Parshat Vayishlach (The Book Of Obadiah)
December 1, 2001
The Biblical attitude toward the nation of Edom (Esau) is mixed. This ambivalence is reflected, on the one hand, in the Torah’s proscription of mistreatment of the Edomites: “You shall not abhor the Edomite, for he is your kinsman” (Deuteronomy 23:8). While, on the other hand, the prophecy of Balaam reflects the fact that Edom became the most bitter enemy of the people of Israel: “Edom becomes a possession, yeah, Seir a possession of its enemies; but Israel is triumphant.” (Numbers 24:18) This attitude reaches its zenith in the final verse of the prophecy of Obadiah: “And liberators shall ascend Mount Zion to bring judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the Lord’s”. (Obadiah 1:21)
It is quite apparent that the political situation facing the Jews in Biblical times had a major impact on their perception of both Esau and the nation of Edom. The greater the threat posed by Edom to their well-being , the more dramatic the image of Edom as the source of evil in the world. The conflict between Jacob and Esau (Israel and Edom) became the archetypal battle between good and evil. After the destruction of the Temple, this struggle became the symbol for the Jewish conflict with Rome and later on with Christianity. These symbols were born of the persecution of the Jews by Rome and the sense that the Romans had unfairly usurped the position of the Jews. (Rabbi Gerson Cohen – “Esau as Symbol in Early Medieval Thought”- Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Culture – Scholars of Distinction Series, JPSA)
The following midrash on the birth of Jacob and Esau gives us the impression that the battle between these two nations transcended history: “’Two nations’ (spelled ‘ga’im’) – two proud ones in your womb, this one proud of his world and the other one proud of his nation. Another interpretation: Two nations – that hate each other,, this one proud of his wealth, the other proud of his Torah. Another interpretation: ‘Two nations’ -These are Rabbi and Antoninus” (adapted from Midrash Tehillim 9,7 Buber p. 84 – Cambridge manuscript) The first two interpretations describe a relationship based on animosity, while the relationship between Rabbi and Antoninus was one of mutual respect and admiration.
It is not difficult to understand why the verse from Obadiah, quoted above, found a prominent place in the siddur at the conclusion of the Song of the Sea in Pesukei D’zimra. At the end of the Song of the Sea, the rabbis added a number of additional verses which speak about the ultimate redemption of the world and the universal acknowledgment of God. The rabbis felt that recognition of God required the triumph of Israel over those who sought to eradicate her.
The Talmud offers another possible way to achieve this redemption. If Edom acts as an adversary to Israel, the only possibility for redemption is triumph but the preferred alternative is found in the following story about Rabbi and Antoninus. “Once Antoninus asked Rabbi: ‘Will I be eligible to enter the world to come?’ ‘Yes’, said Rabbi. ‘But’, said Antoninus, ‘is it not written, There shall be no remnant to the house of Esau (Obadiah 1:18)?’ ‘That,’ Rabbi replied, ‘applies only to those whose evil deeds are like those of Esau.’” (Avodah Zarah 10b)
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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