Esau, Edom, Rome (Ancient story and modern times)

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein

By Rabbi Herbert Bronstein, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayishlach (Genesis 32.4-36.43)

And these are the descendants of Esau; he is Edom (36.1, 36.8, 36.9)

The Torah portion Vayishlach, regularly attracts the attention of two major fields of modern scholarship: Scientific Biblical Studies and Middle Eastern History. Add to this thousands of years of rabbinic commentary and, to top it off, the perennial investigations today, in modern psychology, of sibling relationships; in this case, the relationship between Jacob and Esau, sometimes concordant and most of the time, troubled.

Esau and Jacob were born together, Esau first, Jacob following. Jacob is born grasping on to the heel of Esau as if trying to pull Esau back so that he, Jacob, could be the first-born!

They are twins, but decidedly not identical. Esau grows up to be a hairy muscular man of the field, a hunter. He provides his passive, admiring father, Isaac with red-bean and meat stew. Jacob is smooth; homebred, the favorite of his mother Rebekah. Rebekah conspires with Jacob to deceive her husband, the elderly, blind Isaac, in order to deprive Esau of the Right and Blessings of the First-Born in favor of Jacob. Jacob flees the potential retaliation of Esau and travels to Aram (Syria) where he works for his father-in-law, the sly Laban. Over these same years, through careful and clever planning, Jacob, himself, gains considerable flocks and herds. As he puts it: “I arrived with nothing but s staff in my hand and now I have become “two camps”.

On Jacob’s way back to Canaan, he learns that Esau is coming to meet him with a troop of four hundred armed men; at that time, a small army. In fear, Jacob sends groups of livestock ahead as gifts to Esau in order to conciliate him. However, when the two meet, Esau embraces Jacob and in his naivety asks Jacob: “What are all of these groups of animals you have sent me?” Jacob replies: “to find favor in your sight.” Esau replies, “I have enough my brother; let that which you have be yours.”

For modern historians, this story of Jacob and Esau is a biblical sketch of the sometimes conflictual, sometimes concordant relations between the Kingdom of Israel, (the descendants of Jacob) and the Kingdom of Moab, (the descendants of Esau). Because they are neighboring kingdoms, sharing a border, there must have been, in biblical days, friendly time and times of irritation and conflict between the two.

But for the ancient rabbis, “Esau” is entirely negative, representing materialism and greed. In fact, for the ancient rabbis, the code name for the Empire of Rome was, “Edom” another name for Esau. Rome had harshly suppressed any attempt by Judean to liberate themselves from the conquest and sometimes harsh oppression of Rome. Further, in the year 70 CE, Rome destroyed the great Jewish Jerusalem temple.

The attitude of Rabbinic Judaism toward Esau/Edom/Rome can be illustrated by the following story about Rabbi Shimon Ha-Tzadik, (“Simeon the Righteous”), who went on a mission to represent Jewry in Rome. When he returned, his colleagues were eager to know about what Rome was like. Contrasting the cold rationalism of Rome with humane Judaic values, Shimon answers in this way. “It was winter in Rome. There I saw many ill-clad homeless people sitting on the street leaning against the walls of buildings trying to get whatever warmth from within they could; whereas many of the statues in Rome were carefully wrapped up with heavy fabrics to protect them against the harsh weather.

This rang a bell with me. During the “Nineteen Sixties” and “Seventies”, I often had to attend meetings of the Liturgy Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in New York City. There, I too saw how New York City protected statues by wrapping them in heavy fabrics while ill-clad, homeless people shivered on the streets. Across from the luxurious Plaza Hotel there was a Show-Building of General Motors wrapped, on street level with glass windows on all sides so that passers-by could see the latest new automobiles ensconced on carpets and surrounded by large vases of flowers while ill-clad, homeless people were sitting on the streets shivering from the cold. I thought to myself: “This is an exact replica of what Shimon Ha-Tzadik saw in ancient Rome.”

Rabbi Herbert Bronstein is senior scholar at North Shore Congregation Israel (Reform).

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