Esau: good or bad?

Esau: good or bad?

Sara Rae Perman
Sara Rae Perman

Toldot, Genesis 25:19-28:9

This week’s parshah is, in my opinion, a disturbing one.

The story begins with the birth of the fraternal twins, Esau and Jacob.  From the beginning it is clear they are very different.

Esau is a hunter. Jacob is a homeboy.  After a failed hunting trip, Esau, who is famished, demands food from Jacob who has made a pot of lentils (understood in the commentaries to be the meal of comfort for their father Isaac after the death of their grandfather, Abraham).

In exchange for the food, Esau sells his birthright.  Then we have when Isaac wants to bless Esau as the oldest.  Rebecca, overhearing Isaac, arranges for Jacob to disguise himself as Esau in order to receive the blessing from his blind father instead of Esau.  Jacob “steals” the blessing and then is forced to flee to save his life as Esau wants to kill him.

My problem with this parshah is that it is fraught with deceit.  One could argue that Jacob tricks Esau into selling his birthright as well as agreeing to the ruse devised by their mother to obtain Isaac’s blessing.  Rebecca clearly helps Jacob deceive Isaac for the blessing.

But, it also appears that Isaac is part of the deceit as well, since he clearly senses that the disguised Jacob might not really be Esau. Then Rebecca again uses deceit as a way to make sure Jacob’s life is saved by telling Isaac she wants their son Jacob to marry one of their kinfolk, not one of the locals as Esau had done.

Of course, the traditional commentaries do not see this story as being filled with deceit. They cleverly argue that in reality Jacob was the first one conceived and therefore deserving of inheriting what a first-born would inherit, which is why Rebecca and Isaac are compliant in the whole scheme. Imagine a tube closed at one end. In the open end you place a blue ball and then a red ball.  Flip it over and the red ball (Esau) comes out first.  But it was the blue ball (Jacob) you put in the tube first.

When I was a rabbinical student, I had the wonderful opportunity to do a two-year internship with Rabbi Eugene Lipman (z’l) who was originally from Pittsburgh.  He had a “Friends of Esau” group in his synagogue in Washington, D.C.  He taught us that Esau got a bum rap from the traditional sources. The rabbis of the Talmud identified Esau with Rome, which is why they did not like him.  But in reality, Esau was a man who clearly cared about his father and deeply respected him.  Yes he did marry two Hittite women who were a source of bitterness to both his parents, but he later marries one of his cousins by Ishmael.  Esau does want to bring his father the best of his hunt.  He also does not want to kill Jacob while Isaac is still alive. When Isaac died, it was both Esau and Jacob who buried their father.

The parshah certainly demonstrates the totally dysfunctional nature of Isaac’s family.  

Yet who has a “normal” family?   And in the end Esau is not as bad as he is made out to be.  Maybe we should think of him as the victim of this story instead of the bad guy we often consider him to be.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)