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The Future is Now, Before, and After

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

After Yaakov’s return to Eretz Yisrael is concluded, before the long Yosef-saga begins, the Torah spends one final chapter on Esav – offering us closure for Yitzchak and Rivkah’s other son. Perek 36 describes Esav’s history: whom he married, where he traveled and ultimately settled, and then concludes with the list of all the great kings and tribal leaders who descended from him. In the midst of this description, concerning Esav’s earliest travels, the Torah reports:

“And Esav took his wives, and his sons and his daughters and all the members of his household, and his livestock and all his animals, and all his acquisitions that he had acquired in the Land of Canaan, and went to land [אל ארץ] from before Yaakov, his brother. For their [respective] properties were too vast to enable them to dwell together and the arable land was unable to sustain them both because of their livestock. And Esav settled in Har Seir; Esav who was Edom.” (36:6-8)

Four questions need to be asked: three textual, one contextual. Why does the Torah enumerate all the people and all items that Esav took with him? Also, what is the meaning of the strange ambiguous phrase ‘אל ארץ’ – ‘to land’? Additionally, why does it label Yaakov specifically as ‘Yaakov, his brother’? And lastly, and perhaps most troubling, we were told at the beginning of the parsha that Esav descends from Har Seir to meet up with his long-absent brother. We also know that Yaakov only accumulated his ‘vast property’ from his stay with Lavan, before this fraternal meeting occurred. So how is it possible that we are told here, in the above pesukim, that Esav parted from Yaakov specifically because their respective livestock was too vast to be sustained and then traveled to and settled in Har Seir? He was already in Har Seir at the beginning of the parsha, before he met Yaakov and his accumulated family and property! And we can’t posit that this report is perhaps of Esav’s original travels away from home to settle with his family in Har Seir after Yaakov’s escape (so that we can then accept him descending from Har Seir to meet Yaakov now) because the Torah here specifically says he traveled to Har Seir only after he and Yaakov - and his accumulated property - met up, which happened over twenty years after Esav’s original departure from home!

Earlier in the parsha, Yaakov infamously deceived Yitzchak into giving him the brakha meant for Esav[1]. When Esav is told about the deception, he pleads with his father for a role or directive he can live up to in the future, a significant purpose all his own[2]. After several initial refusals, Yitzchak finally relents and tells Esav:

“…behold the plenty of the land will be your dwelling place; along with the dew from above. And you will live by your sword and serve your brother; and when you humble yourself, [only then] will you throw off his yoke from upon your neck” (27: 39-40)

According to Yitzchak’s charge, Esav’s self-significance and ultimate independence rests solely on his readiness to serve Yaakov and humble himself before his legacy-chosen younger brother. And later, when the two brothers finally reunite after over two decades, we are able to witness Esav actively accepting this charge! When Yaakov asks Esav to accept his plentiful offering of peace – he flatly refuses (33:9). When Yaakov persists and asks him to not only accept his gifts but also his brakha (!), the Torah reports that Yaakov must forcibly convince Esav before he is willing to accept it (11). Not to be defeated, Esav then offers to escort Yaakov on their travels together  (12); Yaakov refuses (citing the inability for his children and the fragile flock to travel so quickly). Esav then offers to at least allow him to leave an armed escort to protect Yaakov as he travels alone (15); this Yaakov also refuses (but promises to ultimately meet him in Har Seir). Four times Esav endeavored to either humble himself before Yaakov or to serve his younger brother; each time he is refused, he proposed another avenue with which to fulfill the charge he received from his father so many years before.

So, did Esav fail? Did Yaakov’s thwarting of Esav’s attempts fate him to carry the yoke of his younger brother forever, prohibiting him from ever achieving a significant legacy all his own? Now we can return to the last section of this week’s parsha and resolve all of our questions. At the end of Esav’s life, the Torah reports that when Esav left home originally (after Yaakov fled, having stolen his brother’s brakha), he did so with every single one of his family members and belongings. And this was consciously done in order to remove himself totally, ‘אל ארץ’ – to anywhere - specifically from “before his brother, Yaakov”, in order to properly fulfill his father’s charge of ‘making room’ for his younger brother. It didn’t matter where he was going, it only mattered that he was purposefully uprooting his entire life as he knew it to serve Yaakov’s greater good. 

And the Torah then juxtaposes this original exit with Esav’s second exit, the one after the two brothers met up 22 years later, when Yaakov now possessed his amazing wealth and property from his sojourn with Lavan. For, during that meeting the Torah is telling us that Esav’s motivation during that entire scene was his stalwart attempt to serve and humble himself before Yaakov (as seen above). Therefore, even though, in fact, there are two different times Esav traveled – one from home to Har Seir, and the second from meeting Yaakov to then return to Har Seir – the Torah purposefully (and unnaturally) amalgamated them to ensure we appreciated that there was never a time when Esav’s life-choices were ever motivated by anything but Yaakov’s greater advancement!

And immediately after this report, the Torah states, “And Esav settled in Har Seir”. Although he had already been living there since his first departure over 20 years prior, with his now successful and complete expression of humility and brotherly subservience, Esav now enjoys a true ‘settling’ in his own land, with his own much- deserved progeny of kings and tribal leaders.


[1] The deeper understanding of that brakha scene is the subject of another dvar Torah

[2] Rav Hirsch understands that because ברכה and the word ברך – a knee – share the same root, a brakha must be understood as something that advances someone (like a knee does). This also fits in logically/practically. For, aside from God, whenever someone ‘blesses’ someone else, for example with the words ‘may you be healthy, successful, happy’ – they are not bestowing these things upon another person but wishing for, or charging them with, these positive truths for the future. For this dvar Torah I will therefore use this understanding for brahkah: a charge or directive for future advancement.


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