The Midrash relates that on Jacob’s death in this week’s parsha, Vayechi, his sons carried his body to Hebron to bury it in the cave where his grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, his parents, Isaac and Rebecca, and his wife Leah had been buried before him. But when they arrived, Esau and his soldiers blocked their entry. The final burial plot in the cave belonged to him, Esau claimed, denying the truth that he had sold his share to his brother decades earlier.
Jacob’s grandson Chushim drew his sword and decapitated Esau, whose head then rolled into the cave. Twins, Jacob and Esau were thus born on the same day and died on the same day. The Midrash relates that when Esau’s head rolled into the cave, it landed in his father Isaac’s resting place, as Targum Yonasan states: “Esau’s head lies in the bosom of Isaac” (Targum Yonatan, Genesis 50:13).
The chassidic masters teach that there is profound significance to the burial of Esau’s head, and head only, in the cave of Machpelah with the three holy patriarchs and matriarchs. The head represents our highest root and potential. As the mystics teach, Esau’s soul-root was extremely lofty – even higher than the root of Jacob, which is why Isaac desired to give Esau the birthright blessing. But whereas Jacob was capable of bringing the highest levels down into the “עקב/eikev/heel” – which is why he was named יעקב/Yaakov, from the root ‘eikev’ – there was too great a gulf between Esau’s head and his body. Throughout his life, therefore, the two aspects of his being – his Godly soul and his animal soul – battled incessantly. It was only at his death that his highest nature was freed from the anchor of his body. His head rolled into the cave and rested with his father who had always recognized his immense Godly potential and tried to bring it down to express itself in this world.
Like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, our job is to expose the face of God wherever it is hidden. All of those who act “ungodly” in this world are unable to access their Godly essence and potential. It is the lack of belief in, or awareness of, the “Pnei Hashem/face of God” within them that makes them act in ways that are contrary to their true and highest nature. To transform the world, and to hasten the arrival of the time of peace and perfect vision, we must work tirelessly to help those who are lost to find and reveal the Godliness within them and within all things.
This said, there are those who refuse to see the Godliness that underlies and unifies us all. They, like Esau, choose to battle rather than unite. While it is our nature and our mission to labor strenuously at peace and rectification, we must know when it is time to defend ourselves and protect our loved ones and our land. At such a point, there is no room for additional conversation or negotiation with those who are fixed on violence and conflict. Hesitation and capitulation will only result in further confusion and carnage. Just as Chushim leapt into decisive action, so too each of us must recognize that, as King Solomon taught, there is “a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace” (Kohelet 3:8).
Torah is a book of love, but it does not ignore the harsh reality of this temporal and bifurcated existence. God’s Oneness is absolute, but it is not yet revealed in this corporeal realm. It is our task to purify, elevate, and perfect this world, but it has not always been, and will not always be, easy or painless to do so. We work for peace, but we know that sometimes we must fight for it. We are dreamers, yet we are realists. We are a nation of priests, but we are warriors.
Chushim did not behead Esau out of malice, anger, or vengeance. He recognized Esau’s evil intent, and he knew what needed to be done. Like our forefathers, our goal is to teach those with whom we interact about God’s omnipresence, and thereby to unify the creation. Our deepest wish is to live in peace, but our tradition and history teach us that this is not always the desire of our neighbors. Battle brings us no pleasure, but we will battle if we are given no alternative. We will simultaneously continue to work to reveal the Godliness that is hidden in the darkest places, and we will continue to pray for the day when conflict will no longer be necessary, when nation will no longer lift up sword against nation, and we will not learn war any more.