As a lawyer, you sometimes have to make a case for someone that you don’t entirely approve of. I’m not a lawyer, I’m an accountant. But, sometimes, I have to put forward a claim for something I don’t think will succeed but, nevertheless, my client is entitled to put it forward.
Today I’m acting for Mr Ben Yitzhak, Esau Ben Yitzhak to be precise. You see, he’s had a very bad press in the past. His brother, Jacob, you know, was a trickster and defrauded my client out of his birthright. Jacob thought he was smart (because his mother told him he was). In a weak moment, when my client was tired and hungry, Jacob stole his birthright from him.
Now if you heard the contemporary account of this incident, which you did a couple of weeks ago, you’d find what I think the man in the street would call negative remarks about Jacob, portraying him as a con man and a schemer, and positive remarks about Esau, portraying him as a skilful and honest hunter – a man of the countryside, respected by his father whom he honoured by bringing him tasty food and, moreover, later on forgiving his dastardly brother for the deception he had perpetrated on him.
In spite of all this, what do we find? That Jacob – the deceiver – becomes the chosen one and Esau becomes the rejected one. What has happened is that those whose job it was to interpret the contemporary account of events – for some reason – tended to gloss over Jacob’s imperfection and to ignore Esau’s strengths. The words “white” and “wash” spring to mind!
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Esau’s name becomes associated with the enemy – Edom. Originally, the Edomites were a minor tribe whose king was asked if he would allow the Israelites to pass through his land – peaceably. The king of Edom sent the Israelites away. Later, under king David, Edom was conquered by Israel. It regained its independence after Israel and Judah split but fell under the rule of the Babylonians – and that was the end of the Edomites. But then what happened? The rabbis transformed the name Edom into the Roman Empire, who destroyed our temple.
So what is it with Esau that he gets such a bad press? Günter Plaut suggests that Esau had to be written outof the family story precisely because he waspractical rather than cerebral and thus was ineligible to take on the mantle of his father and grandfather. The irony is, says Plaut, that, following the theft of Esau’s blessing, Jacob suffered bitter agony– fourteen years’ servitude, the death of his beloved wife, Rachel and the exile of his favourite son, Joseph.
But Esau couldn’tbe written out of history and therefore hadto be associated with an enemy of Israel. One of his descendants was Iram. Take off the “I” and change the “a” to an “o” and there you have it – Rome.
According to Aviva Zornberg, this is all happening because Jacob is the one who is behind. His name signifies that he was holding onto the heel – akev – of his brother when they were born. Now, normally, it is the hunter who hangs back, stalking his prey. But, in this case, Jacob leads from behind as a thinker – the director behind the scenes.
Jacob’s strength is that he is the one who lies in wait, who bides his time and plans his strategies from the rear. So, although he is not the first born, he wins first born status through logic and planning. In Bereshit Raba, the Midrash reads this as the explanation as to why, although Rome conquered Jerusalem physically, it could not crush the spirit and the learning of it inhabitants. This is borne out because we are still here and the Roman Empire is no more.
In contrast to Jacob, Esau, described in our sedra as having “game in his mouth”, becomes the Roman occupiers who try to trap the unwary with sophisticated questions. In Bereshit Raba, there is a well known story of two rabbis, Yehuda ha Nasi and Yossi ben Yehuda, who see a Roman police officer approaching. Yehuda ha Nasi says to his colleague – you’re going to be asked three questions – these are what the answers should be:
- Question one will be, “Who are you? The answer should be, “Jews”
- Question two will be, “What is your profession? The answer should be, “Businessmen”. (The study of Torah was prohibited)
- Question three will be, “Where are you going?” The answer should be, “To allocate wheat for the granaries at Dibnia”. (Surely this would be seen as essential work)
Yossi ben Yehuda asked Yehuda ha Nasi, “From where did you learn to prepare the answer before the question? Yehuda ha Nasi replied, “From Jacob our father – so you shall say – behold, he is behind us”
So the Romans are Esau, with game in their mouths – pitted against the Israelite Jacob – who lies in wait from behind with his cunning strategy!
We Jews are often portrayed (notably by Jackie Mason) as an impractical people who can, nevertheless, outwit the enemy. This is probably no longer true – certainly not in Israel. But it probably is true in the larger sweep of history.
Certainly, the Jews preserved their culture after the fall of Jerusalem. And, a hundred years earlier, on a day that we celebrate in eight days’ time, the Jews managed to overthrow their Hellenistic conquerors. Although we scored the military victory using Esau’s hunting skills, we know that we also had to use Jacob’s powers of planning and strategy. Ultimately, we were guided by God, using all the qualities which he gave us, through the family line which developed into a nation. We couldn’t only use Esau’s skills – neither could we only use Jacob’s. In the words of Zechariah, which we will read in two weeks’ time, “Not by might, nor by power by My spirit, says the Lord of Hosts”.