Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

Many events in the book of Bereishit repeat themselves in Devarim with one major difference. Whereas Bereishit is a narrative that focuses on individuals, Devarim focuses on the nations who have emerged from those individuals.

Consider for example the story in this week’s portion of the children of Yaakov, Am Yisrael, asking the children of Eisav for permission to go through their land on their way to Israel. It is a reversal of the story of the confrontation between Eisav and Yaakov as found in the Genesis narrative.

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In Bereishit Eisav comes from the field tired and buys food from Yaakov. Here in Devarim, it is the Jews, weary from years of wandering in the desert, who try to buy food and water from the children of Eisav.

In Bereishit, Yaakov rejects traveling with Eisav but promises to rendezvous with him one day in Seir. That promise is never fulfilled in their lifetime. Yet here in Devarim, the Israelites finally connect with the children of Eisav in Seir and are rejected.

Note also the similarity in language. In preparation for his meeting with Eisav, Yaakov wrestles with a mysterious stranger and is struck in the hollow (kaf) of his thigh. In Devarim, God tells the Jews not to antagonize the children of Eisav, “For I shall not give you of their land, even the right to set foot (kaf) there.” Rabbi Yitzchak Twersky notes that the use of the uncommon term kaf in both places point the reader to a similarity between these episodes.

Indeed, both stories also intersect in that they deal with fear. In Bereshit it is Yaakov who is afraid before meeting Eisav. In the words of the Torah, “Yaakov became very frightened.” Here in Devarim it’s the children of Eisav who are frightened as the Israelites draw near. As the Torah states (Devarim 2:4, 5): “The Lord said to me [Moshe]…command the people saying, ‘you are passing through the boundary of your brothers, the children of Eisav, who dwell in Seir; they will fear you.’ ”

One can’t help but note that the parallel stories in Devarim are often the reverse of the Bereishit narrative. Thus, events in Devarim could be viewed as a corrective to what unfolded in Bereishit. A real appreciation of feeling the pain of another only comes when one feels that very pain. Perhaps Am Yisrael, the children of Yaakov, had to learn this lesson before entering the land of Israel.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.