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Shabbat Toldot

Genesis 26-28:9 - Esau or Ishmael

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Last week we read about how Isaac and Ishmael came together to bury their father. And in fact, they lived together at the same place, Be’er Lechai Roi. Their coming together seems to have been complete.

This week we are introduced to the rivalry between Esau and Jacob. The character of Esau is complex. He is a hunter; his father prefers him to stay-at-home more thoughtful Jacob. Esau betrays character faults that hint at why Rebecca thinks that Jacob would be the better heir. It is true that Esau honors, respects and serves his father, but he is impulsive, demanding what Jacob is eating when he could so easily have turned to the other tents where at lunchtime his and other mothers were serving up lunch. He marries first time against his parents’ wishes even if he tried to make up for it the second time. When he realizes he will not get his father’s blessings he weeps and yet he follows this by swearing he will kill his brother. We know that in due course he will make peace with Jacob. Even so in rabbinic literature Esau is described very negatively as the everlasting enemy of Israel.

There is a well known Midrash "Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai says It is well known (or it is a rule) that Esau will always hate Israel" (Midrash Sifri Bamidbar 69). Rebbi Shimon lived during the reigns of two Roman Emperors Trajan and Hadrian whose anti-Jewish decrees and persecution led to the Bar Cochba uprising from 132- 135 CE with its bloody consequences.

And Esau became associated with Roman oppression. Why Esau? Because he was also called Edom after the red lentils of the soup that Jacob had made, and he traded for the birthright. Red appears as a symbolic color in many ancient warrior peoples. In Roman mythology, it was associated with blood, and courage. It was the color of the god of war, Mars, and the color of the army. Roman soldiers wore red tunics, gladiators were adorned in it.

And yet the two succeeding emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius according to the Talmud had very good relations with R. Judah the Prince, the head of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. The answer is that barely 100 years later Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire and that led to almost two thousand years of horrible persecution, and cruel massacres at the hands of the Church. So, Christianity was associated with the color red (the favorite color of the Cardinals) that Esau (Edom) became the Jewish code for Christianity.

Things have changed a lot in Christianity these past hundred years since then, particularly in the Catholic world. And although some liberal churches have joined the children of Stalin in attacking the Jews for having a homeland, most have not. And some are even our greatest supporters. So, it may be time to re-consider whom we call bloody!

My suggestion is that we replace Esau with Ishmael who the Muslim claims was the favored son of Abraham and their patriarch. There are of course many Muslims who are wonderful people and our friends. But the primitive street, the Muslim mob is endemically anti-Semitic and Arab schools in many Muslim societies teach and propagate hatred and support violence, torture, and rape ( and ignore it when other Muslims kill far more Muslims than Jews ever have).

Maybe it is time remove Esau’s name and replace it with Ishmael. Both statements are born out of pain and suffering, and we must not let hatred demean us or drag us down to the worst level of humanity. I pray that one day enemies will become friends and such expressions of antipathy will disappear altogether. But in the meantime, we must defend ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.

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