In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah tells us about the origin of Esau’s name, Edom(Red). Esau returns from the field thirsty (the expression ayef in Scripture refers both to exhaustion and thirst). Jacob cooks soup and Esau requests, “Give me some of that red stuff (ha’adom, ha’adom hazeh).” Therefore, the Torah says, he was called Edom.
This is puzzling. Just because Esau once rashly demanded a drink, why should he have acquired a name for life? If he had asked Jacob for cola, would his name have become Cola? Furthermore, an earlier verse attests about Esau that “the firstborn came out red (admoni).” So why was his name tied to this specific event?
The question becomes even stronger when we examine Chazal’s approach to other stories about Esau. We will quote a few examples from Rashi, whose exegesis follows theirs.
“The children fought inside her.” — When she (Rebecca) passed by a place of idol worship, Esau wished to come out.
“Red (admoni)” — This indicates that he would be a murderer.
“A man of the field” — A man who is idle and who hunts animals and birds.
This holds true for all the later sections as well. Whenever the Torah writes something neutral about Esau, Chazal work hard to interpret it negatively.
Why? What happened to judging the world favorably? Why should we read Esau’s seemingly normal and innocent activities in light of the evil he would later do?
The answer is grounded in Chazal’s equating Edomwith Rome. One of the harshest criticisms Chazal had of Christian Rome and Byzantiumwas directed at their hypocrisy. This was a culture which spoke impressively, but often did not put into practice the exalted ideals which it preached. Romecreated a political culture in which rhetoric, public presentation, and persuasion were more important than the actualization of values. Christianity spoke often of kindness and mercy, but frequently these words did not stand the test of reality.
Chazal viewed as extremely problematic a culture in which presentation is primary and not deed, and in which forgiveness and indulgences can be received without true correction of actions. The evil inclination goes about its business; without an uncompromising demand to correct one’s actions and live a halakhic life, there is the risk that man will dedicate his efforts to making it look like he has improved, rather than actually improving.
Take a look at what enables people to run for office in certain places. It is not their deeds, characters, and achievements, but rather their image consultants, who work on creating a presentation which will please the electorate.
Therefore, on the verse, “Esau was forty,” Rashi comments:
He was compared to a pig . . . When a pig lies down, it does so with its hoofs facing outward, as if to announce, “I am kosher.” So too, [the leaders of Esau] steal and rob but present themselves as kosher. For forty years, Esau would hunt married women and violate them. But when he was forty, he said, “Father got married at forty, and so will I.”
The pig is the most repulsive of the non-kosher animals because its split hooves make it look externally like a kosher animal. It is lacking only the internal sign, chewing the cud, which is why it is forbidden. External purity combined with internal impurity is the root of disgusting hypocrisy.
Esau’s choice of momentary gratification, his preferring the red soup to the birthright, was not coincidental. “Esau despised the birthright” (Genesis 25:35). Responsibility and foresight are not compatible with a person or culture driven by desires. When ideals and fine words serve as a cover instead of a demand, as marketing instead of content, ultimately the culture will drown in rivers of blood. Under the cover of clever packaging and external correctness, every criminal can do whatever he feels like, and can employ image consultants to whitewash his deeds with words and campaigns.
Chazal judged such a culture unfavorably because they were disinclined to accept the “innocent” deeds of someone who is motivated fundamentally by his desires and not his values. Accordingly, this is their explanation (Genesis Rabbah 67:27) of the only verse where Esau’s evil plans are explicit:
“Esau said in his heart” (Genesis 27:41) — Wicked people are controlled by their hearts, as it says, “The scoundrel said in his heart” (Psalms 14:1); “Jeroboam said in his heart” (I Kings 12:26); “Haman said in his heart” (Esther6:6). But the righteous control their hearts, as it says, “Chanah spoke to her heart” (I Samuel 1:13); “David spoke to his heart” (I Samuel 27:1); “Daniel took it to his heart” (Daniel 1:8). The righteous are similar to their Creator, about whom it says, “God spoke to His heart” (Genesis8:21).
Whatever the wicked do, it is because at that moment their hearts so desire. If the action itself is not evil, that is just coincidental, since one who is wicked has no moral restraints. He is at the mercy of his heart. The righteous, similar to the Creator of the world, suppress their desires when they conflict with their values.
The prophet requests, “Give truth to Jacob” (Mikhah 7:20). So too, we request today that God help us to correct what needs correction and to “purify our hearts to serve you truly” (Siddur).