Vayishlach By David Hartley Mark

Vayishlach (וישלח)
Torah: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Obadiah 1:1 – 1:21

Night on Mount Seir, the tribal portion of Esau, also called Edom (Hebrew, “red”) for his red hair, beard, and freckled complexion. He is chieftain of a large clan, intermingled with Canaanite sub-clans; we will never learn the time or place of his death, or his age at his passing. Even the genealogical lists in Gen. Chap. 36 stress his wives’ side of the Edomite Family, not his own. The Author(s) of Genesis clearly found Esau’s life and destiny to be inconsequential to the remainder of our Genesis Story, which will next focus on Joseph ben Jacob, who will bring his brothers down to Egypt, there to become the Children of Israel.


As we enter the tent, we see Warrior-Chieftain Esau, sitting alone. Near him are his weapons of war: a short sword of beaten bronze, arrows in a quiver next to a six-foot-long yew bow, an oaken staff which he uses alternately as a walking stick, shepherd’s crook, or fighting weapon. He wears a short dagger in his belt. A wooden shield, with dull-copper boss in the center and hammered rim of that same metal, full of dents and cracks attesting to his wielding it in many a battle, leans in the corner, against a tent-pole.


Next to Esau is a low table, containing an empty clay beaker and a half-filled jug which, judging by its odor, contains grape-wine flavored with cinnamon. The beaker lies on its side, showing that it has not been used for some time. He drinks, but he is not drunk; not tonight.


Esau has aged: he is nearly fifty, now—old, for those days. His face is wrinkled, especially around the bright-blue eyes, which have squinted into the sun, for so many times, seeking prey on the wing. His beard goes down half of his chest: it is still red, both dark and light, but shot through with grey, in many places. His eyes dart about the tent, focusing particularly on the entrance-flap, and his hand unconsciously strays to the dagger handle—his instincts will always remain those of the hunter. Yet he appears to be mumbling—what? Upon listening to him, to your amazement, you realize that the Mighty Warrior, the stumbling blunderer of mountain, field, and brook is praying. Praying?


The Warrior-Chieftain speaks:


Hm? Oh, come forward, Stranger. They told me you had wandered into camp, seeking my protection and hospitality from me. You are welcome; the desert night can be dangerous. Sit. Some wine? (He pours.) I was just speaking to El-Shaddai, the Mountain-God, the God of my Father Isaac, and of Grandfather Abraham, whom I never knew, but admire greatly—why do you look surprised? I am older now; I am not the clumsy dolt of your campfire stories.


Did you meet my Brother Jacob in your travels, Stranger? Ha! Let us drink—to his health and prosperity—not that he needs my good wishes, that little rascal (He drinks.). My know-it-all, hard-dealing, fast-talking brother, God’s Favorite, I call him? Saw him just today, I did. How long had it been? Fourteen, twenty years? Well, Jacob and I had our meeting. I came thundering up, on my big horse, Lightning, and what did my baby brother do? He fell down on his face, as if I were about to pull out my broadsword and chop off his head! Ha! (He doubles over, laughing, deep belly laughs.) Well, was he surprised—I hauled him up to his feet, using just one arm—and you know what I did? I kissed him—couldn’t resist: after all, it was a lifetime since I saw my Baby Brother. I’m a sentimental fellow, I suppose—I modestly accepted his gift, and little enough it was for all the aggravation and care his shenanigans cost me, years ago. And, in the end, we went our separate ways. Yes, separate (he muses a bit)…Hm.

The years did him good: long, strong sinewy arms he grew—all that chasing after camel and sheep droppings for his father-in-law Lavan!


Ai me—I, too, met Master Lavan one day—that one meeting was enough for me. He tried to sell me a lame she-donkey: I tell you, Man, I am no judge of humanity, but animals I do know. I laughed in his face, drank his wine, spat in the dirt at his feet, and was out the door before he could summon his bullyboys. I suppose it took Jakey a mite longer to realize that his father-in-law was a thief and a robber—yes, and a bigger robber than Jakey himself could ever aspire to be. (He scowls, remembering the past.)


Am I jealous of Brother Jacob? No, why? God, Praised be His Name, has filled my fields and my family with bounty: I have three beautiful wives (counting them off on his fingers)—there is Adah, my comely one; Oholibamah, the schemer, and Baseh-mat, my sweet-smelling girl—certainly, there is sometimes quarrelling in the boudoir, but it’s nothing compared to that endless roundabout of romance that poor Jakey must deal with! Two wives, two concubines: jealous, fertile, God-blessed Leah, and poor Rachel unable to bear for all of these years—it’s the talk of the shepherding folk, don’t you know?


And Jacob’s favoring Rachel’s little Joseph—that will come to no good, surely—I could have warned my Little Brother myself, but he always bragged that he was a prophet, and knew what was going to happen, before it happened. Good, good! Let the Master Prophet learn the future for himself. Humph! The fool. I myself went through that with my two firstborn, Eliphaz and Reuel—Eliphaz was the true b’chor, the firstborn, and, when Reuel dared to encroach on the birthright, I thrashed him within an inch of his life. That’s how a father deals with a rebellious and gluttonous son. But try to tell Jacob anything—God’s favorite, indeed! Soft as barley pudding, he is.


I remember trying to teach him, once, how to stalk a wild gazelle. We were hunkered down behind a sabra-plant, out there in the desert. It was the heat of the day, and, being brainless youngsters, we had already drunk up our water-skins—plain water in mine, sweet apple-juice, courtesy of our dear Mother, in his, of course….


I was trying to teach him, in a whispering voice, of course, how to tell the difference between a heat-vapor rising up from an oasis-pond, and a mirage caused by that selfsame heat, just as Old Uncle Ishmael, Yah-Eli rest his soul, had taught me, when I was very young, and you know what that whelp Jacob said to me?


“Ne’er you mind, Big Brother,” he pipes up, in a good loud voice, sufficient to be heard by every wildebeest round about us, “I will spy the gazelle when the time is ripe. For the Lord of Hosts will show it right to me, He will.”


I tell you, I was speechless.


Will I ever see Jacob again? No, why would I want to? We were never the best of friends, and our families are so large— my three wives, his four—I just get the thought (laughing sarcastically) that holiday meals would be out-of-control, what with his Reuben bucking for leadership, and Shimon and Levi always so bitter and vengeful—I heard about that massacre in Shechem, and, let me tell you, I kept my Sons standing-to-guard for a few weeks after that; after all, the Tribes ‘round here know that he and I are blood, though I don’t make an explicit statement about it. My boys are respectful of the neighbors; they certainly don’t murder them in cold blood—and Jacob has the nerve to call me a barbarian! Imagine!


No. I will never see him again. And, Stranger, I’m no fool. I know the evil things he says about me: calling me “Edom, the One Whose Hands are Red with Blood,” and how I will be blamed, in the Future, for all the punishments and woes his people will suffer. Jacob is not the only prophet in the family; I have a touch of prophecy myself, from Papa Isaac, El-Elyon guard his soul! See those weapons over there? Never have I raised them, save in self-defense. If a man comes to slay me, I will slay him first; that I can promise you. But wholesale slaughter and rapine? Who would do such a thing?


I will swear to you, O’ Stranger, in the Name of the God of my Father Isaac (whom I loved so dear; Jacob never loved him as I did) and my Grandfather, Abraham, that I did love Jacob, once. I would have, could have, been his friend—but he wronged me greatly, on the Day of Papa’s Blind Blessing: he stole my Birthright; that he did, with Mother’s aid and approval, which I can never forgive, never forget….


Why? Well, what would you do? “Blood is thicker than water”? Well and good: but what if a relative took something from you that was immensely precious, and you were simply not smart or bright or quick enough to realize you were being fooled?


I am much smarter now. I have my family, my sons and daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, trained men-at-arms, around me. Jacob and I are separate; we are apart. I prophesy that, until the End of Time, we are meant to be locked in combat, and there will never be Peace between us. Never Peace—until—well, this is Prophecy, too, if you are prepared to hear it: until Leaders come, Brave and Strong Enough to break the Chain of Hatred between our clans (I do not say Tribes; we are one Tribe, the Tribe of Abraham, that is clear). But the Chain is mighty, for it was forged in Hell with Iron Links of Vengeance. Then, and only Then, will, may, there be Peace.


God’s will? Here, I cannot say. But I know that Jacob’s will has made it so, and that this will endure through Time and Space. Who can end this Earthly-Cosmic Rivalry?


Leave me, Stranger.

The Conflict strengthens me

And No End to this Struggle can I see.


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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