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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Vayishlach (Genesis 33:1-20) – The Reinvention of Esau

>In my childhood Darth Vader was in many ways the ultimate bad guy. George Lucas managed to create a villain who looked the part, sounded the part and even acted the part. He was the Emperor’s right-hand man, and as such he was involved in all the villainy which took place under the evil galactic Empire. And then, in ‘Return of the Jedi’, the final film in the original trilogy, Darth Vader redeemed himself. (I cannot believe that there is anyone who is reading this that has not seen the film, but in case you are in the category, skip down to the next paragraph). As Luke is being overpowered by the Emperor, Darth finds the ‘good’ which Luke sensed within him, and he emerges as the hero of the Trilogy, the one who ultimately defeated the Emperor. When the Star Wars prequels came out, over two decades after the original films, we gained further insight into why Darth Vader behaved the way he did, and why he ultimately redeemed himself.

When we look for our bad guy in the Bible, Esau would definitely be featuring in our ‘Top Ten’. From the moment of conception ‘the children struggled in her womb’ (Genesis 25:22), and there was enmity between Esau and Jacob, who would be the founders of two separate nations. The Rabbis developed an idea of Esau as the ultimate bad guy. On the one-hand he was the founder of Edom, which became associated with Rome, and the Romans, who destroyed the Second Temple, and ultimately with Christianity, the rival religion at the time of the Rabbis. The Talmudic Rabbis even referred to him as ‘the wicked Esau’ (Megillah 28a).

However, despite Jacob’s fears about a reunification with his brother in this week’s Torah portion, Esau’s behaviour appears to be anything but wicked, as the brothers are reunited. ‘Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept’ (Genesis 33:4). This does not seem to be the behaviour of a man who was ‘wicked’. Esau even hoped to join with Jacob’s community, he requested: ‘Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace’ (Genesis 33:12). And, the two brothers even came together to bury their father Isaac (Genesis 35:29), the last time they were together.

It is true that Esau did at one point want to kill his brother, harbouring a grudge and claiming: ‘Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob’ (Genesis 27:41). However, we have to remember that this declaration came after Jacob had stolen the paternal blessing from his brother, causing the ‘wicked’ Esau to weep aloud (Genesis 27:38).

When we read this week’s Torah portion we see the relationship between Jacob and Esau in a completely different light, and we see Esau as a brother who, despite the wrongs done to him, is willing to forgive and attempt to rebuild the sibling relationship. There is a power in the moment when ‘he kissed him’ (Genesis 33:4). The text in the Torah has dots above it, which allowed for the Rabbis to interpret the deeper meaning of the text. In Genesis Rabbah 78:9, Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar said that the dots demonstrate that Esau kissed him with all his heart. However, Rabbi Yannai taught that the dots symbolise the fact that Esau wished to bite Jacob.

Rabbi Yannai viewed Esau as a bad guy and was unable to alter his perspective, despite evidence to the contrary. He would probably have maintained that Darth Vader was still a bad guy, despite the fact that he ultimately redeemed himself, saving his son and contributing the downfall of the galactic Empire.

Esau often gets a bad press from the Rabbis, and especially as a result of his association with Edom, Rome and Christianity. But just as our relationship with Christianity has changed over the last fifty years, perhaps it is also time to change the way we view Esau. Maybe it is time for us to focus on Esau the man who was wronged by his brother, but provides us with an example of how family love can overcome sibling rivalry and tension. Esau may not be one of the Patriarchs, but as one of our ‘uncles’ we can learn a lot of lessons from him. We have to remember that underneath Darth Vader’s mask it was always Anakin Skywalker.

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