producers-circle

Esau Had The Means And Motive. Why Didn’t He Kill Jacob?

Esau Had The Means And Motive. Why Didn’t He Kill Jacob?


Beth Lesch

Writer

Jacob takes Esau’s blessing. Esau threatens to kill him. Jacob flees and goes into hiding for twenty years, narrowly escaping with his life. That’s the story we all know. But here’s the kicker: it’s not entirely true. And the proof is in the verses of the Torah itself. Join Beth Lesch as she dives into Parshat Toldot and unearths an untold story about Jacob and Esau.

Click here to read Beth’s blog post on Parshat Toldot!

Read More

Please sign in or sign up to comment.

Transcript

Hi, I'm Beth Lesch. Welcome to Aleph Beta, this is Parshat Toldot! Let me ask you a question: Why didn’t Esav ever try to kill Jacob?

Why Did Esau Forgive Jacob?

After all, in Parshat Toldot, he swore that he was going to kill him. Jacob had just impersonated him and taken his blessing, and the Torah tells us:

וַיִּשְׂטֹם עֵשָׂו, אֶת-יַעֲקֹב,

And Esav hated Jacob

עַל-הַבְּרָכָה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ אָבִיו;

Because of the blessing that his father gave him

וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו בְּלִבּוֹ,

And Esav said to himself

...אַהַרְגָה, אֶת-יַעֲקֹב אָחִי.

...I will kill my brother Jacob.

So… how come he never tries to kill him?

The Story of Esau and Jacob

Until recently, I had an answer to this question: an answer that I found perfectly satisfying. Esav never tried to kill Jacob... because Jacob ran away! Jacob was in hiding for all those years, in Charan, with his Uncle Lavan. They didn’t reunite until twenty years later; and by that time, Esav had cooled off. Who holds a grudge for twenty years??

But then I reread Parshat Toldot, and I realized that there’s a problem with that answer. Take a look at what the text tells us, when Jacob runs away:

וַיַּרְא עֵשָׂו, כִּי-בֵרַךְ יִצְחָק אֶת-יַעֲקֹב, וְשִׁלַּח אֹתוֹ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם

And Esav saw that Isaac had blessed Jacob and sent him to Padan Aram.

That’s right. Esav knew where Jacob was hiding the whole time, from the very start! Why didn’t Esav just follow Jacob to Padan Aram and exact revenge?

The pieces just don’t seem to add up. Esav swears he’s going to kill his brother; he’s got motive, he’s got opportunity… but he never follows through on it. It’s puzzling, don’t you think?

Did Esau Try to Kill Jacob?

Now, I grant you – several Midrashim do make the case that Esav may well have tried to murder Jacob. One midrash suggests says that, immediately after the deception, Esav dispatched his son to kill his brother. Another says that when he leaned in to kiss Jacob, twenty years later, he was actually trying to bite his neck. But it is not so simple. Other Midrashim see Esav as acting with genuine compassion toward his brother. And still, getting back to the text itself, the bottom line is: He doesn’t kill him, after he had vowed to. And at the end of the day, Esav is unnecessarily gracious. The question is: Why? What happened here?

I want to suggest to you that the key to understanding Esav’s puzzling behavior can be found in a few short verses at the very end of Parshat Toldot: the verses that describe what happened after Jacob stole Esav’s blessing. There are some intriguing questions that emerge from those verses, and if we can deal with those questions, then we may be able to uncover a hidden story here.

Digging Deeper into the Story of Esau and Jacob

So let’s look at the verses. Esav has been deceived. He is furious, he swears he’s gonna to kill Jacob. Rebecca calls Jacob over and says: “Look, things could get violent. You’ve got to leave — right now. Go to Uncle Lavan’s house and stay there until Esav cools down.” But then it gets confusing. Rebecca turns to Isaac and says something that seems completely out of left field:

.קַצְתִּי בְחַיַּי, מִפְּנֵי בְּנוֹת חֵת. אִם-לֹקֵחַ יַעֲקֹב אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת-חֵת כָּאֵלֶּה, מִבְּנוֹת הָאָרֶץ--לָמָּה לִּי, חַיִּים

I am disgusted with my life because of the Hittite women who live around here. If Jacob were to marry a woman like this, one of these Canaanite women, I couldn’t bear it.

What?? What is this? This is so random! Why is Rebecca suddenly so concerned about intermarriage? It’s such a weird thing to say.

So that’s one question. And if you look at the very next verse, you’ll find a second question. Isaac calls Jacob over — and remember, this is the very first conversation that they’ve had since Jacob deceived him, lied to him.

וַיִּקְרָא יִצְחָק אֶל-יַעֲקֹב

Isaac calls him in,

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ

he blesses him

וַיְצַוֵּהוּ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֹא-תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן

He says: ‘Don’t marry a Canaanite woman. Go to Padan Aram, to Uncle Lavan’s house. Find a wife there.’

And he doesn’t just bless him, he lavishes him with blessing:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ

may God bless you, make you fruitful and multiply you

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם

may He give you the blessing of Abraham…

It’s completely bizarre. Why isn’t Isaac angrier at Jacob? Why is he so quick to forgive and forget?

A clue might lie in that point we made eariler about Rebecca’s expressed concern, to her husband, about Jacob marrying Hittite women. You see, where else in the Torah did we hear about marrying Hittite women? Before all this, we are told that Esav married Hittite women. Yes, 2 verses hiding at the end of Chapter 26, just before the deception, fill in the details:

וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו, בֶּן-אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה

When Esav was forty years old,

וַיִּקַּח אִשָּׁה אֶת-יְהוּדִית, בַּת-בְּאֵרִי הַחִתִּי

he married Yehudit the daughter of Be’eyri the Hittite,

וְאֶת-בָּשְׂמַת, בַּת-אֵילֹן הַחִתִּי

and Basmat the daughter of Eilon the Hittite.

How do you think Isaac and Rebecca felt about their firstborn, the heir apparent, marrying these Canaanite women? We don’t have to speculate; just look at the next verse:

וַתִּהְיֶיןָ, מֹרַת רוּחַ, לְיִצְחָק, וּלְרִבְקָה

and they were a bitterness of spirit to Isaac and to Rebecca.

Rebecca and Isaac have been displeased with Esav ever since he brought those Hittite daughters-in-law home. But at the time, either Esav didn’t notice their displeasure, or he didn’t care.

Who Was Esau?

It wouldn’t be the first time Esav just ‘didn’t care’, as it were. There’s another famous Esav story, where he expresses similar disregard towards things that might have been treasured in the family. Years before, he had flippantly sold his bechorah, his firstborn status — whatever that means. He sold it to Jacob for a bowl of soup! And the Torah itself makes an unusual value judgement about that: The text says, וַיִּבֶז עֵשָׂו אֶת-הַבְּכֹרָה – “Esav despised the birthright” —he belittled it. When it comes to family, legacy, firstbornness, a pattern seems to be emerging: Esav just doesn’t seem to care.

But then something changes. All of a sudden, in the aftermath of the deception, Esav sees something, something that perhaps makes him start to care. He sees his father call Jacob in for a little talk. Put yourself in Esav’s shoes – this is the moment you expect Jacob is going to get it. Ha! That scoundrel of a brother, that sneaky thief. He stole my blessing — Now Dad is gonna tell him off. Esav, presumably, sits back to watch.

But then, something shocking happens. Isaac isn’t angry. Far from it: he gives Jacob all of these blessings: the blessings of Abraham. If you’re Esav, you’re thinking: whaaat? How is this fair? It’s a double whammy – first Jacob steals my blessing, and then, Dad is validating what he did?

And now Esav had to have asked himself – why? Why are my parents, Isaac and Rebecca okay embracing Jacob as the new firstborn, the heir to Avraham? Why are they okay letting me go?

And then, perhaps, he starts to see:

Maybe I haven’t been a model firstborn. I treated the whole birthright thing pretty dismissively, even scornfully. And then my Canaanite wives — that wasn’t what Dad wanted for the heir to Abraham. I was supposed to marry someone from the family, like he did. I disappointed him. Now Jacob swoops in, takes my blessing… I feel deceived, victimized, angry… but, my parents… maybe they think it’s for the best. The new firstborn Jacob is going to do it right: gonna marry the right girl, gonna follow his parents’ wishes. I had my chance, and I threw it away. I’m not the favored son anymore.

That maybe is what the verse means when it says:

וַיַּרְא עֵשָׂו כִּי-בֵרַךְ יִצְחָק אֶת-יַעֲקֹב,

And Esav saw that Isaac blessed Jacob,

וְשִׁלַּח אֹתוֹ פַּדֶּנָה אֲרָם

and that he sent him to Padan Aram.

Why, of all places, to Padan Aram? Not just to run away:

לָקַחַת-לוֹ מִשָּׁם אִשָּׁה

to take a wife,

...לֹא-תִקַּח אִשָּׁה מִבְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן

he commanded him not to marry a local woman...

Esav is watching this, and it hits him:

וַיַּרְא עֵשָׂו, כִּי רָעוֹת בְּנוֹת כְּנָעַן, בְּעֵינֵי, יִצְחָק אָבִיו

And he sees, he realizes – finally! – that his father was unhappy with the Canaanite women, with his wives...”

All this seeing – it’s really understanding. Esav hears his father’s implicit rebuke, and finally he sees, maybe, the pain that he’s caused, and what that has cost him.

The Moral Lesson Behind Esau and Jacob's Story

Do you remember the question we asked: Why didn’t Esav ever try to kill Jacob? Well, now, perhaps, we have our answer. It’s because, in this moment, all of a sudden, Esav’s anger at Jacob takes a backseat, it gives way to a stronger emotion. Esav seems to be thirsting for his father’s love and approval. The old Esav never thought much about Dad’s approval: Not when he was selling off his birthright for lentils, not when he was marrying those Hittite women. But now, Dad’s approval has been taken out from under him and it’s left him reeling, rejected, distraught.

So, in the end, he doesn’t seek revenge. He doesn’t try to kill Jacob — not here and not 20 years later in Parshat Vayishlach — even though he knows exactly where his brother is hiding. What does he do? Where does he go? Look at the very next verse:

וַיֵּלֶךְ עֵשָׂו, אֶל-יִשְׁמָעֵאל

Esav goes to Uncle Ishmael – why?

וַיִּקַּח אֶת-מָחֲלַת בַּת-יִשְׁמָעֵאל… לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה

and he marries his daughter, Machalat.

He finds himself a third wife. Who is this Machalat? She’s a grandchild of Avraham! Esav is finally expressing sensitivity to his parents’ pain. He’s marrying someone from the family, someone he can bring home, who will make Mom and Dad proud. He can never get the blessing of Abraham, that’s gone forever — but maybe, just maybe, he can win back his parents’ approval.

The Spiritual Meaning of Esau and Jacob

Esav isn’t just the confident, cavalier, self-sufficient man of the field that we met at the start of Parshat Toldot. In the aftermath of the deception story, we see a side of him that is much more vulnerable than that, hurting, wanting nothing more than to be accepted by his father. It is a different Esav, indeed.

It’s peculiar, the Sages of the Midrash often have harsh words to say about Esav. He’s sometimes even deemed Esav HaRasha, Esav the Wicked One. But if he is wicked… isn’t it interesting how, in the aftermath of the deception story, the Torah seems to go out of its way to help the reader feel some empathy for the situation he has found himself in? ...how the Torah helps us understand something about how Esav develops, evolves, as a human being? To feel compassion for someone manifestly imperfect… maybe that is part of the point of the story, here. Indeed, maybe it’s not just about honing our compassion for the rashas, the wicked people, in our midst. Maybe it’s also about having compassion for ourselves. In those moments when we’re not our best selves — when we have a heated argument with someone that we love, when we say things that we don’t mean — and we’re looking back on it, be it later that day or even years down the line… do we sometimes look at ourselves as if we’re the rasha? Do we become our own worst enemy? In those dark moments, it is worth remembering: compassion for the wicked starts at home.

Thanks for watching. Some of you might have noticed that at the very start of this video, I quoted a verse… but I conveniently skipped over a few words. Here’s the full verse, in all its unabridged glory:

וַיִּשְׂטֹם עֵשָׂו, אֶת-יַעֲקֹב,

And Esav hated Jacob

עַל-הַבְּרָכָה, אֲשֶׁר בֵּרְכוֹ אָבִיו;

Because of the blessing that his father gave him

וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו בְּלִבּוֹ,

And he said to himself

יִקְרְבוּ יְמֵי אֵבֶל אָבִי, וְאַהַרְגָה, אֶת-יַעֲקֹב אָחִי.

Let the days of mourning for my father draw near, and I will kill my brother Jacob.

So maybe Esav didn’t try to kill Jacob because he was waiting for their father Isaac to die! Easy – problem solved.

Do you think this throws a wrench in my theory? I don’t think it does. I didn’t have enough time in this video to get into it, so — thank God Aleph Beta has a blog! Take a look at my blog post – link in the description of this video.

Read More