This week’s haftara juxtaposes two brothers, Yaakov and Esav. One of these is beloved of Hashem. But how can Yaakov and his descendants know they are beloved? Their home is restored, they return and rebuild their cities. But not Esav – his cities are built only to be thrown down again (Malachi 1:4). The children of Yaakov know they are favored because of the redemption that is performed for them.
Malachi is receiving this prophecy at the beginning of the Second Temple era, at the end of the age of prophets as the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset HaGedolah) convene. Through Malachi, Daniel, and Mordechai most notably, the teachings of the prophets are related to the sages. But ironically, as Malachi is speaking these words, Esav is rising to ascendancy and eventual mastery of the world to be known as the Roman Empire. Even more paradoxically, Esav is destined to destroy the commonwealth being built by the generation of Malachi, and Israel will be banished to a much longer and more terrible exile than anything they’ve ever experienced or even imagined.
What is the story of the two brothers? Much of modern European historiography, primarily under the influence of the Germans, opposes the Jew and the Greek in the soul of the West. But Jews and Greeks enjoyed fruitful coexistence and a good deal of mutual respect in reality. There was a distrust of the Greek, of Hellenism, among the Jews of that era, but it is more broadly an expression of disdain for the scourge of secularism. In our day, the Hellenists want to be more American, more “modern” – they aren’t seeking to be Greek.
But Esav, we learn from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, hates Yaakov. This is a halacha – it is a cardinal law (Sifri Bamidbar 69). The Ashkenazi philosopher Moshe Hess was a contemporary of Marx and Engels and a principal spur to Herzl’s embrace of Zionism. Hess received a yeshiva education; his father and grandfather were rabbis. He didn’t live what we today might consider an observant Jewish lifestyle, but he remained committed to Jewish spirituality and ideals. Hess saw the struggle between Esav and Yaakov as the defining crisis of the culture of the West. In his book Rome and Jerusalem, he paints an evocative picture of “two cities upon a hill” locked in eternal struggle for supremacy. This is what the navi is referring to and calling our attention to.
Typically, when we think of Esav’s hatred for Yaakov, we don’t first think of the Roman Empire or about gentiles in general. In fact this relationship remains complicated, but ultimately our role of being a light unto the nations entails uplifting them as well. It is interesting that the context for the Midrash’s discussion of Esav’s incorrigible hatred for Yaakov is the Torah’s account of their embrace. Nevertheless, the poignancy of the account – the true vehicle of irrational and genocidal hatred – is Esav’s (illegitimate) grandson, Amalek. Ultimately it is a law of nature, a halacha, that our enemies will seek to destroy us until they have finally been defeated. But what is the mechanism for this defeat?
Our tradition teaches that the victory over Amalek was given to Rachel, to be carried out by her descendants, as a reward for her giving the signs to Leah so that Leah would not be humiliated on her wedding night (see especially Megillah 13b). The Gemara emphasizes her modesty, and we learn from this that modesty and humility are integral to the power to overcome evil in the world. But perhaps more to the point, Rachel earns this final victory over evil in the world by virtue of her kindness. Not unlike how her son Yosef refused to hold a grudge or to harbor hatred in his heart toward his brethren.
We, the children of Yaakov, are not victorious over Esav through military conquest or by the development of a superior culture, in spite of what Hess and Herzl might have envisioned. We will defeat our enemies and abolish evil from the world through the kindness that is inherent in our nature, and through the unity and the love that we show one another. When Israel emulates the attributes of our mother, Rachel – over whom Esav never had any power – then we will surely be victorious over the descendants of Esav.