Parshat Toldot

Torah Reading for Week of November 15-21, 2009

“Does Esau Still Hate Jacob?”

by Ronnie Serr
AJRCA Professor of Jewish Thought

Beginning with Cain and Abel and ending with the brothers who sold Joseph, the book of Genesis includes a series of stories about brothers who hate each other to the extent of contemplating their death. In the case of Cain and Abel, an actual murder occurs. Moses and Aharon, at the end of the Exile of Egypt, are the first brothers in our history who really love each other. Upon them the Psalms verse says ‘how good and pleasant it is the sitting of brothers together “shevet akhim gam yachad”’ (Ps. 133:1).

In several places, the Written Torah places unexplained dots over some words to demand that we expound on the written text. One of these appears above the word ‘kissed’ in “and he [Esau] kissed him [Jacob]” (Exodus 33:4). Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai expounds: “It is a well known halacha, that Esau hates Jacob, though at that moment his [Esau’s] compassion was reversed and he kissed him [Jacob] with all his heart” (Midrash Halacha Sifrey Beha’alotcha 11 and see also Malachi 1:3).

Marking a statement as Halacha, is the rabbinical idiom for saying that a statement of Oral Torah has an eternal status akin to the Written Torah. The rabbinical tradition has, for the most part, seen Esau’s hatred as essential, innate and beyond the fluctuations of history. Esau is identified with Edom, and Edom with Christianity. The Jewish people are destined to go through four exiles, Egypt, Babylon, Greece and Edom. This last exile, Galut Edom, our submission to the Christian world, descendants of Esau, is the longest and harshest of all other exiles.

The Torah commands the Jews to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:6). The role of the Jews is to bring holiness to the world in a unique way required only from them by the commandments of Torah. Both the Written and Oral Torahs, emphasize the need to separate between Israel and the nation, a separation that is necessary to Israel’s unique mission. Kadosh means ‘separated.’ The prophetic dream of the time of Messiah (e.g. Is. 11) is not a ‘melting pot’ of all nations, races and genders into one undifferentiated loving humanity, but the actual peaceful co-existence of well established nations (the “lion” and the “sheep” according to Rambam, Hilchot Melachim).

Does Esau still hate Jacob at a time when the secular and rational [religion of] Modernism has seemingly replaced the Christianity in the Western World? Is Esau still Esau, always seeking ways to destroy Jacob—or is Christian anti-Semitism in the process of completely vanishing from the world? Are the 350 years of grace in America, a period where no state-sponsored violence has been instigated against the Jews, proof that we’re actually approaching the End of Times where all brotherly hatred will transform into the sweetness of the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind?

For those who believe that halacha is human, and hence should adapt to the times, there might be a reason to welcome the utopia of the brotherhood of humanity even before the Messiah arrives. For those who believe that halacha is divine and eternal, no appearance of brotherly affection between Christians and Jews could change the halacha, the unchangeable law, that the womb-based antagonism between Esau and Jacob is an essential, if concealed, aspect of our lives until the coming of Messiah.

May HaShem reveal His goodness throughout His existence and open our hearts to the eternal truths of Creation.

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