
The children agitated within her, and she said, "If so, why am I thus?" And she went to enquire of God. (Genesis 25:22)
Rashi: Our sages interpreted "agitated" as "running" [the word for agitation employed is vayitrotzetzu, from the Hebrew root ratz, which means "run"]. When she passed by the doors of the academy of Shem and Ever, Jacob ran to get out of the womb and into the door; when she passed by the doors of the temple of the idol worshippers, Esau ran to leave the womb and go to through the door. (Genesis raba 63,6)
It would appear then, that Jacob was an eager Talmudic student from before his birth, whereas Esau was a full- fledged idol worshipper. But this cannot be so. If God created Esau as evil than he is not to blame for any of the evil acts he perpetrated, nor is Jacob in any way meritorious despite his good deeds; God created him a holy man. But if this is not the case, how can we explain this running?
Rabbi Dessler explains: We are all created to accomplish different things. Each of us has his own way of serving God. Esau was attracted to the temple of the idol worshippers because that is where his life's work lay, whereas Jacob ran to the study hall because that is where his service of God would take place. Each one was eager to begin; hence the running.
Ishmael inherited a more intense edition of Abraham's character and Esau of Isaac's.
Just as Ishmael inherited a more intense edition of Abraham's character, Esau inherited a more intense form of Isaac's character. Esau's task was to continue his father's work: to attack and subdue the evil in the world; to teach the evildoers the error of their ways; to stamp out the opposition to the dominion of God on earth; and thus to bring humanity to the state where it can bask in the warm rays of God's affection.
The roots of the corruption and evil in the world are implanted in the temples of the idol worshippers and they provide the proper venue for the release of Esau's energies. They were the places to which he was attracted as he was supposed to do his good work there. However, instead, he was corrupted by them.
Isaac loved Esau for game was in his mouth. (Genesis 25:28)
It is not that Isaac had a mistaken assessment of his sons' characters and he misjudged Esau. Isaac understood that Esau was his natural successor. He understood the downside of his approach to Divine service. He tried to shower Esau with warmth and affection and attach him to himself and to God so that he would not fall prey to the lurking pitfalls inherent to his character.
Perhaps we can gain some insight as to where exactly Esau went astray by paraphrasing the conversation described in Genesis 25:29-34 in the light of Rashi's commentary.
On the day that Abraham passed away, Jacob prepared a soup of lentils for Isaac, traditional fare for those in mourning. Lentils are round and smooth, lacking perforations that are reminiscent of the human mouth. They symbolize a double message:
- They remind us that life is cyclical; mourning is an experience we must all go through as death is an inevitable part of the life cycle.
- They remind us that our sojourn on earth is temporary as our main purpose is to be elsewhere, and therefore, bearing this in mind, we should keep our mouths closed to expressions of bitterness and complaint.
Esau returns from the field weary of this fatalistic attitude. He sees his purpose as bringing perfection to the world and is confident of his ability to accomplish this. If the world could be made perfect, there would be no need to die. After all, death is a curse that came into the world only in response to the imperfection of Adam's sin. He wants to consume the lentils, those symbols of mourning. He sees no need to resign oneself to death and sees no value in contemplating a different venue for continued existence.
In contrast, Jacob dreams of the service in the Temple. He sees no way to perfect the world as a self-contained entity. He wants to reach out to God, to teach people to connect to the Divine. Only with the inspiration provided by such contact can people be persuaded to strive for a perfection that can no longer be attained on this earth following Adam's fall. You have to give people a glimpse into a more perfect world than this one and instill the desire to reach it.
JACOB'S VIEW VS. ESAU'S VIEW
In Jacob's view, Temple service is the obligation of the first-born. As the establishment of a connection to God is the highest priority among all human needs, the first child born in each generation should naturally dedicate his life to this activity, occupying as it does, the place of primary importance in the pantheon of possible careers.
But Esau has no patience for this. He has the power to bring order to the world without focusing on another existence. He will use his powers of persuasion and if necessary, the power of the sword. After all anything is justified if it can bring the world to a state of perfection and eliminate all the evils that infect it, up to and including death.
Esau plans to use his powers of persuasion and if necessary, the power of the sword.
He tells Jacob he will gladly trade places. He does not see the Temple service as occupying the place of primary importance. Perfecting the world by teaching people temperance and self-restraint is more important. Jacob's message is the wrong one. The obligation of the first-born is to focus on this world, not to spend life dreaming of the next.
Esau understood Isaac's love for him as an endorsement of his entire approach to interpreting the mission of God's people that Abraham established and Isaac continued. He did not react to the awarding of the blessings to Jacob as merely the loss of a valuable prize. He regarded it as a betrayal of what he had been led to believe was his father's approach. In his heart he felt that Jacob and his mother Rebecca had manipulated his father into adopting the incorrect policy for the global mission of Israel and elevating Jacob as the leader of Israel and the setter of its policies. He rejected the new approach.
Amalek, Esau's grandson, and his nation attacked the Jewish people on the way to Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, the final endorsement of all that he opposed. He was so convinced of the rightness of his course and the justice of his cause that he was prepared for self-sacrifice. If he could not entirely prevail, at least let him turn world enthusiasm for Jacob's approach from scalding hot to merely lukewarm and leave himself some room to maneuver.
When you examine them deeply, [it would take an entire essay on its own to do so] all the acts of genocide referred to in the introduction stem from the same root. Each time such genocide was attempted it was on the grounds that the Jews, and what they stood for, were the true obstacles to perfecting mankind and attaining Utopia in this world.
The Roman Empire and all its successors -- that have included the Spanish, French, British, Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, etc. -- always carried out their imperialistic policies in the name of world progress and the promotion of the spread of true civilization. We still have not progressed past Esau's vision. We still believe that all our problems have earthly solutions.