"When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter [yodei-a tzayid], a man of the outdoors, and Jacob was a homespun [tam] man, keeping to the tents" (Genesis 25:27). The Hebrew word tam, translated here as “homespun,” can also mean “gentle,” “mild-mannered,” or “blameless.”1 Whereas the Bible portrays Esau as "a skillful hunter," further reading of the text reveals that Jacob, the "homespun man," was the wilier of the two. Nevertheless, many prophetic, Rabbinic, and modern commentators view Esau pejoratively and Jacob, the man with serious character flaws, is portrayed affectionately.
Despite unfavorable depictions of Esau, the biblical author views him not as evil, but rather as an impetuous, brash, live-for-the-moment individual who willingly sold his birthright without regard for the consequences. This skilled hunter, described as a "wild beast" by the Rabbis, offered a plaintive plea to his father after giving up his birthright for a bowl of gruel and upon learning that Jacob deceived Isaac in order to steal Isaac’s blessing: "Did you not reserve a blessing for me" (Genesis 27:36)? His palpable pain elicits sympathy from any objective reader of this week’s Torah portion, Tol’dot.
The haftarah that accompanies Tol’dot offers a derisive portrayal of Esau: “... I have loved Jacob and hated Esau ... People shall call them [Esau's descendants] the Evil Territory, the people whom God has cursed forever (Malachi 1:2,4). Centuries later, the Rabbis further disparaged Esau by associating him with Rome, the unmistakable enemy of the Jewish people of that era. In one fictional Rabbinical conversation, Jacob acknowledged that Esau’s progeny would inflict suffering upon Jacob’s offspring. However, the Messiah would spring from Jacob’s lineage and evict Esau’s progeny from the rightful place of Jacob’s descendants.
A comparable parable of the Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Levi, describes a preeminent Jacob as a blacksmith who once saw bundles of thorns, the metaphor for Esau, being brought into the city. Understanding this to be a sign of pending ruination, a wise man, seeing the smith’s concern, said to him, "Are you afraid of these thorns? One spark from your forge, and the thorns will be afire.” Rabbi Levi extended this metaphor to mean that when Jacob was afraid of Esau and his entourage, God would reassure Jacob: "Are you afraid of them? One spark from you, and you will consume all of them." To strengthen this case, Rabbi Levi cited a verse from the prophet Obadiah (1:18): "The house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, with Esau's house like straw to be kindled and consumed” (B’reishit Rabbah 84:5). Thus, this parable was designed to counter the people's suffering under cruel oppressors by associating the oppressors with the skilled hunter who would ultimately be defeated.
Medieval commentator Rashi interpreted the biblical term skilled hunter to mean a smooth talker who deceives others, especially his father Isaac (Rashi on Genesis 25:27). He suggested that the real reason that Isaac gave his blessing to Esau was because Esau duped Isaac and not because as the firstborn he was entitled to it, thereby justifying Jacob’s theft of Esau’s birthright and blessing. To strengthen the case for Jacob's innocence and Esau's guilt, Jacob is treated with respect in Rabbinic sources, whereas Esau is accused of the sins of sexual immorality with a betrothed woman, murder, idolatry, and denying the existence of God (Targum Yonatan to Genesis 25:29; B’reishit Rabbah 63.12-13).
The legacy of enduring hatred toward Esau carries over into the modern period where he symbolizes anyone who is crude, uncultured, and anti-Semitic. A folk song, penned by 20th century poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik2, unflatteringly compares Esau and Jacob:
Esau rises and runs for a drink
Like a barrel of booze his mouth does stink [...]
Jacob rises and runs to pray
And gives his Maker praise upon praise [...]
Nevertheless, there is an important lesson to be learned from Esau's conduct. The end of the biblical account provides a reader with access to Esau's soul. Years after the purchase of the birthright and the theft of the blessing by Jacob, the brothers meet. Jacob's trepidation reveals that he believed Esau might seek vengeance for the wrong he suffered at Jacob’s hand. Instead, Esau hugged Jacob, who then commented to Esau: “… to see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10). Esau’s humanity shines through because he bore no malice or hatred for the loss of the two valuable gifts — the birthright and the blessing that he was deprived of so many years previous. When he met the brother who had cheated and deceived him, Esau demonstrated genuine forgiveness.
Despite the poor treatment Esau has received throughout Jewish history, his life can also serve as a positive source of inspiration that motivates others to follow suit by taking the bold step of making peace with parents, siblings, and friends, whether or not they deserve it. So important is such forgiveness that it is later concretized in the Levitical Holiness Code that specifies the mitzvah that all would do well to remember: “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart …You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the Eternal” (Leviticus 19:17-18).
- “Jacob was a homespun man …,” W. Gunther Plaut, gen ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, rev. ed., (NY: URJ Press, 2005), p. 174; see also, “Jacob was a mild man…,” JPS Tanakh (Philadelphia: JPS, 1999), p. 49
- Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Kol Kithebe H. N. Bialik (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1938) 69
Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.