Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Our Brother, Eisav
Throughout the millennia, almost no single character has received
such uniquely negative treatment as Eisav, the brother of Yaakov.
Eisav, to a religious Jew, is the antithesis of everything holy and
moralistic. Indeed, sefarim are replete with the metaphor that Eisav,
in some sense, symbolizes the Yetzer Hara ("evil disposition") within
In this vein, it is interesting to note that on numerous occasions in
this week's sidrah, Eisav is referred to as, "your brother, Eisav." (32:4)
"Then Yaakov sent angels ahead of him to Eisav, his brother..." (32:7)
"The angels returned to Yaakov, saying, 'We came to your brother, to
Eisav...'" And notably, Yaakov beseeches Hashem (32:12), "Rescue
me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav, for
I fear him... "
Evidently, Yaakov fears two different "Eisav's", one who is "Eisav," and
one who is "my brother." What in fact are these two distinct aspects
There is no disputing that the Jew is unsurpassed as history's most
prolific wanderer. Which section of the globe remains untouched by
the Jew in exile? Which nation has not been affected by the presence
of the Jew?
In his wanderings, the Jew has taken up residence in settings so
numerous and diverse, that even to simply list the various countries
which have played his host would prove a formidable task. In a more
general sense, however, I think two distinct patterns, with one
common thread, emerge. It has never been easy to remain a
religious, devout Jew. Each societal backdrop has presented its own
set of problems which have tested the Jew's commitment to his faith
and to his G-d. From the Inquisition in Spain, to the pogroms of
Eastern Europe, to the assimilation of Germany, life in exile has never
been supportive of the Jew who desired to remain steadfast to his
religion. This is the common thread.
The two distinct patterns relate to the way in which the Jew's faith
was tested. At times, indeed probably most of the time, the Jew was
hated and ostracized for being different. Beatings, death, and
martyrdom are not uncommon themes in our history. No doubt, such
treatment tests the fabric of the Jew's soul.
At other times, however, the Jew's faith has been tested and
pressured not by sticks and stones, but by outstretched arms, saying,
"Come - be like one of us." Perhaps, in its subtlety, this is indeed the
more dangerous of the two tests. History bears out that while the
nations of the earth made little headway trying to beat the Jew into
submission, their ploy of enticing him to come and join them, and do
as they do, has met with noted success. What Poland and Lithuania
never managed to accomplish with oppression - that is to break the
Jew's steadfast adherence to his religion and the Torah - North
America has accomplished quite admirably, without even
(consciously) trying to do so. Some (treifah) Chinese food and a pair
of tickets to the baseball game (on Shabbos) can become seductive
enticements which slowly, subtly, undermine a Jew's commitment to
his faith. Many a Jew has fallen by the wayside, lured by the "success"
seemingly offered by Western materialism to those who embrace its
It would be naive to think that only the borderline Jew, who grapples
with the very foundation of his religion, is affected by assimilation.
This "test" is present at every level of Judaism. The war is waged on
every front - it's just a matter of how far the "enemy" has already
infiltrated. True, the ultra-orthodox Jew is not usually in danger of
throwing away his commitment to Torah Judaism, not even for the
riches of Rockafeller, but still he must battle. Is his Shabbos table
reminiscent of the "tisch" of his great-grandparents, replete with divrei
Torah and zemiros and steeped in holiness? Or has his Shabbos in
some way begun to resemble the "sabbath" of his neighbours, a day
of R & R (rest and relaxation)? How important are money, and its
perks, to him? How far would he stray from the Torah to enjoy
financial success? Is it worth a lashon hara or two? What has the
word "vacation" come to mean to the North American Jew? What
connotations does it have? Did such a concept exist a hundred, or
even fifty years ago?
These, and many, many others, are issues with which we all must
grapple on a daily basis: How far do I allow my brother, Eisav, into
Our forefather Yaakov prayed for all of us, "Rescue me, please, from
the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav, for I fear him... "
Sometimes the yetzer hara appears to us as Eisav, standing ready
with sticks and stones to beat us into submission. In our generation,
he has made his mark by playing the role of kindly "older-brother,"
more than willing to teach the fledgling Yaakov the tricks of his trade.
Let us be wary of his sly antics.
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.