D’var Torah For Friday, November 25, 2022

The haftarah portion to this week’s parasha, Toldot, comes to us from the prophet Malachai. We know little about the prophet except that he lived during the 5th Century B.C.E. when Judah was under Persian rule.

It begins, “I have loved you!” says the Eternal One. But you say, “How have You shown Your love for us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” says the Eternal One, “But I have loved Jacob, and hated Esau – making his hills a desolation, giving his heritage to jackals” (Malachai 1:2-3).

Jacob and Esau were known for fighting against each other dating back to the time they were in the womb. Esau was also referred to as Edom (red) because he had red hair. According to the Rabbinic reading of Toldot and Malachai, Esau (Edom) became the embodiment of all of Israel’s enemies. It also became a code word for when the rabbis were referring to Rome during the Roman occupation.

But why all of this animosity towards the brother of Jacob? Part of the reason for it was because Jacob and Esau were two very different individuals. Esau was the man of action. He liked to hunt. He carried his heart on his sleeve. He was quick to anger. And, at least according to the midrash, he thought little and instead acted on instinct.

But the rabbis go even further. Esau was accused of idolatry in some rabbinic writings. Others describe Esau as the epitome of evil. Or that Esau is the symbol of the yetzer ha’rah, the evil inclination. The drive to do things we know we should not do.

However, the Torah provides little substance to these subsequent interpretations of Esau. One might argue that the interpreters are reading back into history and finding a collective enemy they can rally their supporters around.

We are left with the lingering question: is there something of substance we can learn from Esau. I had the pleasure of hearing a D’var Torah that was asking a very similar question. According to this interpretation is the possibility that Esau lived the Jewish value of kibud av’v’eim, honoring one’s mother and father. Esau, in particular was devoted to his father Isaac, who also is not treated too favorably by tradition.

Perhaps then the lesson is, there are opportunities to learn from everyone we encounter, even people we may dislike for one reason or another. They may make choices we fundamentally disagree with, and there are some truly terrible people in the world. But most people, are striving to do what they feel is right, and in that, there is at least, a glimmer of the holy. Not always, but at least there is the potential.

For if we can find goodness in Esau, perhaps there are others we have cast aside, that we may be able to find at least a glimmer of goodness in them as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff