“Esau’s Loud and Bitter Cry”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Toledot, the rivalry between Esau and Jacob reaches its peak as Esau realizes that his brother Jacob has stolen the blessings that were due him from his father Isaac. In one of the most impassioned moments in Biblical literature, we read (Genesis 27:34): “Kish’moh’ah Eisav et div’rei ah’veev, vah’yitz’ahk tz’ah’kah g’doh’lah oo’mah’rah ahd m’ohd. Vah’yo’mer l’ah’veev: bah’r’chay’nee gahm ah’nee avee,” When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with a loud and bitter cry, and said to his father: “Bless me too, father!”

Esau’s emotional “meltdown” was due, in no small measure, to his mother Rebecca’s clever plan to make certain that her seemingly naive husband, Isaac, blessed the deserving son, Jacob, rather than Esau. On a previous occasion, Jacob had “bought” the birthright from a famished and fatigued Esau, and now, by masquerading at his mother’s behest as his hairy brother, Esau, Jacob once again walks away with what should “rightfully” be Esau’s–the blessings of his father Isaac.

Our commentators offer a host of interpretations regarding Esau’s emotional outburst. The Malbim suggests that Esau’s great distress is attributable to the fact that he thought, incorrectly, that Isaac had given Jacob his only blessing. Esau’s vain cry was due to the fact that he didn’t realize that the blessing that Jacob received was a blessing due Jacob, and that there was still another blessing for wealth and dominion awaiting him.

The May’am Lo’ez, on the other hand, states that Isaac learns from this encounter that his blessing of Jacob was entirely justified. The May’am Loez records that when Esau entered the room he said to Isaac: “If Jacob was able to extract the birthright from me for a bowl of lentils, surely he deceived you, for I see that he brought you delicacies to eat. And now, father, bless me as well.” Learning that Esau had sold his birthright, Isaac rejoiced, having initially thought that he had given the blessing to the wrong child.

The Da’at Sofrim, citing the Midrash Rabbah 5:29, looks at the scene from Esau’s perspective and finds Esau’s emotional reaction entirely justified. Upon discovering the deceptions, Esau’s pain rises to great heights, revealing the good intentions residing in his heart. Isaac is, therefore, forced to alter his assessment of his children. Our sages teach that as a result of Jacob’s actions, the people of Israel are held accountable for deflecting Esau’s good intentions. Consequently, whenever the Jewish people do not live up to their Creator’s expectations, the evil that lurks in the Edomites, Esau’s descendants, emerges and is amplified, often at the expense of Jacob’s progeny.

The great religious scholar, Eliyahu Kitov, offers a somewhat modified approach, noting that this portion underscores the depth of divine perspicacity and insight. A reluctant Jacob went, at the behest of his mother, to deceive his father. The angels urged him forward, G-d supported him, the heavens and the earth trembled with him, simply to ensure that authority for the world not be placed in the hands of the wicked Esau. But after all is said and done, Jacob is still held accountable for the great trauma, the bitter cry, that he exacted from Esau.

This contention is confirmed by the Midrash Bereishith Rabbah 67, in which Rabbi Chananya says:

Whoever suggests that the Holy One, Blessed be He, is prepared to cancel [just claims] should be prepared to cancel his own life. [The Al-mighty doesn’t cancel], He is merely long-suffering but, [ultimately] collects his dues. Jacob makes Esau break out into a cry but once, and where was he punished for it? In Shushan the capital, as it says: ‘And he [Mordechai] cried with a loud and bitter cry.’ (Esther 4:1)

Our Sages connect the cry of Esau with the identical words that are found in the cry of Mordechai in the Book of Esther when Mordechai learns of Haman and Ahasuerus’s edict to exterminate the Jewish people.

The Yalkut records that Mordechai cried out: “My ancestor Isaac! What have you done to me? Esau cried out before you and you heeded his cries and then blessed him. Now we are destined to be slaughtered [by Haman, a descendant of Esau]!”

Our rabbis find a further allusion to Esau’s cry in the verse in Psalm 80:6, “Heh’eh’chal’tahm leh’chem dim’ah, vah’tahsh’kay’mo bid’mah’oat shah’leesh,” You [G-d] fed them [the people] bread and tears and gave them tears to drink in great measure. Expounding on the root of the Hebrew word “shah’leesh(shalosh-three), our sages interpret the phrase “d’mah’oat shah’leesh,” to mean “threefold tears,” and draw an allusion to tears shed by Esau, one from his right eye, one from his left and a third that evaporated into his eye. “And he [Esau] cried a cry,” implies a first tear, “aloud,” implies a second tear, “bitter,” implies a third tear. The rabbis in the Midrash learn from this that if G-d expresses abundant compassion for the wicked Esau, who shed only three tears, how much more will G-d express compassion for us, the Jewish people, who often have good reason to cry.

The great contemporary commentator, Nehama Leibowitz, however, derives a rather unsettling message from this narrative: “The Al-mighty, who takes note of our tears, also takes note of those [tears] shed by the wicked Esau. They are also noted and cry out for retribution.”

It appears, from Nehama Leibowitz’s analysis, to mean that the Jewish people have, in effect, been placed on eternal notice that Esau is lying in wait for us, as a result of the injustice done to him more than three millennia ago!

To that we must respond: Hashem Yish’m’ray’noo! May G-d protect us!

May you be blessed.