Haftarah Parashat Vayishlah
November 24, 2018 | 16 Kislev 5779
People often ask how Esav came to be characterized as evil. While it is clear that Yaakov and Esav were adversaries, the Torah’s storyline does not leave us with this impression. Only in later biblical and post-biblical literature does this picture emerge. Its roots are in historical experience. Esav, who was also referred to as Edom, was seen as the progenitor of the Edomites, a nation which dwelled on the other side of Yam Hamelakh (the Dead Sea). During the Babylonian conquest of Judea and Jerusalem in 586 BCE, the Edomites allied themselves with the Babylonian enemy, whom they aided and abetted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. From the vantage point of the Judeans, the Edomites prospered on their account. The book of Ovadiah, a prophecy of a single chapter, reflects the Judeans’ pent-up animosity over this betrayal.
Ironically, during the period of the Hasmonaeans, the Edomites were driven into the Negev and were absorbed into the Jewish people. With the demise of the actual Edomites, the negative imagery associated with Esav and Edom became associated with Rome, who, towards the beginning of the Common Era, conquered the land of Israel. The upshot of this was that the book of Ovadiah in rabbinic times became associated with Jewish bitterness over Roman oppression. Hence, the verse: “For the violence (me-hamas) done to your brother Yaakov, disgrace shall engulf you [Edom] and you shall perish forever” (1:10) never lost its bite.
What object lesson should we tease from this pent-up bitterness? In one midrash, the sages took a counterintuitive approach. Instead of focusing on their anger, they expressed their concern that the oppressed people might seek to emulate the “successful” behavior of their Roman oppressors: “And so said the Holy Spirit through Solomon – ‘Do not envy the man of violence (Esav/Rome) and choose none of his ways’ (Proverbs 3:31) ‘Do not envy’ the peace which Esav (Rome) enjoys and ‘do not choose its ways’, namely, do not imitate their deeds. Why? Look to the end of the matter. For a day will come when God will scorn those who scoff at His commandments, as it is written: ‘The Lord abhors the man of blood and deceit’ (Psalms 5:7).” (adapted from Bamidbar Rabbah 11:1)
The sages who composed this midrash expressed a fear that people might see oppression as a means for attaining an end and it frightened them. Their answer is definitive – God will not abide such an idea.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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