Sunday, November 7, 2010
I have a vivid memory of a poster of Eisav that hung in my Kindergarten classroom. Eisav, built like an ogre and covered in squiggly red hair, stands at the head of his four hundred men, a murderous scowl on his face. I was afraid of that poster, and would try to avoid looking at it.
The commentaries paint the picture of Eisav as an evil brute, and, in contrast, Yaakov as pious and saintly. Yet these seem to be informed attributes. Eisav never does anything truly evil, and Yaakov never does anything righteous. Quite the opposite. Eisav cares for his father while Yaakov sits in the tent. The commentaries assume that Yaakov was in some sort of early-day kollel, but the chumash never implies that.
When Eisav comes home, hungry after a day out in the fields, Yaakov refuses to feed him until Eisav parts with something of value. Sure, Eisav is rather callous towards his birthright, but that’s hardly evil. Yaakov’s refusal to feed Eisav, on the other hand… Imagine two brothers, living in their parents’ house. One is cooking dinner when the other comes home half-starved from a long trip and asks for some of the food. The cook refuses to part with the food until his brother hands him the title to his car. Which brother is virtuous? Which is evil?
There’s a midrash that tries to make Eisav extra-evil in this story by explaining that Eisav had just come from committing a murder. And who was it that he had killed? Nimrod, the man who had tried to burn his grandfather Avraham alive, a man who is himself portrayed as evil. Killing Nimrod may not have been good, per se, but it was hardly as if Eisav was out slaughtering innocent children for the fun of it.
Later Yaakov lies to his father to get the brochos. The commentaries scramble to explain why it wasn’t really a lie, but the justifications are laughably weak. When Eisav finds out he is murderously angry and Yaakov flees to his mother’s family. It isn’t good that Eisav wants to kill Yaakov, but it’s hardly unmitigated evil. Eisav is justifiably angry over having his inheritance stolen. Yet somehow, Yaakov is the virtuous one and Eisav is the evil one.
Years later when Yaakov is returning to his father’s house, he is told that Eisav is coming to kill him. Again, not a good thing, but it is understandable. Yaakov sends Eisav gifts and Eisav, far from what we would expect of a thoroughly evil man, accepts Yaakov’s apology and welcomes his brother home with love. The commentaries vilify Eisav by claiming he didn’t really accept the apology and that he was trying to bite Yaakov rather than kiss him as the pasuk says, but this runs counter to the plain meaning of the text.
If we weren’t told early on that Eisav is evil and Yaakov is good, I think we would see both characters as having at best a grey morality. Eisav is violent, but Yaakov is an extortionist, a liar, and a thief. Yaakov is hardly a righteous tzaddik, and Eisav is not an evil rasha.
[I wonder if the characterization of Yaakov as good and Eisav as evil might reflect a moral system that abhorred violence as evil but saw clever trickery – such as getting Eisav to part with the birthright, or fooling Yitzchak into giving Yaakov the brochos – as amoral or perhaps even as an admirable skill.]