Pekudei: Two Faces of Esau


Much talk going on these days about the trans-Atlantic split between the United States and Europe exposed over impending war with Saddam Hussein. The immediate disagreement is over Iraq and over the general approach to terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. But, as experts have already pointed out, the divisions in the West run far deeper.

Many reasons are being given to explain the underlying differences between Europe and the United States – from the historical to the political, from the balances of power to the differing views on G-d and religion.

During the cold war the West was united against their common enemy called Communism. With the fall of the former Soviet Union over ten years ago, the same ties no longer bind the West and their deeper rifts are now beginning to surface.

Robert Kagan, in an article published last summer in Policy Review, and now expanded in a new book, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (Knopf, 2003), attributes the great divide to two primary factors. One is that America’s enormous power allows it the confidence to take on any global challenge, presently, Iraq. Europe on the other hand does not wield such power, so they inevitably take on a more conciliatory and compromising stance. Second, due to Europe’s unique experience in World War II, Europe rejected balance-of-power politics and instead embraced reconciliation and multilateral cooperation as the principal means to maintain peace following the world’s most devastating conflict. With time Europe came to see this approach as its new mission. America’s power and its willingness to use it “constitute a threat to Europe’s new sense of mission.”

Some have applauded Kagan’s thesis, while others have criticized it as a form of caricature (“Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus”) and over-generalization.

Other theories about the rupture of the West have been posited as well. In the last issue of Newsweek, Christopher Dickey presents the religious angle. Europeans simply cannot comprehend the religion of America. Religious faith in America is increasingly tied to individuality and freedom of choice, while in Europe the exact opposite is true: Religion has always been state imposed. Dickey writes – citing various European scholars and writers:

“To most Americans it seems natural enough that President Bush…would incorporate religious references into his speeches. His Manichean descriptions of good versus evil, with us or against us, are rooted in his reading of the Bible and strike many in the U.S.A. as strong, righteous and decisive. But all this sounds to Europeans very much like the kind of theology – or ideology – that led then to slaughter each other for centuries.”

I would like to submit a few thoughts on the cultural divide between the USA and Europe by addressing some of the roots of their conflict, not just their symptoms.

To do so we must first go back to a wedding that took place 3,615 years ago.

In Genesis 28:9 the Bible tells us that “Esau went to Ishmael and married Machlath daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael.” Esau’s intention in marrying Ishmael’s daughter was not that simple. The Midrash explains, that Esau’s plan was to ensnare Ishmael in a plot: “You – Esau said to Ishmael – kill your brother Isaac. I will kill my brother Jacob. Then we will become one nation and remain sole heirs to Abraham and inherit the entire land! Ishmael refused: ‘Am I then like Cain who killed his brother?! No, I will not do as you suggest.’” Esau’s intention was to then kill Ishmael, and he would remain the sole heir. When Esau sees that Ishmael declines from joining him in the plot against Isaac and Jacob, he refuses to go to the ‘chupah’ and abandons his bride and his own wedding! Only to return 23 years later (after Ishmael’s death) to go through with the marriage.[1]

This strange wedding – among all the other aspects of the tense relationship between Ishmael, Isaac, Esau and Jacob – plants the seeds of the interactions and battles that their children would encounter through the ages. Just imagine the psychological implications of Esau’s encounter with Ishmael on his wedding day!

The entire history of confrontation between the Arab-Muslim, Western/Christian and Jewish worlds can be understood by tracing back to the roots of their conflict in Biblical times, the battles between Ishmael (father of the Arab/Muslim world), Esau (father of the Christian/Western world) and Jacob (father of the Jews) – as I discussed at length in my articles last year, following September 11th (see 2002)

By no means was the conflict isolated to Isaac and Ishmael or Jacob and Esau. As Esau’s infamous wedding attests, Esau and Ishmael had their own share of differences, besides their commonalities. Both their mutuality and their conflicts would affect their future progeny and the wars they would wage with and against each other.[2]

Esau was clearly a cunning warrior. But as terrible as Esau was, he also had another side. Being the son of Isaac, Esau in his soul had powerful strengths. On a root level Esau was directly bound to the tzaddik Isaac, and by this virtue he maintained a profound spiritual integrity.

Esau in other words had two faces, two sides. His material side was an aggressive warrior, ready to kill and destroy. His other face was connected to sanctity.[3]

Now, let’s turn the clock forward. Isaac and Jacob’s children go on to receive the Torah at Sinai, the blueprint of how G-d wants us all to live. The process that begins with Abraham comes to fruition seven generation later at Sinai, and then consummated and implemented in the Temple, which is erected in this week’s Torah portion.

1,300 years later, in the 1st century of the Common Era, Esau’s descendants (Rome) would begin to return to Abraham’s original teachings, as documented in the Bible. Six centuries later, so would Ishmael’s children with the birth of Islam in the year 622 c.e.

Yet this was just a start, barely. The conflicts between these nations – children of Ishmael, Esau and Jacob – was just to begin. History is witness to the massacres carried out in the name of religion. No one will ever know how much blood was spilled in the European rivers all in the name of faith. Yes, originating in Rome, all of Europe became the source of so much destruction, spreading to the Middle East, and of course Israel.

Centuries upon centuries passed. Despite all the persecution and darkness, the Torah values of Abraham endured, flourished – ultimately refining the world. Finally, after all these years, Esau/Edom was beginning to be tamed. With the American Revolution – with the support of France, mind you – a new stage in history began. Esau finally began to embrace the true values of freedom and justice. After years of despotism and monarchial control, the fundamental equality of all human beings was being recognized. Esau established a country built on the Divine right of each human being to be free – as declared at Sinai a little more than three millennia earlier!

But the other part of Esau’s personality was not gone. People don’t change that quickly. Esau’s second face reared its head from time to time, or perhaps more often than that. European Esau was still to perpetrate its greatest assault against the children of Jacob – with the genocide in the 20th century, using all the tools of modern technology.

Yet Esau is as complex as he is enduring. His two faces keep emerging.

Perhaps the time has come to finally tame all of Esau. This is possibly the root cause and deeper meaning behind the deep rift in The West – the split between Europe and the United States. After years of celebrating their alliance, Esau’s both faces are emerging, instigated by Esau’s confrontation with… Ishmael!

Perhaps the West today – children of Esau – is suffering from the anguish Esau felt on his wedding day so many years ago. The effects of Esau’s confrontation with Ishmael – whether to align himself with Ishmael or not – still linger on today.

The two faces of Esau surface yet again. On one hand Esau wanted to betray Ishmael. On the other hand he did offer to join forces with him, but it was Ishmael who refused the offer. Then again, Esau ultimately did marry Ishmael’s daughter. What offspring were born of this union? What forces were unleashed by this marriage?

Sooner or later everyone has their day of reckoning. Esau has to now account for the fact that he “went to Ishmael” – for his alliance or battle with Ishmael. Which one will it be?

The divergence of the United States and Europe is an unprecedented opportunity for both sides of the ocean to do a sincere soul searching in understanding their true roles in history, and finally make peace between both sides of Esau and with his brother Jacob, his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham.

Balancing power, justice and peace has been a struggle that has plagued nations throughout history. How do we reconcile between a higher moral standard while leaving room for diverse approaches? The struggle has also included the battle between religion and science, between faith and individuality – between G-d and the universe.

The West has split into two camps – the two faces of Esau. Two views on politics, power, justice and even G-d and religion.

Europe is still holding on to one face of Esau – the one that is still struggling with G-d and justice. Europe, perhaps as a result of their long bloodstained history, is still afraid of addressing these issues head on. Instead they opt for ignoring G-d or just making Him irrelevant to daily secular life. After seeing how religion can be a destructive force, when abused and controlled by the corrupt, this side of Esau is terrified of addressing good and evil and is afraid of confronting Ishmael for its iniquities after Esau has wreaked so much havoc and shed so much blood in the name of Christianity.

The second face of Esau – emerging in the New World, on the other side of the ocean in a new hemisphere – this side is not afraid, and on the contrary proudly carries the banner of G-d together with freedom and liberty. [America, unlike Europe, had to fight a war for its freedom of religion and expression. Europe fought a war for its life, but has yet to fight for its own true beliefs]. Indeed it is because “in G-d we trust” that we have the guarantee that “all men [read: people; hey this face of Esau is also still in need of some market corrections…] are created equal.” It is precisely this faith in G-d that gives us the right to defend freedom and not allow any tyrants – religious or not – and any religious fanaticism to dictate the terms and kill whomever they consider to be ‘infidels.’

Is it possible that in America Esau has finally evolved and matured to the point that G-d and right and wrong can be integrated into life without compromising our diversity and personal liberties? Is it possible that this above all things is America’s true calling?

How interesting it is that after all these thousands of years Esau and Ishmael resume their negotiations that began on their marriage day 3,615 years ago. And that it is Ishmael who is forcing Esau today to confront himself and his attitude to G-d, justice and truth?

And in turn, Esau is impelling Ishmael to confront his beliefs as well.

Esau and Ishmael are both compelled to ask the question: What would our father Abraham say to us today? Is our father Abraham proud of our behavior? What would he want us to do, how would he want us to behave?

And how appropriate is it that we read this week (Pekudei) about the erection of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, which was the precursor for the Holy Temple in Jerusalem?

Following the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, the children of Jacob build the Mishkan, from the cedars planted by Jacob years ago.

We don’t really know where the children of Esau and Ishmael were at the time. What we do know is that years later, Rome – the children of Esau (Edom) – destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And we know the immortal and powerful words of the Midrash:

Had the nations of the world known how much they benefit and are blessed by the Holy Temple they would have surrounded it with legions of armies to protect it from any harm.[4]

The Temple in Jerusalem was a window between heaven and earth. It infused us with the power to integrate spirit and matter – G-d and the universe. Had the nations known that, they would have appreciated how much they were in need of the Temple – how it could have helped Esau and Ishmael to find their way to G-d.

Yet they didn’t consciously know, so they destroyed the very force that would have been their salvation. But they only destroyed the physical structure, not its spiritual essence. The holiness of the Temple remains on that spot forever. This eternity is manifested in the Western Wall [West yet again, hmmm]. Especially evident when it snows over the Wall (as I can testify).

And this eternal sanctity works its way, perhaps slowly, but persistently throughout history.

The nations may not have known the power of the Temple, but something in them sure does sense the power of Jerusalem. Just witness the battles Ishmael and Esau have fought for control of the center of the universe.

Today there are children of the West that stand firmly behind Israel. In Israel I met an entire group of Christians who came from Texas and Oklahoma to help the Israeli army and show their support and solidarity for Israel. Yet we need no reminder of Esau’s other face…

The split between Europe and the United States gives us hope that Esau is coming around. Like all rifts, this one has the power to reveal a deeper truth.

Each generation is like a link in the chain of history. Each generation has its role in the unfolding drama of integrating the material universe with its purpose and mission statement. The United States today can play a special role in this work. The foundations of this country are built on absolute principles of faith and trust in G-d. The USA is not just a country of economic opportunity. The success of corporate America and unprecedented prosperity is a result of an unwavering mission statement: All equal, in G-d we trust, diversity and individual, e pluribus Unum – under one G-d.

This country must align itself with its mission – the business of this nation must reconnect to its higher calling. Then and only then does this country earn the right to hold itself out as an example to the world. Simply being a nation of great wealth and enormous military muscle does not by any means give it the moral high ground. Other nations, religions and peoples have much longer traditions and histories than the relatively new world of the United States. But this country can demonstrate something unique to the world. As a country, it can rise above its own national issues and serve as a beacon of light teaching the world the universal principles of all humankind – the principle upon which this nation was founded – how to live in peace with G-d.

Not its firepower, but its selflessness earns this country the right to serve as an example to other nations.

After all the years of American prosperity and resulting complacency, perhaps the United States is on the threshold of a new revolutionary war – the final frontier. And it is indeed a great honor and merit and responsibility and gift to be part of this drama and affect its destiny.

Had the nations of the world known how much they benefit and receive from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem they would have surrounded it with legions of armies to protect it from any harm. What a haunting question: Had they only known?

But do they know today?

[1] Midrash Or Ha’afeilah at the end of our portion (cited in Torat Shleimah note 27). See also Bereishis Rabba 67: 8. Midrash Tehillim 14:2.

[2] See Abarbanel, Mayonei Yeshua (intro to Daniel), 2:3.

[3] See Likkutei Sichos vol. 15 pp. 192.

[4] Bamidbar Rabba 1:3. Tanchuma Bechukosei 2. See Talmud, Sukkah 55b.


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Bijou Jacob
18 years ago

Rabbe, It is interesting to read your articles. I respect it , It enlightens me here and there, but is there any scriptural evidence of the above plots?, in the Bible Old Testament I could see anything like that.

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