Rabbi Ephrayim Back

The parsha of Vayishlah begins with Yaakov sending messengers to Esav, who dwells in Se’ir – the country of Edom, in order to find favor with him:

“And Yaakov send messengers before him to Esav, his brother, TO THE LAND OF SE’IR – THE COUNTRY OF EDOM. And he commanded them, saying: So shall you speak to my lord, Esav: ‘Thus says your servant Yaakov… and I have sent to tell my lord, to find favor in his eyes.’” (Bereishit 32:3-5)

At the end of the parsha, the whole of chapter 36 is devoted to a description of Esav’s genealogy for the entire period corresponding to Yaakov’s departure for and sojourn in Haran. There we read of Esav’s move, together with his wives, from the land of Kena’an to the land of Edom, and of the reason that led to this move:

“And Esav took his wives and his sons and his daughters, and all the members of his household, and his cattle and all his livestock and all his possessions that he had acquired in the land of Kena’an, and he went to another country, AWAY FROM HIS BROTHER YAAKOV. For their property was too great for them to dwell together, and the land in which they sojourned could not bear them because of their cattle. And Esav dwelled in Mount Se’ir; Esav is Edom.” (Bereishit 36:6-8)

The reason provided by the Torah for Esav’s departure from the land of Kena’an is the economic impossibility of the two brothers dwelling there together. This suggests that the brothers did dwell together for some time in the land, but when Esav saw that the land could not bear their combined livestock, he made off for Mount Se’ir. But the beginning of the parsha sees Yaakov, just now returning to Kena’an, sending messengers to his brother – in Mount Se’ir! This demonstrates that Esav uprooted his home from Kena’an even before Yaakov came to dwell in the land!

How, then, are these two chapters to be reconciled?

The solution may perhaps be found in another story, which seems to echo in the verses of chapter 36: the story of the separation between Avraham and Lot, in the wake of the ongoing dispute between their respective shepherds. The dispute there involves more than just pasture areas; there is an underlying ideological debate on the principle of who owns the land – Avraham or Lot.

The very similar verses which we encounter in our parsha hint that for Esav and Yaakov, too, the argument was not merely a technical one – an inability to dwell on the same piece of land – but rather a conceptual conflict, turning on the issue of ownership of the land. Esav decides to choose himself a different inheritance – not the inheritance of his father – based on his understanding that the land of Kena’an is the inheritance of Yaakov, the son who has been chosen to continue the dynasty of the patriarchs. His move, then, represents agreement to and acknowledgment of the fact that Yaakov will be the son who continues the Abrahamic line. If up until now there existed some doubt as to whether the son who left 20 years ago and has not been seen since is still the master of the land, the moment Yaakov begins his journey back home Esav understands that the blessings of Yitzhak are starting to be realized, and he takes it upon himself to leave Yitzhak’s inheritance and to move to Se’ir.

The Children of Israel – wherever they may be – are the owners of the Land of Israel. But ownership of property finds expression only if there exists some tangible connection between the owner and the property. It is our obligation to preserve and not lose our connection, both in direct form – by visiting, hiking, building, working – and in its more indirect expressions – longing, aspiring, praying and wanting.