Thursday, December 5th, 2019

Haftarat Vayishlach: The Tragedy of Esav as It Plays Out in Our Day by Gidon Rothstein

November 17, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

Haftarat Vayishlah: The Book of Ovadiah

When reality is too painful, we have two roads to take, being overwhelmed by sadness or learning to distance ourselves enough to continue functioning.  Oncologists know this challenge well, since they run the risk of getting too caught up in the tragedy of each lost patient or, almost equally problematic, becoming cold to the sufferings with which their noble occupation confronts them.  Ideally, we find a middle road, where the tragedy penetrates our consciousness, but we can develop enough serenity to continue functioning.

This week’s haftarah shows us a similar balancing act we need to take on in our attitude towards those who refuse to accept the truth of our worldview.  Granted that we have always seen ourselves as chosen to carry the message of God’s rule, we have clearly failed to convince the rest of the world that that is, indeed, who we are— other monotheists (who differ with us in significant aspects of our worldviews) see themselves as bearers of a message from God as valid as ours, and non-monotheists (whether atheists or polytheists) dismiss us as irrelevant.  Our haftarah shows us consequences of those attitudes, which we should neither ignore nor celebrate

Casual readers might classify this as an example of triumphalist prophecy, where the prophet comforts us by predictions of how we’ll slam our enemies in the future.  That view ignores two important aspects of the text, first that the prophecy is addressed to Edom/Esav, not to Jews, and, second, that tradition saw Ovadiah as a convert from Edom itself.

Prophecies to Other Nations: Exercises in Futility?

The whole question of prophecies to other nations is one that has, in my reading, been insufficiently remarked in traditional circles.  Once we note that many if not most of the prophets recorded words addressed to non-Jewish nations, we should recognize that God and the prophets attached enough value to those nations’ reactions to spend their time and effort on them.  It would seem logical that God’s hope was that they also would heed the prophecies and improve their ways.  Otherwise, why speak to them—why not just speak to the Jews about them?

This is all the more the case when we see the Sages assuming that Ovadiah was an Edomite convert.  Even for those who claim that a prophet’s personal circumstances play no role in shaping the mission God gives him or her, God’s choice of a convert for this message– and the claim is all that much stronger for those who think a prophet tends to hear those of God’s ideas he or she is already primed to hear—suggests the hope that a fellow Edomite could deliver it in the most likely way to have them hear and accept what God wanted them to.

Reading the haftarah with that in mind reveals how sad it really is (an element I highlighted in my story “Final Regrets” in Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel).  On the surface, we read of Edom’s future sufferings, how they will become the lowest of nations, lose their power, language, continuity of kingship.  In many ways, Edom will lose its status as a nation.

Betraying Family: The Fault of Esav

We are not told right away why Esav is doomed to that fate, but it becomes clearer as we see that, instead of confronting his problems, the prophet envisions Esav as putting on a show, trying to portray himself as stronger than he really is.  Then, Esav supports nations who are destroying the Jewish people.  Instead of brotherly love, of sharing in our sorrow, Esav celebrates, an act that rebounds on him.

First, it is precisely the nations he supported who will turn on him.  Second, Ovadiah informs Esav that he will lose his leadership, so there will be no one with the wisdom to show him the way out of all his troubles.

Esav and Edom’s having disappeared from history can make these words seem distant, but the message applies in many ways to the non-Jewish nations of our times.  For the prophets, it is a simple truth of history that Jews have a special and particular role in the world, to announce God’s rule. Esav resists our exceptionalism, insists he is as great or as special, celebrates Jewish suffering as confirmation of his claim, which leads directly to his eventual destruction, an outcome no one wants.

Esav loses nationhood, leadership, and wisdom because he cannot accept that Jacob and his descendants play a role in history that is both important and is denied to him (or anyone).  The one possible way he might have rectified all that, agreeing and accepting the Jews’ special role in the world, was closed off by his refusal to even entertain it as a possibility.

What Is Old Is New

We face similar situations today.  Our feeling of shared humanity with those around us should not close off the worry of how the future will play itself out for those who consistently refuse to admit basic truths.  If God directs history (as I believe all Jews are required to recognize He does), and the Jews have a special role to play in that history (as Scripture repeatedly reminds us), those who deny it are setting themselves up for the kind of end Ovadiah predicts for Esav.

It is that dilemma that leads to the closing verse of the haftarah, one that was included numerous times in the traditional liturgy.  “ועלו מושיעים בהר ציון לשפוט את חר עשו, והיתה לה’ המלוכה, and redeemers will ascend Mount Zion to judge Mount Esav, and God will have true Kingship.”  Those who align themselves against the Jewish people become a barrier to achieving what we should all hope for, a world in which God’s rule is recognized by all.  In doing so, they make their punishment a necessary part of achieving that final goal.

All of which, let me stress, was and is avoidable, if only the nations involved—in this case Esav, but the principle applies to any nation that refuses to accept the world as God has structured it—would change their attitude.  Accepting only our special role and place, all who currently follow this path could instead become positive contributors towards bringing about God’s desired future. 

We can do it the easy way or the hard way; many read the prophets as if God and the Jews celebrate the hard way, but they are wrong.  This prediction, like all the negative predictions in Tanach, were given in the hope that it would spur change.  Ovadiah knows the odds against it, knows that most likely his dire predictions will come to pass.  But he hopes against it, as should we. Shabbat Shalom.

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