April 19, 2024
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Parshat Vayishlach

The haftarah that we read this week includes the entire sefer Ovadya — the shortest book in all of Tanach. Its purpose is a very simple and direct one: to condemn the nation of Edom — a neighbor of ancient Israel — whose wickedness had angered Hashem, so that He sent His Navi, Ovadya, to censure them. The connection to our parsha is an obvious one; as the opening section of the Torah reading describes the enmity and the eventual parting of ways between Ya’akov and Eisav — the progenitors of the nations of Israel and Edom — respectively.

As the Navi addresses his words to the nation of Edom, he describes the approaching punishments that would be rained down upon them, punishments that are quite severe. Hashem’s retribution — the Navi declares — will include the ransacking of Edom’s treasures, the deaths of their soldiers and the devastation of their land.

Such severe plagues lead us to ask the obvious question: What evil had Edom done to deserve such a divine reckoning? True, Israel had a lengthy history with their neighbors; a history that was not always positive. The refusal of Edom to allow Israel to pass through their land as they approached Eretz Yisrael (Bamidbar, 20:18-20), the ongoing battles against Israel which eventually led to their subjugation by Dovid Hamelech (Melachim A, 11:15-16) and their ultimate rebellion against that subjugation (Melachim B, 8:20-22) certainly point to a troubling relationship with Israel’s southeastern neighbor. But given the centuries of attacks that Israel suffered through the hands of the Pelishtim, the invasion and subjugation of Israel by Aram and the eventual exile of the northern tribes by Ashur, we might consider God’s wrath against Edom somewhat “misplaced.”

For what reason, then, were these punishments directed against Edom?

The prophet, himself, gives us the reason: “B’yom amodecha mineged — because you stood idly by when Yerushalayim was sacked by her enemies,” (verse 11), and worse, “V’al tismach … v’al tagdel picha b’yom tzara — you rejoiced and boasted at their tragedy,” (verse 12). In fact, the psalmist depicts this “unbrotherly” behavior, as being even more hurtful: “Zechor Hashem livnei Edom et yom Yerushalayim ha’omrim aru, aru ad hayesod bah,” (Tehillim, 137: 7) asking Hashem to remember the cry of the Edomites, who encouraged Israel’s attackers with the words: “Destroy it, destroy it (Jerusalem) to its very foundations!”

Interestingly, when we read Ovadya’s description of Edom’s haughtiness and brazen boast: “Who can bring me down?” (verse 3) we realize that this nation of Eisav was not rebelling against Israel alone, nor challenging them to battle.

In fact, Edom was rebelling against God Himself, and challenging His power. I would submit that it was this hubris that kindled Hashem’s anger against the powers of Edom. And, it is this very attitude that stands in contrast to the humble words of Ya’akov Avinu in the opening of our parsha, when he told Hashem, “Katonti mikol hachasadim … asher asita et avdecha,” — telling God that he, Jacob, “was not worthy of all the kindnesses that Hashem had showered upon him.” The Edomites (not to be confused with the later nation of Idumeans) boastful behavior that proudly bragged of their dominion over the Eternal God — together with their insensitive and oppressive treatment of Israel — certainly earned the painful punishments that were visited upon them.

As the parsha centers upon the two protagonists, Ya’akov and Eisav, so does the haftarah. And as clearly as the Torah reveals the contrast between the two personalities in both last week’s reading and this week’s, so does our haftarah this week.

Our parsha closes the story of these two brothers with the picture of a peaceful parting of the ways, but our haftarah reminds us that the future of their descendants was anything but peaceful.

Divine justice metes out fitting reward and punishment, even after many generations.


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

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