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Parshat Vayishlach

He is a mystery!

This navi named Ovadya, whose sefer of but one chapter is read for the haftarah this week—who was he? Was he the Ovadya who, although serving the wicked King Achav of Shomron, was known to be “yareh et Hashem me’od,” very God-fearing (Sefer Melachim I 18:4)? Or was he the servant of Yehoshafat, the righteous king of Yehuda from that same era, who was sent by the king to spread the knowledge of Torah throughout the cities of Judea (Divrei HaYamim II 17:7)? Perhaps he was any of the other six or seven “Ovadyas” we meet throughout the Tanach in the books of Ezra, Nechemia and Divrei HaYamim I and II. Or perhaps he was none of these! We just don’t know.

He is a mystery!

We do not know when he lived; some parshanim suggest that he was a contemporary of Yirmiyahu and prophesied during the era of Churban Bayit Rishon, the destruction of the First Temple, while others propose that he functioned after the Churban and the subsequent exile. We are also clueless regarding his place of residence, his tribe and his lineage—with R. Meir even suggesting that Ovadya was an actual convert from Edom (Sanhedrin 39b).

Truly, he is a mystery.

But his prophetic message is not.

Sefer Ovadya words and theme are quite clear as he focuses on the treachery and malevolence of the kingdom of Edom. The obvious connection to our parsha in which we read of Esav’s competition with and hatred of Yaakov is clear. But the choice of this haftarah reading goes beyond the parsha’s story alone. Throughout biblical history, Edom stood as one of the most intractable enemies of Israel that at times was conquered by Israel but most of the time opposed, attacked and invaded the Judean kingdom. In fact, Chazal saw Edom/Esav as the arch-enemy of Israel—not only because Esav had a grandson named Amalek (!) but also because the books of the nevi’im are filled with condemnations of Edom more so than any other nation. We read of their treachery in the books of Shoftim and Shmuel A and we find harsh words directed against Esav’s nation in the books of Yishayahu, Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel, in Amos, Malachi and even Tehillim. There is no question that their behavior at the time of the Babylonian invasion that brought the exile to Israel, behavior marked by Edom’s cries of encouragement for the enemy to utterly destroy Yerushalayim, is sufficient enough reason for our prophets to target this nation as Israel’s arch-enemy.

But perhaps the enlightening comment of R. Yehuda Kiel, z”l, in Da’at Mikra will help us better understand this approach of our Sages. Rav Kiel reveals that Edom was an especially dangerous enemy for he did not wage war against Israel in order to control her or demand taxes from her residents. Edom, living within limited borders, attempted to take over the Land of Israel and make it the Land of Edom. The goal of this enemy was to undo the blessing of Avraham and take over the land completely. They hoped to destroy the nation of Israel and replace them on their land. This was, therefore, a different adversary. And a most dangerous foe. It is no wonder, then, that the later rabbis saw Edom as “morphing” into the Roman Empire and, from there, the early Christians as well.

But beyond the Jacob vs. Esau parallel, I would like to suggest yet another reason for our rabbis’ choice of this selection for our haftarah. When our haftarah closes we read of all the chieftains and kings that ruled over Edom/Seir—eight kings who ruled Edom before Israel had even one. We leave the parsha with the view of an independent—and powerful—nation that Eisav established. A nation that had already conquered her land and had settled in it. We leave Yaakov, however, as leading a wandering clan into a land he did not possess. A man whose daughter was kidnapped and ravished, who feared that the surrounding tribes would overwhelm him, whose wife and family matriarch, Rachel, had died in childbirth—in short, a rather small and weak family. And we wonder, sadly, what will be with this tiny group. How could they hope to become a nation when Esav had already built one?

Our haftarah answers the question and relieves our doubts. The very opening verses of the haftarah proclaim that Edom, feeling secure and untouchable, will be brought down by Hashem and be destroyed. Despite their present situation, they will disappear. And the closing verses tell us that the remnants of Israel will return to inherit her cities while the haughty Edom will be humbled and brought down.

Our doubts are addressed and our future is secured.

It is a fitting coda to the ending of our parsha and a welcome promise to the generations of Jews who, throughout history, asked these questions.


Rabbi Neil Winkler is the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.

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