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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

I once pointed out the other side of the Esau story. There is a midrashic tradition that paints him in dark colors. But there is a counter-tradition that sets him in a more positive light.

First, Esau was indeed blessed by Isaac. In fact, his blessing came true long before Jacob’s did. The Torah emphasizes this point: “These are the kings of Edom [i.e. the descendants of Esau] who ruled before any king reigned over Israel” (Genesis 36:31). Esau’s descendants were settled in their land while Jacob and his children were enduring exile.


Second, Moses commands the Israelites: “Do not hate an Edomite, for he is your brother” (Deuteronomy. 23:8). G-d too commands the people: “You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful. Do not provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land, not even enough to put your foot on. I have given Esau the hill country of Seir as his own” (Deut. 2:4-5) Esau’s children and their territorial integrity were to be respected.

Third, the sages admired Esau’s intense love and devotion toward Isaac. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said, “No man ever honored his father as I honored mine, but I found that Esau honored his father more than I honored mine.” The Zohar states that, “No one in the world honored his father as Esau honored his.”

The result is a significantly more nuanced portrait of Esau, the son Isaac loved.

One correspondent, however, asked me the following question: How could I say this in light of the following verse from Malachi?

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the Lord says. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated…”

The question is fundamental. The answer is, firstly, that the verb s-n-, which usually means “to hate,” has a different meaning in biblical Hebrew when contrasted with the verb “to love.” Then it means not hated but loved less intensely, less intimately. That, as Ramban and Radak point out, is what it means in the passage, “Jacob cohabited with Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah … When the Lord saw that Leah was hated [senuah]…” Leah was not hated; she was merely less loved. That too is its meaning in Deuteronomy: “If a man has two wives, one loved, the other hated [senuah]…” Here again, the meaning is not hated but less loved.

Second, there is the remarkable comment by the Vilna Gaon that the phrase, “Esau I have hated” refers only to “the peripheral part of Esau” – not his essence. The verse in Malachi refers to particular historical circumstances. During the First Temple period there were conflicts and wars between the Israelites and Edomites. The prophet Amos attributes particular cruelty to Edom: “He pursued his brother with a sword, stifling all compassion, because his anger raged continually and his fury flamed unchecked” (Amos 1:11). Malachi is therefore speaking about a specific historical era, not eternity.

The issue has larger significance because, for the rabbis, Esau/Edom symbolized the Roman Empire, and then (after the conversion of Constantine), Christianity. Ishmael was the Arab world and later, Islam. On the basis of the Vilna Gaon’s comments, Rav Kook wrote this about the relationship between Judaism and these two other faiths:

“Noteworthy in this respect is the statement of Rabbi Elijah Gaon on the verse, ‘But Esau I hated’: ‘this refers to the peripheral part of Esau, but the essential part of him, his head, was interred with the patriarchs.’ It is for this reason that the man of truth and integrity, Jacob, said [on his reunion with Esau], ‘I have seen you, and it is like seeing the face of G-d’ (Genesis 33:10). His word shall not go down as a vain utterance. The brotherly love of Esau and Jacob, Isaac and Ishmael, will assert itself above all the confusion that the evil brought on by our bodily nature has engendered. It will overcome them and transform them into eternal light and compassion (Letters, 1, 112).


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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth and the author and editor of 40 books on Jewish thought. He died earlier this month.