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Reexamining Esau: Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch on Parashat Vayishlachch

In Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob prepares for a potential battle and sends Esau a large gift of hundreds of heads of livestock to appease him.

Rabbi Avi Novis-Deutsch, Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary, delves into Esau’s character. He suggests that we try to understand why Esau is represented as an undesirable person and how this negativity reflects on us as a society.

Full transcription below:

What do you think about Esau? We are in Parashat Vayishlach and we’re going to finish the story of Esau in this portion.

When I think of Esau an Israeli song comes to my mind, sung by Arik Einstein, that has the lyrics of Hayim Nahman Bialik in it. It basically emphasizes the negativity of Esau. He’s a person who goes drinking, he’s a person who beats his wife and he’s contrasted with Jacob, who is studying Torah and is the family guy.

When I go back to our parasha I see a very different character, a positive person who pursues a career in hunting and making sure his family has a living, who is actually ending up even more positive in our parasha 20 years later. He is making sure to take care of his brother, hugging him, reflecting his longing for his brother, reflecting how much he cares about him. How come Esau of Bialik and Esau of our parasha are connected? The more common explanation and probably the most accurate one is that in rabbinic tradition, Esau was parallel to a Edom where his people lived and later to the Roman Empire and later to Christianity. The Roman Empire and Christianity play, for a very long period, not a very positive role in the history of our people. They were strong, oppressing, taking advantage, calling decrees, killing, and that led the sages to create more and more stories that build the character of Esau as a representative of Christianity, as a very negative person.

In a way, it was a psychological need in order to make us feel more comfortable about ourselves. It’s true that we’re weak, it’s true that we are oppressed, but the people are oppressing us are bad. They have bad qualities. They are not the right kind of people.

What I want us to learn from our parasha? The thing I want us to learn – two things. One, that it’s very easy to build a negative character of a person. It’s very easy to put negative qualities to a person and it actually takes more of an effort to notice and to pay attention to the good parts, the best ingredients, the good qualities that a person entails. And we need to make the effort.

We need to read our parasha very accurately and to listen to it slowly in order to make sure we see these kinds of qualities. We need to do this in our daily behavior when we know these people. We need to go back and to make sure that we try to notice the positive components they have in them. And we probably will notice the bad components as well, but not to put emphasis on it. When we do this, we increase the level of good in the world and we make a world that we are happy to live in and this will probably end us with a Shavua Tov from Schechter.

Avi Novis-Deutsch is the former Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary. Ordained as a Masorti rabbi by the SRS in 2003, Rabbi  Novis-Deutsch also holds an MA in Jewish Studies from JTS. He served for nine years as a pulpit rabbi at two Masorti congregations in Israel, most recently, at Haminyan Hamishpachti Masorti Kfar Veradim. Rabbi Novis-Deutsch also worked for two years as a Jewish educator in Berkeley in the Bay Area, California.  He is married to Dr. Nurit Novis-Deutsch. They and their three children live on Kibbutz Hanaton.

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