Perhaps the most villainous character in the entire Book of Bereishit is Esav, or, in the words of our Sages, “Esav Ha’Rasha” – “The Wicked Esav”. Esav did it all. There was not one sin that he did not commit. Example: The Torah tells that us [Bereishit 25:29] “[Esav] came from the field and he was tired”. Why was he tired? The Midrash informs us that he had just committed three major-league crimes: murder, rape, and disbelief in Hashem. Our Sages pile up the accusations against Esav, and turn him into a monster.

While there are those who disagree[1], I was taught that the Midrash will not besmirch a character who has committed no obvious wrong. On the other hand, if this person has committed a crime, our Sages will have no trouble attributing to him additional crimes, crimes that he did not clearly commit. The worse the person’s crime is, the more heinous the crimes that our Sages attribute to him. For instance, Balaam wanted to exterminate Am Yisrael by cursing them. Doesn’t get much more heinous than that. Our Sages respond by accusing Balaam of committing acts of bestiality with his donkey[2]. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Batra [109b] calls it “Linking evil actions with evil people” – “Tolin et ha’kalkala ba’mekulkal[3]. Rabbi Berel Wein clarifies this idea. He says that stories in the Midrash are not necessarily accurate and are not intended to be interpreted literally. However, they do convey much information about their characters. As Rabbi Wein says, “You don’t tell the same stories about Moshe Rabbeinu as you do about Richard Nixon”.

And there’s the rub. If we were to judge Esav merely by what is written in the Torah, our conclusion would be that Esav is a rather benign, albeit petulant, character. While he sells his birthright to Yaakov, he does so at the age of fifteen[4]. What does he know? He’s just a stupid kid. Esav marries two Hittite women and [Bereishit 26:35] “it caused Yitzchak and Rivkah bitterness”. But why is marrying a Hittite woman so horrible[5]? As the Torah had not yet been given, there was no prohibition in marrying a non-Jew. For that matter, was Lavan the Aramite, the father of Yaakov’s wives, any more Jewish than the Hittites? As for Yitzchak’s and Rivkah’s consternation, in the words of R’ Ariel Catane, “Is there any parent who has not had something less than laudatory to say about his child’s choice of a spouse?” One might point to Esav’s threat to kill Yaakov[6] as evidence of criminal behaviour, but didn’t Yaakov just steal Esav’s blessings from under his nose? Esav could not help being angry. And at the end of the day, when Esav finally catches up to Yaakov years later, he does not kill him – he kisses him.

In order to understand what Esav did wrong, we must look back at Lot, the nephew of Avraham. The Midrash also takes Lot to task, accusing him of indulging in sins that included murder, rape, and idolatry. And yet a cursory look at Lot’s life shows no obvious wrong. We asked this question in an earlier shiur[7] and we answered that evidence of Lot’s evil character is found in the Talmud in Tractate Nazir [23b]. The Talmud explains the verse from Mishlei [18:19] “A rebellious brother [is deprived] of a strong city” as referring to Lot who separated himself from Avraham. The fact that Lot would leave our forefather Avraham to move to Sodom is shows us that Lot is not interested in anything Avraham has to offer. His distancing himself from Avraham is his way of distancing himself from Avraham’s way of life and from his values. Imagine that the Rambam, Albert Einstein, and Babe Ruth are all living at your house, but you decide to go live in Toowoomba because vegetables are cheaper there. Chances are you’re leaving home for much more than vegetables.

When Yaakov returns from his exile in Aram, he sends messengers to Esav to try to “feel things out”. Notice that Yaakov sends the messengers [Bereishit 32:4] “to the Land of Seir in the fields of Edom”. This must mean that Esav does not live with Yitzchak any more. He has left home and has moved to the “fields of Edom”, in the western part of modern-day Saudi Arabia. Esav’s willingly moving away from Yitzchak is exactly the same as Lot’s willingly moving away from Avraham. This is the sin the brands Esav as evil and sets the stage for our Sages’ assault. And I can prove it.

Towards the end of Parashat Vayishlach, the Torah gives a lengthy overview of Esav’s family and where they lived [36:6-8]: “Esav took his wives, his sons, and his daughters and all the people of his household, and his cattle and all his animals and all his property that he had acquired in the Land of Canaan, and he went to a[nother] land, because of his brother Yaakov. For their possessions were too numerous for them to dwell together, and the land where they lived could not support them because of their livestock. So Esav dwelt on Mount Seir, Esav, known as Edom.” Excuse me? Esav had to leave the Land of Canaan because he and Yaakov didn’t have enough room? How can that be? Esav was already living in Mount Seir before Yaakov returned from his Aramean exile! It certainly wasn’t a conflict with Yaakov that forced Esav to leave home. In fact, the reason given in the Torah sounds a lot like the official reason that Lot left Avraham [Bereishit 13:5-6]: “Also Lot, who went with Avram, had flocks and cattle and tents. The land did not allow them to live together, for their possessions were many and they could not live together.” Esav and Lot. Not only do they have the same excuse for leaving, they have the same reason for leaving: they cannot stand where they are living.

Let’s return to Esav. What does the Torah add when it tells us “Esav, known as Edom”? Edom is one of Esav’s names. He received this name when he “came from the field” and traded his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. He tells Yaakov to give him [Bereishit 25:30] “some of this red stuff (adom adom ha’zeh)… therefore his name was called Edom (red)”. It all fits. Esav moves to Edom and becomes identified not with his Jewish roots, but with the Saudi desert. Edom becomes not just another one of Esav’s names, but, rather, the symbol of Esav’s desertion. Indeed, Rav Yonatan ben Uziel translates “Esav, who is Edom”, as “Esav, who is the Master of Edom”. And so our Sages bring unwritten stories that link Esav’s sins specifically with the name Edom:

  • Before Esav drinks the “red stuff”, they say that he has just finished killing, raping, and pillaging, the same horrible sins that they accuse Lot of committing.
  • They explain that Yaakov makes lentil soup because Avraham Avinu has just died, and lentils are traditionally eaten by mourners[8]. Avraham’s death is symbolic of Esav “leaving the fold”. He has lost all connection to his family.

Lot left Avraham, Esav left Yitzchak, and Richard Nixon left the White House. The names change, but the stories, and the lessons they teach, remain eternal.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzipora Hadara

[1] My wife, for one.

[2] See Rashi on Bemidbar [22:30].

[3] This law has halachic ramifications. If a piece of non-kosher meat falls into one of two pots, and one of those pot contains non-kosher food, then we say that the meat fell into that pot and the other pot remains kosher.

[4] This age is based on the Midrash that Esav sold his birthright to Yaakov on the day that Avraham died. Yitzchak was born when Avraham was one hundred years old. Yaakov and Esav were born when Yitzchak was sixty years old, and Avraham died at the age of 175, meaning that his grandsons were fifteen years old when he died.

[5] See our shiur of two weeks ago, Toledot 5775.

[6] See Bereishit [27:41].

[7] Shemot 5761

[8] See Rashi ad loc: Because they are round, and life “goes around”, and they are flat and have no mouth, just as a mourner is forbidden from speaking. For this reason mourners also eat eggs.