Explaining Eisav: A New Perspective on the Brothers’ Relationship by Tani Greengart


Parashat Toledot brings us the beginning of the relationship between brothers Eisav and Ya’akov, a relationship that persists through Parashat VaYishlach. The most momentous event in the relationship is undoubtedly their father Yitzchak’s blessing of the firstborn, which Ya’akov steals from Eisav (BeReishit 27:1-35). When Eisav realizes what Ya’akov has done, he vows to kill Ya’akov after Yitzchak dies, forcing Ya’akov to flee for his life to the land of Charan (28:1). But when Eisav meets Ya’akov twenty years later in Parashat VaYishlach, Ya’akov sends gifts of animals to Eisav and the brothers mend their relationship, going their separate ways. And when Yitzchak dies many years later, Ya’akov and Eisav bury him together (35:29), yet Eisav still does not kill Ya’akov. Three questions arise:

1.       Why does Ya’akov’s theft of the blessing warrant Eisav’s murder vow?

2.       Why does Eisav promise to wait to kill Ya’akov until after Yitzchak dies?

3.       Why does Eisav later change his mind and not kill Ya’akov?

To answer the first two questions, we must return to Yitzchak’s blessings. When Eisav finds out that Ya’akov stole the firstborn blessing, he is understandably furious at Ya’akov. But Eisav does not promise to kill Ya’akov at this time; he just makes a derogatory pun about Ya’akov’s name (Ya’akov’s name is etymologically similar to “Ya’akeiv,” meaning to deceive [27:36]). Eisav promises to kill Ya’akov only after hearing the blessing that Yitzchak gives Eisav, the end of which reads: “Al Charbecha Tichyeh VeEt Achicha Ta’avod, VeHayah Ka’asheir Tarid UPharakta Ulo MeiAl Tzavarecha,”

“You will live by your sword and serve your brother, but when you grieve, you will break his yoke off your neck.” Only after hearing this blessing does Eisav profess his hatred for Ya’akov and promise to kill him after Yitzchak dies.

Based on the order of the Pesukim, it appears that Eisav does not hate Ya’akov because Ya’akov stole his blessings. Eisav hates Ya’akov only because of the blessing that Eisav was given, that Eisav will serve Ya’akov. Eisav does not want to be a servant to Ya’akov; as an expert hunter, he craves his freedom.

Eisav promises to kill Ya’akov only after the death of Yitzchak because he misinterprets the end of his blessing, “when you grieve, you will break Ya’akov’s yoke from your neck.” Yitzchak probably intends for this part to mean that when Eisav grieves, he will be free from service to Ya’akov. Eisav misinterprets the blessing to mean that when he grieves, he will be able to throw off the yoke of servitude forever by killing Ya’akov. Given that the beginning of that Pasuk is “you will live by the sword,” this is not an unreasonable conclusion to draw. And when will Eisav be grieving? After the death of his beloved father. Eisav’s misinterpretation of the blessing is evident from his words: he promises to kill Ya’akov in “Yemei Eivel Avi,” “the days of my father’s mourning” (27:41). He specifies the days of his father’s mourning rather than the days of his father’s death because the mourning aspect is what he thinks triggers the blessing to give him the right to kill Ya’akov.

When Eisav meets Ya’akov on the way back from Charan in Parashat VaYishlach, he thinks that Ya’akov will try to enslave him, as the blessing predicts. Eisav is prepared to hate Ya’akov, but most likely not expecting to kill Ya’akov, as Yitzchak has not yet died.

When Eisav receives gifts of animals that Ya’akov sends to appease him, he is confused as to why Ya’akov, the master, is offering gifts to Eisav, the servant. Therefore, he politely turns them down, asking why they were sent (33:8). And then Ya’akov’s answer completely blows Eisav away: “Yeish Li Kol,” “I have everything” (33:11).

In this short line, Ya’akov tells Eisav that he does not need the gifts he sent him, because Ya’akov already has everything that he needs. For the first time, Eisav realizes that Ya’akov does not want to enslave him, even though Ya’akov has the right to do so, because Ya’akov does not want anything more than he already has. If Ya’akov does not want to be the master of Eisav, there is no reason for Eisav to hate Ya’akov. So Eisav lets go of the twenty-year-old anger. The brothers part amicably and go their separate ways, seemingly removing any and all enmity that there had been between them. And this rekindling of the brotherly pact reaches its pinnacle with the joint burial of Yitzchak many years later.

The reconciliation of Eisav and Ya’akov, specifically the line “Yeish Li Kol,” is the culmination of the story of Ya’akov in the Torah. Ya’akov still appears in the Torah, but he is not the main character anymore – that baton has been passed to his sons.

The story of Yitzchak also ends with the word “Kol.” In Parashat Toledot, when Yitzchak realizes that the person who received Eisav’s blessings was not, in fact, Eisav, he remarks to Eisav (27:33) “Mi Eifo Hu HaTzad Tzayid VaYavei Li VaOchal MiKol BeTerem Tavo VaAvarecheihu?” "Who then is the one who hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate of everything while you had not yet come, and I blessed him?” The food that Ya’akov brought Yitzchak was certainly not infinite and could not logically be described as “everything.” Yet Yitzchak describes it that way because, to Yitzchak, that food is everything he needs, and he does not desire anything more. Once he reaches this revelation, the narrative of the Torah switches to Ya’akov.

And the same thing happens by Avraham: after the line “VaHashem Beirach Et Avraham BaKol,” “God blessed Avraham with everything” (24:1), the Torah’s narrative switches to the story of finding a wife for Yitzchak.

Once the Avot realize that they have everything they need, their stories are complete, as there are no more lessons to be learned from them. It is for this reason that the word “Kol,” “everything,” has the same root as the word “Lechalot,” “to complete.” When a person realizes he has everything, the story of his life is complete.

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