Friday, November 19, 2010

What Esav soneh l'Yaakov really means

Ahab had the whale. Hillary had health care reform. Cliff Claven wanted a good pair of shoes. For me, the insurmountable task, the ongoing crusade has been the rehabilitation of Esav's reputation. As I see it, the verses give us an Esav who may have under-appreciated the rights of the firstborn, to which he was entitled, but still do nothing to justify the appellations that have been assigned to him. In Genesis, he is not a rasha [=evil person] or a murderer. He's simply a gruff older brother, and perhaps something of a boor. It is the later interpretations [=midrashim] and not the verses that make Esav into one of the Bible's most wicked characters.

Long time readers are aware that I've been posting about this for years. In honor of the weekly reading, here's a selection. By way of summary, the posts (about 25 in all) discuss the various Esav midrashim and offer explanations as to how they may have developed. They also deal with the verse from this week's sedra and the most famous thing Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai ever said.  (If you were here in 2005, you may recall that the infamous YaakovMenken misunderstood the statement, criticized me for explaining it correctly, and then suppressed my comments at his miserable blog to prevent others from learning that I'd corrected him. Later his own co-blogger confirmed my interpretation.)

Here is the Rashby as Rashi quotes him:

R. Shimon b. Yochai said: "It is a known fact (halacha b'yaduah) that Esav hates Yaakov, but, his mercy was aroused at that moment and he kissed him with all of his heart."

In this comment, Rashi is attempting to explain the dots which appear over the word "and he kissed him." (ie: vayishakayhu)

One opinion says the kiss was not a real kiss, but a bite; therefore the word is dotted. Shimon Bar Yochai goes the other way, and says the kiss was real, but the dots are needed because everything we've seen in the narrative so far indicates that Esav hates his brother, and would sooner knee him in the crotch than kiss him.

Were it not for the dots, everything we know about Esav would cause us to doubt the sincerity of the kiss. 

The words Esav sonei le’Yaakov, therefore, should be understood as a straightforward, statement of fact about the nature of Yakov's relationship with his brother; unfortunately they are not. Instead, the words have been used for centuries to explain, and even justify anti-Semitism. It has even made it impossible for some Jews to negotiate with gentiles in good faith. Why should we bother, these Jews reason, after all Esav sonei le’Yakov.

The proof that I am right about how to understand Rashby's words can be found in the midrash, which reads as follows:

דבר אחר לך לקראת משה המדברה, זש"ה מי יתנך כאח לי (שה"ש ח, ישראל אומרין לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא מי יתנך כאח לי, את מוצא כל האחים שונאים זה לזה קין שונא להבל שנ' (בראשית ד ויקם קין אל הבל אחיו וגו', ישמעאל שונא ליצחק שנאמר ותרא שרה את בן הגר המצרית וגו' (שם כא ואין מצחק אלא שבקש להרגו שנאמר יקומו נא הנערים ויצחקו (שמואל ב ב), עשו שונא ליעקב שנאמר ויאמר עשו בלבו וגו' (בראשית כו, השבטים שנאו ליוסף שנאמר וישנאו אותו (שם לז

 From here its clear, obvious and irrefutable that the speaker's subject is individuals, not nations.

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