Jacob, Esau, and the duplicity of evil

By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO — I’ve always felt that Esau gets a bad rap. Perhaps it’s because I was always chosen to play Esau in Hebrew School plays (I had dark skin and hair when I was a child). More likely, it’s because I felt badly for Esau who was more the victim of his brother Jacob’s trickery than the perpetrator of bad deeds.

Nevertheless, Rabbinic tradition consistently portrays Esau as a monster. The rabbis identified his deeds with those of his descendants, the desert tribe of Edom, and later the Roman Empire.

The rabbis thought Esau the epitome of evil, and in their eyes he could do no right. Several commentators used the Biblical story to warn us not to be misled by evil pretending to be our relative or friend.

When Jacob returns to Canaan he fears that his brother, Esau, will take revenge against him for his former misdeeds. He prays to God: “Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.” (Gen. 32:12)

According to Kedushat Levi, the word achi, my brother, refers to the sitra achra (the “other side”, the realm of evil), the yetzer hara (evil inclination), and the Angel of Death. He says that what Jacob meant was: “don’t allow the evil inclination to become my brother.” Sometimes evil can disguise itself and be seen as a close friend or relative, that is, sometimes evil is perceived as good. According to Kedushat Levi, Jacob was praying to God for the ability to recognize evil for what it is and not be misled by outward appearances or false claims.

“Sometimes what you think is true, what you think is safe and good, is actually evil in disguise. Evil is so enticing, so deceiving, that you don’t know its evil until it’s wrapped you up and caressed you as a lover. You gaze into its eyes, enraptured by the pretty words it whispers softly in your ears, realizing too late that the pretty words were all just twisted lies.” (Quinn Loftis, Beyond the Veil)

In a society which is more and more molded by spin rooms and fake news, let us also pray for the ability to greater distinguish between good and evil, falsehood and lie.

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego. He may be contacted via [email protected]

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