July 16th, 2018


Emulating Esau

Rabbi Berel Wein

By Rabbi Berel Wein

Published Dec. 5, 2014

Emulating Esau Jacob bows before his estranged brother, Esau.
Our father Abraham had the greatness and ability to transform three seemingly Bedouin Arabs into angels when they visited his home. In this week's Torah reading, Esau has the destructive quality of converting, according to one Midrashic interpretation, the angels that Jacob sent to greet him into people of force and violence. The former angels literally beat up on Esau's men in order to make Esau think twice about attacking Jacob.

The lesson here is obvious. Human beings have the ability to sanctify or diminish holiness as they choose. There are homes that have the ability to structure angels and there are societies that demean and diminish even originally holy creatures into violent demons. The problem with Esau is that he is interested in holiness and spirituality. But he is unwilling to pay the price to obtain them, to forgo his temporary wants and violent means of satisfying these urges. Even the angelic ideas that enter his house and society somehow become perverted into struggles and violence.

Esau preaches love and peace and yet engages in constant strife and war. Some of the Chasidic masters interpreted Isaac's blessing of "the hands are the hands of Esau and the voice is the voice of Jacob" as being completely directed towards Esau. Esau possesses "the voice of Jacob" as well, but he completely negates the holiness and purpose of that voice by using "the hands of Esau."

It is not the mere idea of holiness that carries the day. It is the practice of holy behavior that matters most. A famous rabbi in America when once interrupted in the midst of his impassioned sermon by a crying child stated: "Crying children like all good ideas should be carried out." How true!

This attitude of Esau, preaching spirituality and goodness but not really practicing it, is very prevalent in today's world.

A sham pretense of holiness, a faith that is held captive to current and temporary social whims has little chance of ultimate meaning and survival. Judaism strives to raise ordinary people to the levels of angelic behavior. It never compromises on those goals though it fully recognizes that not everyone can ever achieve them. But it is only by aiming for the highest standards, even if we fall short of them at times, that we ordinary humans can become more angelic.

By compromising standards we end up emulating Esau and reducing possible angels into unworthy human beings. How sad it is to let such opportunities to achieve greatness slide by us because of apathy and lack of self confidence and pride. Let us always follow Abraham and avoid Esau's weaknesses.

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JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is a Jewish historian, author and international lecturer.