Friday, 20 Nov 2009

Written by Irit Burkeman

“When Esau heard his father’s words, he screamed a very bitter and loud shout. . . . And Esau raised his voice and sobbed” (Gen. 27:34, 38).

Having heard that his father, Isaac, has given the blessing to his younger brother, Jacob, Esau the hunter cries out; when no blessing is forthcoming for him he sobs.  Not exactly the image one would expect from a man who is a good hunter.  So why would he cry out and sob?

We are known as the children of Israel, not the children of Esau. The line which our Torah follows, from which we are descended, is the line of the younger son, the son who receives the birthright in return for a portion of lentil stew, and who ultimately becomes Israel. Esau becomes the rejected one: rejected first by his mother, then, inadvertently, by his father, and ultimately by our Rabbis, who portray him in a very negative way. Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our picture of this ruthless hunter.

When Jacob was born he emerged from the womb holding on to Esau’s heel (Gen. 25:26). Was that because he wanted to be the first, or was it because Esau dragged him out, to help him?  Did Esau emerge reddish (admoni), because of the effort he had expended carrying his brother into the world? The description given of Esau—“like a hairy mantel” (Gen. 25:25)—is not the description one associates with a human baby. Jacob’s description is conspicuous by its absence, suggesting that Esau’s description is significant.

Esau ‘exchanged’ the birthright for the “red, red stew” which Jacob offered him (Gen. 25:30). It is possible that Esau did not believe this transaction was real. Couldn’t he have thought that his twin brother would give him something to eat when he came back from the hunt, presumably bringing meat to the family’s table?  After all, saying “for I am going to die, why do I need the . . . right of the first born?” (Gen. 25:32) could have been a manner of speech, as he knew full well that he couldn’t die from tiredness.  Is there a play on words, hinting that Jacob was up to mischief, in vayazed Ya’akov nazid “and Jacob cooked a stew (Gen. 25:29) which is echoing the word zad, which means to act wickedly or maliciously?

The most painful betrayal of Esau occurs when Jacob pretended to be Esau, encouraged by his mother, who instigated the situation: Isaac asked Esau to go and hunt and cook for him so that he could bless him before he died.  Rebecca hears it, dresses Jacob in Esau’s clothes, and sends him to his father with Isaac’s favourite food.

Isaac is apparently aware that his food arrived rather quickly; he also asks to touch Jacob to ascertain whether the person in front of him is Esau or not.  His conclusion is that the “the voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands those of Esau” (Gen. 27:22).  Why did Isaac trust his sense of touch more than his hearing?  Was he eager to eat like Esau at the time when he first sold his birthright for a bowl of stew?  Though Isaac knew that his days were numbered, as his physical condition was deteriorating, he did not know the exact timing  when he said that he wanted to bless Esau “before I die” (Gen. 27:7); why then would he have been so anxious to eat?

Why is Isaac so very alarmed, almost panicked, to hear that he ate from someone else’s food?  Why is he asking who is the one that hunted and brought him food, when he himself said that the voice was Jacob’s?  Did he know on some level that he had also betrayed his favourite son?

When, in retaliation, Esau decides to kill his brother once his father dies, Rebecca sends Jacob away so that she will not lose both her sons at the same time (Gen. 27:45: according to one interpretation, one will be murdered and the other killed by an avenger).  This is the one time when Rebecca shows some feelings for her first born, but not to his face.  The ruse to Isaac is that she doesn’t want Jacob to marry a Hittite woman, possibly like Esau (Gen. 27:46).  

Ironically, Esau, the man whose name in Jewish tradition became synonymous with Christianity, has married a Hittite woman named Yehudit (Gen. 26:34), whose name became synonymous with the Jewish faith.

Jacob receives a blessing in his own right before he goes to his uncle to get a wife.  And Esau, who might have heard that his mother was unhappy with the Hittite woman, took Machalat, the daughter of Ishmael, the son of Abraham for a wife—perhaps  in an attempt to placate his mother.

“When Esau heard his father’s words, he screamed a very bitter and loud shout. . . . And Esau raised his voice and sobbed” (Gen. 27:34, 38).

Maybe now we can have a better understanding, why Esau cried so bitterly.

At Isaac’s burial the twins are united again: “Esau and Jacob his sons buried him” (Gen. 35:28).  In spite of the birthright issue, here Esau is mentioned first.

Irit Burkeman
November 2009

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.