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Parshat Toledot

November 17, 2009

‘A New Look at Esav’
(Page references to Chumash Etz Chaim)
Rabbi David Mark

In this parashah, we meet Esav and Jacob for the first time’they are twins, but unalike. Esav is ‘red, like a hairy mantle’ (Gen 25:25, p.147), while Jacob is a ‘smooth man.’ Esav becomes ‘a skillful hunter,’ while Jacob is ‘a tent-dweller.’ (Gen 25:27)

Most rabbinic commentary on Esav has been prejudiced against him, considering him a foolish country bumpkin or an idolatrous villain. He is a fool because he sold his birthright to clever Jacob for a bowl of red-bean chili, thereby losing the better blessing. Other rabbis consider him dangerous because he is a hunter, unlike civilized Jacob, a shepherd. Finally, he is an idolater, because he marries two pagan Hittite women, who become ‘a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah.’ (Gen 26:35) They consider even his red hair to be evil(!), because, during the chili incident, he demands of Jacob, ”Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”which is why he was named Edom (lit., ‘red’).’ Later in Jewish history, the Talmudic rabbis use the literal meaning of his descendants’ name, the Edomites, as a buzzword to refer to one of the most bloodthirsty enemies of Israel, Imperial Rome, which nearly annihilated our people centuries ago. Still later in our history, ‘Edom’ became the secret password which Jewish scholars used for the Catholic Church, which for many centuries sought to eradicate Judaism, only ceasing with the Vatican II Proclamation.

Who was the real Esav? How can we understand him? I suggest that he was more sinned against than sinning. Let us shear off the prejudice which the commentaries heaped upon his innocent head, and, in a spirit of revisionism, search for his true character. Judging from the plain text (p’shat), he was not the best choice to carry on the patriarchal line, and Rebekah did well in selecting Jacob. Still, I do not see very much in the story as we have it to present Esav as a villain. He shows the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD).

My son Jordan is mentally challenged, and I see a great many of my son Jordan’s symptoms in Esav.* I have also, over the years, worked with many families whose children are exceptional, who shine in ways different from the norm. I believe that Esav speaks for them, as well.

Here is my re-telling of the story: As Esav grew, Isaac and Rebekah realized that their boy was unusual. He lacked the patience which shepherds needed to lead their flocks through the wilderness for hours and hours. No: his mind wandered; his eyes were forever flitting about, and his attention was easily distracted by rays of sunlight, leaves wafting in the wind, or shadows of birds alighting on the ground. Desperately seeking a profession for their son, Isaac and Rebekah apprenticed him to a pagan hunter, a man skillful in the use of knife and bow, who taught the strapping redhead how to pursue wild game. Esav grew to love the hunt. Although he could not shine in the world of shepherding, he was at home in the forest.

Still, he was the firstborn. What could be done? Passive Isaac was thrilled to watch the muscular, savage Esav set out in the morning with his bow and arrows and a short dagger on his belt, and return laden with game. Since Isaac’s trust in his own father, Abraham, had been almost shattered when he was nearly sacrificed, his pride in Esav’s hunting abilities made him certain that Esav would be fit to lead the tribe when Isaac died.

Rebekah was different, realizing that brains, not brawn, was crucial for a small family-tribe like theirs to survive in their dangerous wilderness-world, so she put her trust in clever Jacob. As the most dynamic and manipulative of the matriarchs, she was secretly happy when Jacob’s theft of Isaac’s deathbed blessing forced him to leave home. She knew that only her rascally brother, Lavan, was craftier than Jacob, and that her clever but na’ve son needed to learn business wheeling and dealing from an expert.

And what became of Esav? Though a mere footnote in our text, he remains a Biblical hero for our special-needs children, whether they have Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD), Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), Mental Retardation, Dyslexia, Autism, or other mental disabilities. Our synagogues, rabbis, and cantors have, and must continue, to find ways for these differently-abled children to learn, and to practice, their Judaism, from preschool through bar-bat mitzvah, and beyond. They deserve no less, and Esav would have it no other way.

*Note to Reader: Jordan has Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Frontal Lobe Disorder, Mild Mental Retardation, Dyslexia, and ADHD. Because of these ‘co-morbidities”a horrible psychological term’Jordan cannot live at home. I supply these details for informational purposes only, since all of our readers undoubtedly know relatives or congregants with similar issues. Despite his challenges, Jordan has a wonderful sense of direction, exceptional distance vision, loves his cell phone and to work his computer, and is a big, healthy boy of nineteen today. We love him very much: he visits us every two weeks for an overnight, or we visit him at his group home, and he attends a special school.


Rabbi David Mark is a 1980 graduate of the Academy. After serving Temple Israel of Portsmouth, NH for 22 years, he and wife Anbeth have undertaken a bold move to Southern Florida, where he is now rabbi of Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach.