Esau, the Mensch

Hairy men cry. If you don't think of Esau, the hirsute hunter and Jacob's twin, as a crier, blame the rabbinic tradition. The rabbis transformed the complex Biblical character into the archetype of the rabbinic villain. Esau stands guilty before the rabbis of Genesis Rabbah (63:12) of idolatry, rape and murder, the three cardinal sins for which the rabbis say we should sacrifice our lives rather than commit (b. Sann. 74a). The rabbinic Esau, the antihero, was immortalized through Rashi's Torah commentary. The Biblical Esau, the crier, awaits a receptive ear. When Esau has the opportunity to exact that revenge on his brother, what does he do? He runs to embrace his brother, he kisses him, and he cries (Gen. 33:4). One rabbi questions the sincerity of Esau's tears. Another rabbi congratulates Jacob for the choreography of the brotherly reunion: By Jacob putting his wives and children first, Esau's heart of ice was thawed (Gen. Rabbah 78:9). It is simply inconceivable to the rabbis that Jacob is the same old manipulator, but Esau, after 20 years of soul-searching, has matured into a mensch. It is easy to understand why the rabbis vilified Esau. From Jacob's perspective, the brothers were adversaries. The Torah probably injected the animosity between Jacob and Esau in utero to explain why the Edomites (Esau's descendants) and the Israelites were enemies (see Num. 20:18 and Obadiah). Hundreds of years later, Herod the Edomite ruthlessly ruled the Land of Israel as a Roman proxy. The rabbis then saw Esau/Edom as a symbol for Rome whose army was likely engaged in just those cardinal sins that the rabbis then attributed to Esau. Once Rome became Christian in the 4th century, with the Christian claim that the New Testament had superseded the "Old," the struggle was renewed to determine who would receive the blessing of the heavenly Father. Shai Cherry is the featured lecturer in the Virginia-based The Teaching Company's "Introduction to Judaism" and author of "Torah Through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times" (Jewish Publication Society, 2007). For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.