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Vayishlach and Forever Esau

The Jewish people trace their lineage to Abraham through Isaac and in particular Jacob. He is the father of the twelve tribes. In this week’s portion he gains the name Israel by wrestling with a divine being. His brother, Esau, is forever our enemy. According to Jewish tradition our many enemies can be traced to Isaac’s first-born son.

Esau is seen as the ancestor of the Edomites who aligned themselves with the Babylonians and destroyed the First Temple. The tradition as well sees the Romans as descendants of Esau who destroyed the Second Temple and views Jacob’s only brother as the ancestor of our later enemies, even modern European antisemites. The midrash comments: “We went looking for a brother, but instead found Esau, armed and hostile in a very non-brotherly manner.” All our enemies begin with Esau.

There are days, most especially during these past weeks, when my dreams are haunted by this tradition. Must Esau forever be my enemy? Will this enmity continue to be my future? Is this the history that we are condemned to live? I am a descendant of Jacob. My enemies forever bear the imprint of Esau. Our brother exclaims, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” (Genesis 27:41)

The world, however, appears to reverse this narrative, casting Jews and Israelis as the oppressor Esau. Mahatma Gandhi, a hero to many young college students, once wrote that only the Arabs were the rightful inhabitants of Palestine. He viewed the Zionist settlers as colonialists. He advocated that Jewish settlers practice non-violence in order to win over the hearts of the Arabs. Ghandi also thought that the Jews of Germany should follow a similar practice in response to what was in 1938 the emerging Nazi onslaught.

His views were of course dangerously naive. Zionism is about the willingness, and historical necessity, but not I pray inevitably, of defending Jewish lives in the face of enemies bent our destruction. Ghandi refused to divide the world into friend and foe. Our lot, we have learned, is far different. I am Jacob. My brother remains Esau. Then again perhaps the world should not be divided into such polarities. Perhaps we require different categories, and no longer either Jacob or Esau. If I view everyone else as Esau, and my enemy, do I then participate in damning my people to this eternal cycle of violence, hatred and war?

The Jewish philosopher and founder of Hebrew University, Martin Buber, responded to Ghandi by saying that that no land belongs to any people. “The conquered land is, in my opinion, only lent even to the conqueror who has settled on it—and God waits to see what he will make of it.”

Buber, unlike the majority of Zionists, argued for a bi-national state, a state with a shared place for Jews and Palestinians. It is a vision of Zionism long since discredited by the overwhelming majority of Israelis. How could such a state then have a decidedly Jewish character? Still there must always be a place for Arabs within a Jewish and democratic state.

This Sunday, we will mark the day (November 29, 1947) on which the United Nations argued that there should indeed be a place for Palestinian national aspirations, not within the Jewish state, but instead alongside it. Decades of war, terrorism and bloodshed suggest this is impossible. These past weeks cause our hearts to understandably become hardened. As we read about more youth, about Ezra Schwartz and Hadar Buchris for example, the prophetic vision of the wolf and the lamb becomes even more distant and that of Jacob and Esau becomes increasingly more real. We become despondent. The philosopher Martin Buber refused to lose hope.

And so we continue to ask, “Even after the knife attacks, the deaths of young students and the public calls for our destruction, can we still find hope?”

“And Esau ran to greet Jacob. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)

The Torah offers a measure of hope.