(The Book of Obadiah)
December 9, 2006
The struggle between Jacob and Esau took on, in the Jewish tradition, the veneer of much more than just a sibling rivalry. The sages saw in the brothers a typological struggle not only between two political entities and ideologies but even more so a conflict between two competing civilizations. For them, Jacob represented the people of Israel and Judaism, while Esau, after the demise of the historical nation – Edom, became associated with Rome and later Roman Christianity. This struggle was anything but polite and took place both on the battlefield and in the realm of ideas and interpretation. Often, the interpretation of Biblical stories became the only avenue for the Jews to achieve victory.
In this week\’s parashah, Jacob\’s long sojourn to Haran came to an end with his return to Canaan. When he returned, rich in family and flock, he was still filled with trepidations over his anticipated reunion with his brother Esau. When this meeting finally occurred, Esau treats Jacob nobly. After Jacob presented Esau with gifts and an introduction to his family, Esau offered to accompany Jacob and his family on their journey home. Jacob adroitly declined this invitation: \”Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly, at the pace of the cattle before me and at the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.\” (Genesis 33:14)
The sages, in the following midrash, read Jacob\’s polite refusal in a different light, reflecting their own reality. They also understood the book of Obadiah, this week\’s haftarah, as an appropriate messianic ending to their retelling of the story told in Genesis: Esau asked Jacob: \’Wouldn\’t you like that we join in partnership so that we share together this world and the world to come? [Esau realized that Jacob merited the world to come and wanted to latch on, so that he, too, would partake of it. In return, Esau (Rome) was willing to share his worldly power in this world.] Jacob responded: \’Let my lord go on ahead of his servant.\’ [Namely, you take your world and I will take my world.] Esau threatened Jacob: \’But aren\’t you afraid of government ministers and governors and clerks? Jacob retorted: \’I will suffer the burdens of this world in patience. I have no need of special status in this world.\’ [The midrash continues this interchange with an interpretation of the second part of the verse from Genesis.] \’until I come to my lord in Seir.\’ Rabbi Abahu said: \’I have reviewed the entire Bible and no where did I find that our forefather Jacob visited Esau on mount Seir. Was he telling the truth or did he mean to deceive Esau [when he told him that he would meet him in Sier]? Certainly he was telling him the truth. He meant that he would meet him in the time to come, as it is written: \’For liberators shall march up on Mount Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau and dominion shall be the Lord\’s.\’ (Obadiah 1:21) (Adapted from Genesis Rabbah 78:14)
This midrash reflects a reality where the sages felt that Rome wanted to cling to the religious legacy of the Jews as the best route to redemption. This must have incensed the Jews who had suffered so grievously at the hands of the Romans who had stolen their sovereignty and robbed them of the ability to practice their religion free of Roman involvement. Consequently any attempts by \”Esau\” to claim the mantle of the Jewish tradition could only be met with scorn since Roman oppression was indicative that it lacked the sincerity of true religion. Ultimately, though, God\’s truth will triumph.
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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