By Shlomo Riskin
Years ago, a college classmate provocatively announced that he planned to name his first son “after the most maligned figure in the entire Torah: Esau.”
Let’s consider Esau’s defense. After we are introduced to Esau as Isaac’s favorite son since “the hunt was in his [Isaac’s] mouth” [Gen. 30:28], we are immediately taken to the fateful scene where Jacob is cooking lentil soup when Esau came home exhausted from the hunt. The hungry hunter asks for some food, but Jacob will only agree to give his brother food in exchange for the birthright. Who is taking advantage of whom? Is not a cunning Jacob taking advantage of an innocent Esau?
Then there is the more troubling question of the stolen blessing. Even without going into the details of how Jacob pretends to be someone he’s not, Esau emerges as an honest figure deserving of our sympathy. After all, Esau’s desire to personally carry out his father’s will meant that he needed a long time to prepare the meat himself. Indeed it was Esau’s diligence in tending to his father that allowed enough time to pass to make it possible for his younger brother to get to Isaac’s tent first. Surely, Rebecca must have realized the profound nature of Esau’s commitment to his father, for she masterminded Jacob’s plan.
On his return from the field, Esau realizes that Jacob has already received the blessing originally meant for him. His response cannot fail to touch the reader. Poignantly, Esau begs of his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept [Gen. 27:38].
But it is the beginning of Vayishlaĥ that clinches our pro-Esau case. Jacob finally returns to his ancestral home after an absence of 20 years. Informed of the impending approach of Esau’s army of 400 men, he divides his household into two camps, so that he’s prepared for the worst. But what actually happens defies Jacob’s expectations: Esau is overjoyed and thrilled to see him. The past is the past. “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept” [Gen. 33:4].
Thus described, Esau hardly seems worthy of the official censure of Jewish history as the personification of the anti-Jew. So, why are our Sages so critical of him? Our analysis overlooks something central in Esau’s character. Yes, there are positive characteristics of Esau to be found in many Jews across the Diaspora. Many are aggressive, self-made people who weep when they meet a long-lost Jewish brother from Ethiopia or Russia. They have respect for their parents and grandparents, tending to their physical needs and even reciting the traditional mourner’s Kaddish for a full year after their death. Financial support and solidarity missions to the State of Israel, combined with their vocal commitment to Jewry and Israel, reflect a highly developed sense of Abrahamic (Jewish) identity, just like Esau seems to have. Esau feels Abrahamic identity with every fiber of his being.
But when it comes to commitment to Abrahamic (Jewish) continuity, to willingness to secure a Jewish future, many of our Jewish siblings are found to be wanting – just like Esau. Undoubtedly, one of the most important factors in keeping us “a people apart”, and preventing total Jewish assimilation into the majority culture, has been our unique laws of kashrut. Refusing to break bread with our non-Jewish work colleagues and neighbors has imposed a certain social distance that has been crucial for maintaining our identity. But Esau is willing to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. Hasn’t the road to modern Jewry’s assimilation been paved with the T-bone steaks and the lobsters that tease the tongues lacking the self-discipline to say no to a tasty dish? Like Esau, the overwhelming majority of Diaspora Jewry has sold its birthright for a cheeseburger.
Esau’s name means fully-made, complete. He exists in the present tense. He has no commitment to past or future. He is emotional about his identity, but he is not willing to make sacrifices for its continuity. Primarily, it is on the surface, as an external cloak that is only skin-deep. That’s why it doesn’t take more than a skin-covering for Jacob to enter his father’s tent and take on the character of Esau. Esau has no depth.
In addition, Esau marries Hittite women. And that causes his parents to feel a “bitterness of spirit” [27:35]. The decision of many modern Jews to ‘marry out’ has reached an American average of 62%. Even those who marry out and continue to profess a strong Jewish identity cannot commit to Jewish continuity.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.