A Kind Word For Esau


Parashat Toldot includes one of my favorite parts of the Torah — specifically, the stealing of the blessing. We can see the warm relationship between Isaac and Esau. We see the comfort in their language with each other, the fact that Esau knows exactly what his father likes to eat, indicating that he regularly serves him food. We see the intimacy between Rebecca and Jacob; her desire, at great personal cost, to help him succeed, and how he follows her difficult instructions and trusts her. We see Rebecca’s willingness to act assertively to accomplish either what she thinks is the right thing, or what she knows is the right thing, based on God’s word to her during her pregnancy.

I have spent a good part of my professional career writing and speaking about Esau, and, actually, in defense of Esau. This chapter shows him to be a loving, caring son. He is devoted to his father, making every effort to provide whatever his father requests and desires. When Esau realizes he was twice cheated, however, he reacts with anger and deep animosity toward his brother, and wants to kill him. Esau is careful to say, however, that he will not do anything to his brother until his father dies. It is out of Esau’s deep respect and love for Isaac that he will not seek revenge during his father’s lifetime.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 4:18 p.m.
Torah: Gen. 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Havdalah: 5:19 p.m.

Despite the intimacy between each son and one parent, there is a remarkable lack of communication. In most of the text, Rebecca only speaks with Jacob and Isaac only speaks with Esau (or Jacob when he’s disguised as Esau). Isaac finally does speak with the undisguised Jacob when Isaac arranges to send him away. Isaac and Rebecca only speak to each other when they are dealing with their sons’ marriages. Most of the time we see this family split in two, each one only interacting with an ally.

The narrative could have ended with Esau crying in pain and Jacob running away to save his life and find a wife. We could have just been left with a sense of Esau’s deep hurt and anger, and Jacob’s flight to safety. Given that the Torah’s focus moves on to Jacob, it would have been logical to see this narrative as the vehicle for Jacob’s growth, providing a reason for Jacob to end up in Haran to meet his mother’s family and marry the proper women.

This is not the case, however. We meet Esau again, several chapters later. After Jacob flees Laban and his deceitfulness after many years of working in his employ, while Jacob builds his family, he has a final rendezvous with Esau. At this meeting, Jacob is terrified of Esau, expecting to be attacked, but Esau greets him with love and joy, proposing they travel and live together.

One verse [Genesis 33:12] is especially meaningful. Esau says to Jacob “I will go at your side” (lenegdekha). Esau understands that Jacob needs to travel more slowly because of his children and the animals in his retinue, so Esau offers to travel at Jacob’s pace. We should remember, however, that the previous night Jacob became disabled after wrestling with the angel, leaving him with a limp. Esau probably saw Jacob limping to meet him and perhaps the offer to travel at Jacob’s pace was not just because of Jacob’s children and animals.

Esau’s level of sensitivity is something not yet seen in this family. The ability to see someone else’s pain or difficult situation and to offer to “walk with” that situation is a very special character trait. I think that the reason that this is possible is that Esau truly sees Jacob for who he is, and they speak with each other. The communication that didn’t happen in Genesis 27 happens here, allowing for kindness, sensitivity and reconciliation.

In the current climate in our country this is a very important message. The way to bring together those who feel estranged, hurt and wounded is to truly see the other, to communicate, to “walk alongside” the other with sensitivity, relating to the other’s pain. This applies to those whom we love as well as those with whom we disagree. That walking together, that communication, can be the beginning for a future of blessing and unity. 

Ora Horn Prouser is the executive vice president and academic dean at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a pluralistic rabbinical, cantorial and graduate school in Yonkers. She is the author of the award-winning “Esau’s Blessing: How the Bible Embraces Those with Special Needs.”