The Permanent Friction Between Esav and Yaakov

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Ran opens his second derasha with Malachi 1:2, where the prophet reminds the Jews of Hashem’s love, a love that is proven by the contrast between Hashem’s reaction to Yaakov and Esav. His audience might have known this verse by virtue of its being from the haftarah of Toledot (the derashah eventually deals with events from Toledot, specifically the securing of Yitzchak’s blessings for Ya’akov), but it is also true that medieval derashot started with a verse, usually not from the Torah reading, and the speaker would eventually work his way back to the Torah reading.

In this series
* 1: Communities, Combination and Creation
* 2: What Science Doesn’t Know
* 3: What’s the Best Way to Physical Health?
* 4: The Permanent Friction Between Esav and Yaakov
* 5: Changing the World with Evocative Acts
* 6: Predicting and Locking In the Future
* 7: Moshe’s Speech Defect and the Dangers of Demagoguery
* 8: Drasha 3: Aharon and the Rewards of Sincere Humility
* 9: Drasha 3: Embracing the Metaphysics in the First Mitzvot of the Torah

We might assume that this was simply the derashah Ran gave on Toledot one year. As I noted at the outset, my experience of the work leads me to believe these derashot are a unit, a series of talks combining to a larger picture. As we study this derashah, I think we’ll see how the sections of Toledot Ran addresses are more pieces of an overall worldview he’s building.

Ran wonders at Malachi’s pointing to Hashem’s love for Ya’akov as remarkable, since there is no particular reason Esav should have been like Ya’akov. In human affairs, parents treat their children similarly, but Hashem rewards those who act well and the reverse to those who do not. Why is it so interesting that Hashem treats Esav differently from Ya’akov? Ran’s answer takes the Ya’akov/Esav tension out of the familial and into the metahistorical/geopolitical realm.

Permanent Sibling Rivalry

In contrast to most nations—who, in Ran’s view, made their peace with Jewish sovereignty — the descendants of Esav (whom Rabbinic tradition equates with Rome and all societies that stem from Rome, including all of Christianity) oppose and object to Jews’ securing power. The reaction of Islam today to the State of Israel suggests that’s no longer true, that opposition to Jewish sovereignty has spread beyond Esav’s descendants, but it was mostly true in Ran’s time.

He explains this resistance to our success as a function of what Chazal noted in Megillah 6a, that only one of our nations can be successful at a time. Chazal derived this from Bereshit 25:23, where Rivkah was told that one of her two sons would always dominate the other. Before Esav can be ascendant, Ya’akov has to do something to lead to his fall from power, and that creates a permanent tension between the brothers and among their descendants.

That is why, Ran notes, Bereshit 36:31 tells us of the kings who ruled Edom before the Jews had a king. Once a Jewish monarch came on the scene, Edom only had governors, not kings, until Jewish kings began sinning (II Melachim 8:20), whereupon Edom rebelled against their Jewish masters and set up their own king.

On a Worldwide Scale

In other words, Ya’akov and Esav are inextricably interconnected, which is why they are both referred to as descendants of Yitzchak (as opposed to Yishma’el, for example, who is never grouped with Yitzchak as a descendant of Avraham). That’s also why they already fought in the womb.

This fighting, Ran claims, stemmed from inherent differences, but those differences themselves were unnatural or supernatural—ordinarily, twins should be similar. In Ran’s terminology, a child’s nature depends on his parents and/or on the stars’ alignment at the time of conception, and twins share both. (People nowadays assume fraternal twins have no more of a genetic similarity than any siblings, although I wonder whether scientists will come to see that even such twins are more similar than we have thought until now, as epigenetic factors and the role of the intrauterine environment in shaping a child’s genetics are more understood).

However far we take it, Ran’s point is that the extent of the difference between Ya’akov—the tent-dweller, of good character, and temperate demeanor—and Esav—the hot-headed hunter—seems supernatural, a way to make clear, even from before they were born, that they represent an historic and historical opposition. Ya’akov is meant to be on top, and Esav only rises when Ya’akov forfeits that position. That’s also why Ya’akov came out holding Esav’s heel, as a way of showing that at the end of days, Ya’akov would grab Esav’s rule.

Incidents Stirring that Enmity

Ran also notes how their early life widened the distance between them. There was Ya’akov’s “buying” Esav’s first-born status, which Ran questions—what kind of person takes advantage of Esav’s hunger to coerce a sale of a birthright? Ran goes further, noting that even had Ya’akov paid more than a bowl of soup, and even had the birthright not involved any monetary consequences, it’s odd behavior for a future Patriarch.

His answer is that if we accept Bava Batra 16b’s tradition that this was the day that Avraham passed away, and the lentils were to comfort the mourners, Esav’s behavior shows how far he already was from the family legacy. Instead of being distressed over his grandfather’s passing, and empathetic to his father’s mourning, he was out in the fields, doing whatever he did. When he returned to find his brother making soup to help out, he still ignored the death, and acted boorishly.

Ya’akov, then, says to Esav, “if you care so little about the family legacy, sell me the right to represent that legacy.” Esav, in Ran’s reading, readily agrees with the assessment, happily sells the birthright, and only comes to care about it decades later, when age and the realization that it has lost him the prime blessing from Yitzchak confronted him with what he’d done.

Combining or Opposing?

If we recall how Ran opened his first derasha, his view of Ya’akov and Esav puts an interesting twist on the question of the world as a place of combinations. Ran is claiming here that Hashem made Esav and Ya’akov different, of opposing temperaments and interests, and that Ya’akov is meant to rule. Esav tends to resent that, and Ya’akov only has the right to rule when his own actions are correct and good. But Ran is making a remarkable point about how the world was meant to function.

Ya’akov’s characteristics are temperate, good judgment and well-formed character, with an interest in and a dedication to the legacy of Avraham. Esav, Ran implies, can contribute to that, but only if he accepts a subordinate role. Similar to what he might have said about individuals’ need to have our reason and intellect control and channel our physical passions, I think Ran implies a similar dynamic on the national and historical scale: Esav wants to be on his own, but the best way for the world to move forward is for Ya’akov to act well, and then guide Esav.

In Modern Times

This leaves us with two questions: First, how open are we to the idea that Hashem has already shaped the deep questions of human history, that our challenge is to bring them to fruition, not define them for ourselves? Further, do we accept that Ya’akov was meant to rule over Esav, with the ramifications of that conclusion? Can we see that certain characteristics might be valuable when guided, but on their own (ruling themselves, as it were) create negative outcomes? And if we see that about personal characteristics, do we agree that it might also be true for nations?

About Gidon Rothstein

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