The Tragedy of Esau, as it plays out in our day – Rabbi Dr. G. Rothstein


Torah Portion: VAYISHLACH – And He Sent     B’reishit / Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: OBADIAH 1:1-21

By Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein

A reality too painful to be faced leaves two main choices, being overwhelmed by the accumulation of sadness or learning to distance oneself from events. Ideally, people find a middle road, where the tragedy penetrates their consciousness, but is taken with enough serenity to allow them to continue functioning. Doctors such as oncologists know this challenge well, as they cannot take every lost patient to heart without burning out or worse, but must also avoid become cold or inured to the sufferings with which their noble occupation confronts them.

This week’s haftarah [corresponding reading from the prophets – linked with the Torah portion] leads me to wonder whether the Jewish people have lost sight of that middle road in our attitude towards those who refuse to share our view of the world. Granted that we have always seen ourselves as Chosen to carry the message of God’s rule to the world, our abject failure to convince the rest of the world of our status – those who accepted our message of monotheism tend to arrogate that to themselves, while others simply ignore us – carries with it ramifications we tend to either ignore or celebrate; our haftarah shows us that neither reaction is appropriate.

Casual readers of the haftarah might classify it in the triumphalist camp of prophecy, where the prophet tells us how we’ll slam our enemies in future times, presumably thus lifting the spirits of an apparently bloodthirsty audience. That view ignores two important facts, first that the prophecy is addressed to Edom/Esau, and, second, that tradition saw Obadiah as a convert from Edom to the Jewish people.

Prophecies to Other Nations: Exercises in Futility?

The whole question of prophecies to other nations is one that has, as far as I have seen, been insufficiently addressed. Once we note that many, if not most, of the prophets [Jonah being the first] recorded words spoken to non-Jewish nations, the next step is to realize that the prophets apparently attached enough value to those nations’ reactions to spend their time and effort on addressing them. It would seem logical that they hoped they also would heed the prophecies and improve their ways. Otherwise, why speak to them – why not just speak to the Jews?

This is all the more the case when we see the Sages assuming that Obadiah was an Edomite convert. While there is some debate in Jewish thought about how much a prophet’s personal circumstances impact his or her prophecy, the fact of God choosing a convert to convey a message to his original people is striking and indicates that this was a prophecy to Edom, not about them.

Reading the haftarah with that in mind begins to peel away the layers of sadness that underlie it. The selection tells Edom of their future sufferings, how they will become the lowest of nations, lose their power, language, continuity of kingship. In many ways, Edom will lose its status as a nation.

Betraying Family: The Fault of Esau

We are not told right away why Esau is doomed to that fate, but his reaction gives us a hint. Instead of confronting his problems, the prophet envisions Esau as putting on a show, trying to portray himself as stronger than he really is. Then, we are told of Esau’s choosing to support nations in the process of destroying the Jewish people. Instead of feeling brotherly love, Esau celebrated in our destruction, an act that rebounds on him.

First, it is precisely those nations whom he supported who will turn on him. Second, Obadiah informs Esau that he will lose his leadership, so there will be no one with the wisdom to show him the way out of all his troubles.

We in the twenty-first century have not seen the nation of Esau in many years, so this can seem distant, but Obadiah’s message applies in many ways to the non-Jews of our times. The prophets assume as a simple truth of history that the Jews have a particular role in the world, that of announcing God’s rule. Esau’s refusal to accept Jacob’s exceptionalism, his insistence that he was as great or as special, his celebration of every time the Jews suffered, leads directly to his eventual destruction, an outcome no one wants.

Esau loses nationhood, leadership, and wisdom because of his denial of Jacob’s importance [in the Redemption plan of God]; those losses in turn lead to complete destruction. The one possible way he might have rectified all that, by agreeing that Jacob and his descendants deserved their position in the world, was closed off by his refusal to entertain it as a possibility.

What Is Old Is New

We face similar situations today. Our feeling of shared humanity with those around us should not blind us to the worry of how the future will play itself out for those who consistently refuse to admit to basic truths about the world. If God directs history, and the Jews have a special role to play in that history, those who deny it are setting themselves up for the kind of end Obadiah predicts for Esau here.

It is that dilemma that leads Obadiah to include the closing verse, the most famous one in the haftarah and one that was included numerous times in the traditional liturgy. “And redeemers will ascend Mount Zion to judge Mount Esau, and God will have true Kingship.” Those who align themselves against the Jewish people become a barrier to achieving what we should all hope for, a world in which God’s rule is recognized by all. In doing so, they make their punishment a necessary part of achieving that final goal.

All of which, let me stress, was and is avoidable, if only the nations involved – in this case Esau – would change their attitude. Accepting only our special role and place, all who currently follow this path could instead become positive contributors towards bringing about God’s desired future.

We can do it the easy way or the hard way; many read the prophets as if God and the Jews would celebrate doing it the hard way, but they are wrong. Obadiah, I believe, gave this prediction hoping against hope that his words would spur change. He knew, as we do, the odds against it; he knew that most likely his dire predictions would be forced to come to pass, that he and we will have to suffer a future in which those who might have been partners will instead be removed as adversaries. But I suspect he hoped otherwise, as should we.

In summary, then, the metaphor of family returns, this time in Obadiah’s complaints about Esau’s national neglect of that [familial] bond by rejoicing in our downfall. More broadly, the haftarah uses Esau as an example of the retribution awaiting those who reject the chosenness of the Jewish people; they are a particularly good example, since they should have accepted it as the truth of their [own] family.

– article posted on OU website under Torah/Parsha/Shnayim Mikra

7 Responses

  1. I agree with Dr. Rothstein’s assement. May I ask that he go a step further and address how this relates to the concept of Galut Edom. Moreover, does he see a remez in Gen 33:14?

    Genesis 33:14
    “Please let my lord pass on before his servant, and I will proceed at my leisure, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.”

      1. Shalom Keren,

        I’m afraid I’m out of my depth on the topic. That’s what motivated my question. Here’s what I know:

        1) Rashi links Obadiah v21 to Gen 33:14. I’m unclear as to why.

        2) “Galut Edom” refers to the Jews current “Exile in Edom.” To those unfamiliar with Esau’s family tree, the reference seems to be a bit of a misnomer because, in practical terms, it’s referring to the Diaspora in the Roman world. Only when one understands the Romans to be descended from the Edomites does the reference make sense. You can learn a bit more about Galut Edom from this lecture by Rabbi Elyahu Kin:

        3) As the Zion is synonymous with Jacob and Israel, so Seir is synonymous with Esau and Edom (Gen 36:8).

        4) You may have noticed in Scripture that G-d has a habit of holding biblical figures to their word. With that in mind, note in Gen 33:14b that Jacob says, “I will proceed at my leisure, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord at Seir.” Personally, I’m unaware of a time when Jacob literally fulfilled his word to Esau.

        5) Personally, I suspect Jacob’s statement in Gen 33:14 is a remez that hints at Israel going into Galut Edom, thus fulfilling Jacob’s word Esau. However, Obadiah v21 suggests to me that ultimately “the worm will turn.” Esau represents the world system that follows HaSatan, and Jacob (and Messiah to Whom all things have been given) will ultimately sit in judgement over Esau. I’d love to know if that’s the connection Rashi saw as well.

        Thank you for your inquiry. I hope the above adequately details my interest. I welcome your feedback.

        1. Shalom… and thanks for your reply, which is very “in depth”! 🙂 I really appreciated Rabbi Elyahu Kin’s lecture on ‘Galut Edom.’ You’re right; he presents the perspective that enables one to understand further references to Esav/Edom more clearly. It was a great eye-opener for me to realize that Jacob’s words to Esav were prophetic and were only fulfilled with the exile to the Roman world – Galut Edom. How priveleged we are, with the Restoration of Israel and the Hebraic understanding of the Scriptures, and the return to the Source of it all, to see the beginnings of the Geulah/ Redemption from that Galut.

  2. I wish that more Jewish people would read these comments by Rabbi Rothstein and stand up and come forward strong in their faith. I would love to be able to study the Torah and get a Jewish perspective on the truths of G-d, but no mater how many emails I send to different Rabbis, the door remains firmly closed. However, I think that Rabbi Rothstein is correct in his warnings to other nations that have either belittled or disregarded the Jewish nation. Look at how the UK has slowly disintegrated and has become more secularised since the Second World War, it could be that the country is increasingly turning it’s back on its Christian heritage, but I believe it is also because it refuses to make a stand with the Jewish people but tries to be too politically correct and please everybody. What does the word of G-d say, “I wish you were hot or cold, but as you are luke warm, I will spew you out of my mouth”. We have forgotten to pray for the blessing and peace of Jerusalem that we might share in their prosperity.

    1. Melford Zec. 8:23 so often comes to mind — Thus saith HaShem of hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the corners of the skirt (kanaph) of him that is a Jew, saying: We will go with you, for we have heard that G-d is with you.

      I feel so strongly that every day I am trying to do just that – to grasp the tzitzit — to grasp Torah.

      To be able to study one on one would be out of this world wonderful, but there are so many websites (Keren has given a couple of wonderful suggestions) and tons of resources for us to dig into and gleen from.

      How timely this article is in light of the USA’s decision last week to work with the new Fatah-Hamas government 🙁

  3. Shalom Melford, thanks for your comments. I also believe that ultimately Rabbi Rothstein’s article is more of a challenge to the nations. If only they all had your heart towards the Jewish people & the understanding that there is something vital in the Hebraic heritage that has been preserved and which the church and the nations need to learn in order to not be “spewed out of G-d’s mouth”! Yes… including to pray for the blessing and peace of Jerusalem. “If I forget thee O Jerusalem….”
    G-d will honour your desire to learn and study Torah. As you don’t seem to have a Rabbi personally nearby (e.g. a Chabad centre who would always welcome you) there is a load of great info on the Chabad site and BTW – have you heard of Rabbi Lazar Brody here in Israel? Might be worth trying to contact him as – depending on his availability and pretty busy schedule – he is usually open to interacting with those who are genuinely interested.

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