Why study a Goyish chapter of Torah?

Why is a whole chapter of the Torah (Genesis 36) devoted to the descendants of Esau, pro-genitor of the nation of Edom: their clans and their kings?

To teach us that it is a Mitsvah to study the social and political history of the non-Jewish peoples who live near by. “These are the (8) kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over Israel.” (Genesis 36:31)

From the example of these kings the Jewish people should have learned not to want to have kings like all the other nations.

Hadar the last King of Edom listed was married to Mehetable the daughter of Matred the daughter of May-Zahav. (36:39) Why is this tiny detail of Gentile life in our holy Torah?

The Zohar says that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai derived 300 rules of conduct from this text through mystical esoteric wisdom. Then he revealed them only to Rabbi Eliezer so he would know how much wisdom lies in every word and in every incident in the Torah.

One rule is based on Rabbi Simon who said that Mehetabel’s name means God makes good, and thus every Jewish husband should see his wife as very good and beautiful.

This wisdom and skill was passed down from May-Zahav whose name is Goldwater. Jews should not idolize non-Jewish beauty queens, but they should also not despise them. Goodness and beauty can be linked. Learn and apply it to your own wife.

The evil King Manasseh studied the Torah in order to disparage it. He asked: Did Moses have nothing better to put in the Torah than “Lotan’s sister was Timna”? (36:22) The Talmud answers with a profound Midrash.

Timna wanted to convert to Judaism and marry Eliphaz. She came to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and each one of them would not accept her. So Timna became a concubine to Eliphaz (36:12) and she didn’t become Jewish.

One of her descendants was Amalek, who attacked the Jewish people in later generations. Why did this happen? Because of the patriarchs, who should not have rejected her!

Thus we should always encourage conversion to Judaism, even if it is initially due to a desire to marry and unify the family. Never be among those rabbis and others who push away non-Jews because of inflexibility, suspiciousness and making difficult demands to soon.

For some Jews the Torah is an intellectual joy. They love to study and discuss Torah. For other Jews the Torah is their beloved. She is a tree of life and they love to hold her and kiss her. Thus a commentator says that a man learned neither in Bible nor in Mishnah; who sits and repeats all day long the words, Lotan’s sister was Timna, will achieve the same reward as for studying Torah. If you are deeply in love; every little detail is magical.

What about the verse; “Anah found the Yaymim in the wilderness while pasturing his father’s donkeys” (36:24) Some scholars translate Yaymim as hot springs others as mules. The word appears nowhere else in the Bible. Was Anah the first to find out that crossbreeding a horse and a donkey could produce a hybrid? Is a hot spring also a strange combination? Will we ever find out what this word really means? Does it matter?

The details we can’t understand simply testify to the love of previous generations that we can understand and admire. Or perhaps future generations who will understand because they will know a lot more than we do.

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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