November 21, 2018

One verse, five voicesEdited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

Esau lifted his eyes and saw the women and the children, and he said, “Who are these to you?”  –Genesis 33:5

Tova Hartman
Ono Academic College 

As Esau approaches from a distance, Jacob arranges his family in preparation for a deadly confrontation, putting himself first, followed by the two concubines and their children, then Leah and her children, and then Rachel and Joseph. Jacob thereby tries to assure the survival of his favorite wife. In the words of the 12th-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra, “He put Rachel and Joseph last — for perhaps they would escape — out of his love for them.”

Esau seems totally unaware of the carefully orchestrated procession of people before him. He sees the women and the children but does not distinguish between them. Though Esau might have realized that these people are his brother’s family, he does not ask Jacob to provide him with a kind of scorecard, detailing who is the No. 1 wife, which children belong to which wife, etc. Instead, Esau asks simply, “Who are these to you?” 

While Jacob thinks in terms of favorite wives and favorite children, Esau presents us with a different family model. Esau’s “these” encompasses Jacob’s whole family; the family is a unit, the family is a “these,” rather than a locus of scheming and conniving. 

It is Esau who then hugs his brother, kisses him, weeps and forgives. Jacob cannot disentangle himself from a distorted perception of family. Rather than learning from Esau to treat the family as “these,” Jacob is already dreaming of Joseph’s many-colored coat.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University

After 20 long years of separation, the estranged brothers meet again. They are family but, as in the past, they are far apart in their values, in their outlook and in their ethical perspective. It is Jacob who became Israel, father of the 12 tribes and patriarch of the Jewish people. Esau left us the legacy of Rome; the hunter sired a culture of warriors. 

It was but one word in the question Esau asked Jacob at their reunion that rabbinic commentators see as a profound clue to a worldview in opposition to a Torah perspective. Esau did not simply say, when he saw the women and children accompanying his brother, “Who are they?” A number of English translations of the text are faulty; they render it as, “Who are these with you?” The literal translation ought to be, “Who are these for you?” 

Esau’s mistake was identical to the error of Eve in naming her first child Cain. She bore a son “and she said I have acquired a man with the help of the Lord.” (Genesis 4:1) Acquired, as if a child were no more than a personal possession, as if a person has no more value than his or her worth to another. Esau looked at Jacob’s wives and children as property rather than people, as objects rather than human beings created in the image of God. 

That was Esau’s sin — and, all too often, ours. 

Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik
Director of the Jewish Learning Exchange in Los Angeles

The verse we are discussing is quite puzzling. Why does Esau ask who these people are? He was not doing a social call — he was initially coming to attack Jacob! So why does he care who they are? And what is Jacob’s response?  “These are the children that God has graciously given your servant.” Very poetic, but why not just say this is my family? Why bring up God?  

To understand the Torah, we must always look deeper. Our sages tell us that Jacob and Esau had an argument about who would dominate in olam ha-zeh, this physical world, and in olam ha-ba, the world of the spirit. They reached a compromise: Esau would get this world and Jacob the world to come.  

So Esau’s question was, “If you are the man of the spiritual realm, what are you doing with so many wives? That seems like something I should have as I enjoy the pleasures of this world.”

Jacob answers powerfully with two points. None of what I have is ultimately from my hard work or brains, but rather from God’s graciousness to me. My wives are not for my physical pleasure, my possessions are not for ego nor my money for power. What I have are presents for me to serve the Almighty.  

May we appreciate and have gratitude for all of God’s gifts to us and use them well in his service. For a great modern-day story that personifies these ideas, contact me at rabbi@jlela.com

Rabbi Reb Mimi Feigelson
Mashpiah Ruchanit (spiritual mentor) of the Rabbinical School and teacher of Talmud and Chasidic Thought at the Schechter Institues 

It is known that twins often have a secret language and code phrases known only to them. In our verse, we find a code shared by Jacob and Esau: “Who are these/mi ei’leh?”

Abraham lifts his eyes and sees three men. Isaac lifts his eyes and sees camels. Esau lifts his eyes and sees women and children, asking, “Mi ei’leh?” Three generations of one family who have a mystical practice of lifting their eyes to see. The question is what do they really see?

I read our verse not as a question, but rather as a statement and a form of witnessing. Through these words, “Who are these/mi ei’leh?” the twins teach us to return to the story of creation when introduced to children. Esau does it when meeting Jacob’s family, and Jacob himself will repeat the phrase when Joseph introduces his sons Manasseh and Ephraim (Genesis 48:8).

Why the story of Creation? The opening of the Zohar teaches that God’s name, Elohim, combines these two words, mi and ei’leh. As if to say Mi ei’leh created heaven and earth.

The twins Jacob and Esau teach us how to see our children. Teach us to affirm that for the sake of our children standing in front of us, Elohim/Mi ei’leh created heaven and earth. Can we cultivate this mystical vision when looking at our children? Can we empower our children to walk in God’s world with this affirmation and responsibility?

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational speaker

In anticipation of the reunion between Jacob and Esau, Jacob sent an accounting to his estranged brother of the increase of his estate, making no mention of his children. Accordingly, on seeing the wives and progeny of Jacob standing behind him, Esau’s inquiry as to “Who are these to you?” was understandable. Jacob’s answer, while ostensibly being responsive to his brother’s question, is a life lesson for all of us.

Jacob replies that they are the children who God has graciously given to him. He speaks of his children as gifts that he considers a great blessing. In a world where demographic trends show a significant drop in the number of children per family, and where mansions and fancy cars are defined as one’s legacy, Jacob’s words should hit home.

While pop culture implores us to be self-absorbed, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the first letter of the most popular technology is an “i,” children can be seen as obstacles to achieving the goals of the “rat race.” In stark contrast, Jacob’s response reminds all of us that children are a gift and are one of the main purposes of our journey in this world.   

On a deeper level, while Esau, who personifies the hunter seeking his next victim, can at best hold up a proverbial dead carcass as his life achievement, Jacob, the father of the Jewish people, reminds all of us that our legacy is the children we leave behind and the good deeds we have achieved.

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