(The book of Obadiah)
December 5, 2009
18 Kislev 5770
The book of Obadiah is read as the haftarah for Parshat Vayishlah. This selection seemingly contradicts the commonly held notion that the haftarah is supposed to be thematically parallel to the Torah reading, since the parashah recounts the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau after Jacob\’s return to Eretz Canaan while the haftarah expresses Israel\’s enmity for nation of Edom. The choice of this haftarah must reflect some deeper message. (M. Cogan, Obadiah, Mikra L\’Yisrael, p. 12)
Obadiah\’s prophecy is a screed directed at the nation of Edom for having joined the Babylonians in the conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The original nation of Edom first dwelled on the other side of the Dead Sea but was eventually pushed into the Negev where the Edomites were absorbed into the Jewish people in the days of the Hasmonean dynasty. Around this same time period the Roman\’s became a world power overtaking the Greeks as the controlling power in the Middle East. Around this time, Rome became identified with Esau and Edom. This association became ensconced in the Jewish collective imagination since the Romans proved to be a brutal imperial conqueror. When the Roman Empire became Christian, this identification was also associated with Christianity.
The choice of the book of Obadiah to accompany the story of Jacob and Esau\’s reconciliation was probably intended to reflect the deep ambiguity Jews felt about their relationship with the dominant world power – could there ever be peace between Jacob and Esau or was it not possible? This debate was so integral to their existence that it became reflected in the liturgical choice of the haftarah for this Shabbat.
This same ambivalence is reflected in a famous midrash on this week\’s parashah. You may have noticed something unusual in the Hebrew sentence which recounts when Jacob and Esau meet, embrace and kiss (See Gen. 33:4). The word for: \”and he (Esau) kissed him – vayishakeihu\” has dots over each letter. This Biblical curiosity lent itself to interpretation (perhaps intentionally) and led to a debate in the midrashic literature over the meaning of these dots: \”[One opinion asserted that these dots] come to teach that Esau was moved to compassion at that moment and kissed his brother Jacob with all of his heart. Rabbi Yanai responded: If so, why are those dots found above the word? Rather, they come to teach that he did not come to kiss Jacob but rather to bite him – vayinashheihu. (the difference of a single letter), but Jacob\’s neck turned to marble and Esau gnashed his teeth [on Jacob\’s neck]. Why does the Torah record that the brothers cried? Esau cried over his teeth and Jacob over his neck.\” (adapted from Bereishit Rabbah 78:9 Theodore Albeck ed. p. 926-7) The debate in this passage indicates that things are not always what they seem. One would like to think that the meeting between these two brothers was tranquil and conciliatory but, then again, maybe it was like Rabbi Yannai saw it – a meeting between two brothers who carried with them the clash of two very different civilizations.
The choice of this haftarah for this Shabbat and the message of this piquant midrash might be that the interpretation of events and life in general is often much more complicated than they seem. The discerning person should always take this into account.