Category Archives: VaYishlach


The Haftarah of VaYishlach is the entire book of Ovadiah . It is addressed to Edom, the nation founded by Esav.

Linear Annotated Translation of the Haftarah of VaYishlach

There are several connections where the Haftarah gives us additional perspective on the Parsha:

As a special bonus, the following shows how an understanding of the Haftarah can affect Jewish History itself:
The Haftarah says, in verse 17:

 וּבְהַר צִיּוֹן תִּהְיֶה פְלֵיטָה וְהָיָה קֹדֶשׁ

But in MountTzion there will be refuge, and it will be holy.

The somewhat unusual phrase “refuge” is also used in the Parsha:  as Yaakov prepares his family for a possible war with Esav, he splits them into two camps:

(ט) וַיֹּאמֶר אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה:

He said: “If Esav will come to one camp and destroy it; the remaining camp will be a refuge. (Breishit 32:9)

Yaakov’s actions have served as a paradigm in Jewish history. In every generation, the Jewish people are threatened.  Sometimes G-d saves us; at other times one of our camps is destroyed, and the other serves as a refuge. As Jerusalem was destroyed, there was Bavel, when Bavel faltered, there was Spain and France, as Spain was destroyed, there was North Africa and Eastern Europe.

Since the destruction of the First Temple, the surviving camp has never been in Jerusalem.  But this time, says the prophet, it will be Tzion that is the refuge – this time, G-d will not let anyone touch it. It will be “holy”, as in “kodesh LaHashem” – dedicated to G-d, set aside for Him, inviolate.

This verse from Ovadiah, “In Mount Tzion there will be refuge”, is inscribed on the building of the Ponevezher Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The story is told[1] about Rav Yosef Kahaneman, whose huge Torah institution in the Lithuanian town of Ponevezh, was completely destroyed by the Nazis. Just before the war started, he managed to escape on a special visa, and made his way to Eretz Yisrael.  Despite having lost everything, his entire life’s work, in 1944 Rav Kahaneman purchased land in a barren lot near Tel Aviv, and excitedly told everyone there would be a Yeshiva there. People thought he was insane – German troops were heading for Palestine!  They were about to be occupied by the Nazis and destroyed! What Yeshiva?!

Yet, at that time, it was clear to Rav Kahaneman, that the time for the words of Ovadiah had come:  this time, the refuge, the surviving community, would be in Tzion, and it would need to be “kodesh”.



[1] See “Builders: R’ Kotler, R’ Kahaneman, and Sarah Schneirer”, by Hanoch Teller


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VaYishlach: The Kings of Edom vs the Kingdom of Hashem

The Haftarah of VaYishlach tells us about G-d’s anger at Edom, the descendants of Esav. It ends with this famous verse:

וְעָלוּ מוֹשִׁעִים בְּהַר צִיּוֹן לִשְׁפֹּט אֶת הַר עֵשָׂו וְהָיְתָה לַה’ הַמְּלוּכָה:
The saviors of Mount Tzion will go up, to judge Mount Esav. And then the kingdom will be Hashem’s! (Ovadiah 1:21)

According to the Haftarah, kingdom will belong to G-d only after Esav is vanquished. What is it about Esav that stands in the way of G-d’s dominion over the world?
At the end of Parshat VaYishlach, the Torah lists the chieftains and the kings that were the descendants of Esav:

וְאֵלֶּה הַמְּלָכִים אֲשֶׁר מָלְכוּ בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם לִפְנֵי מְלָךְ מֶלֶךְ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
These are the kings that ruled in the land of Edom before there was ever a king of B’nei Yisrael. (Breishit 36:31)

It is interesting that the Torah finds it necessary to point out to us that Edom had kings long before Israel did. The Torah ends without there being a king in Israel, and even the commandment to appoint a king is phrased with a degree of ambivalence. Yet this verse makes it sound as though Edom is ahead of us in this, that they were established, organized, with a strong central government and a stable dynasty, while the Jewish People are to this day unsure whether a monarchy is a commandment or a concession. The Torah tells us: Israel will have kings, with greater or lesser success, but Esav is all about kingdom. Esav defines himself by his power and influence, and the wider it spreads, the better.

In order to appreciate some of the complexity of how the Torah views kingdom, we need to go back to the first person it describes as a king, Nimrod.

הוּא הָיָה גִבֹּר צַיִד לִפְנֵי ה’ עַל כֵּן יֵאָמַר כְּנִמְרֹד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד לִפְנֵי ה’: וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר:
He was a great hunter before Hashem; thus it would be said, “Like Nimrod, a great hunter before Hashem. The beginning of his kingdom was Bavel, Erech, Akkad and Kalna, in the land of Shin’ar. (Bereishit 10:9-10)

Rashi quotes Chazal’s opinion of “hunting”:

גבור ציד – צד דעתן של בריות בפיו ומטען למרוד במקום:
“Great hunter”: he would capture the opinions of people with his speech, and entice them to rebel against G-d. (Rashi, Bereishit 10:9)

Hunting animals would not be worth mentioning in the Torah. It has no interest in Nimrod’s trophy room. It must be that it was not only animals that Nimrod hunted, but also people. He found ways to trap their minds and thoughts and make them do his bidding. Until then, the only ruler in the world was the Creator. When Nimrod became “a great hunter before Hashem,” he introduced the concept of an earthly power that replaces G-d in the eyes of mankind.

Ramban presents the history of the origins of Nimrod’s empire, as the origins of the idea of kingdom in general:

והנכון בעיני, כי הוא החל להיות מושל בגבורתו על האנשים, והוא המולך תחלה, כי עד ימיו לא היו מלחמות ולא מלך מלך, וגבר תחלה על אנשי בבל עד שמלך עליהם, ואחר כן יצא אל אשור ועשה כרצונו והגדיל, ובנה שם ערים בצורות בתקפו ובגבורתו, וזהו שאמר ותהי ראשית ממלכתו בבל וארך ואכד וכלנה:
As I see it, [Nimrod] began to rule with his might over the people, and he was the first king, for until his era there were neither wars nor kings. First, he took over the people of Bavel until he became their king, then he went out towards Ashur and did as he wished there and expanded [his rule]; he built fortified cities in his power and might. This is what it means by “The beginning of his empire was Bavel and Erech and Akkad and Kalna”. (Ramban, Bereishit 10:9)

Nimrod was the first to force people to do his will; the first to fight a war of conquest, the first to conquer more territory than he could use, the first king and emperor.
Like Nimrod, Esav is introduced as a hunter. On that verse, Rashi interprets the term “hunting” the same way as he did for Nimrod:

יודע ציד – לצוד ולרמות את אביו בפיו
“Knows hunting”: to trap and trick his father with his speech (Rashi, Bereishit 25:27)

In Rashi’s eyes, manipulating people into doing what you want is a skill akin to hunting. There is a ruler and a subject, a hunter and its prey, traps and weapons. The human gift of speech is turned toward the purpose of exercising power over others, subverting their will. This is not leadership for the well-being of the people, nor is it the conquest of the Earth commanded to Adam. This is raw power for its own sake. Esav, like Nimrod, “hunts” people in order to own their allegiance.

According to Targum Yonatan (Bereishit 25:27), on the day that Esav came back weary from the field and sold his birthright to Yaakov, he had fought and defeated Nimrod. Esav becomes Nimrod’s spiritual heir: like Nimrod, Esav is born with the need for power, for controlling other people. Esav kills Nimrod not to destroy what he had been, but rather to possess it for himself. Esav’s path is the same as Nimrod’s strategy described by Ramban – conquer your neighbors, create an army, build an empire. Replace G-d.

Esav carries out this strategy. By the time Yaakov comes back from Aram at the beginning of our Parsha, Esav was living in Se’ir and it was already known as Edom.
Ramban explains (Bereishit 36:6) that Se’ir had been a tribe led by a clan chief; Esav moved in and took over. The country was renamed Edom, and after several generations of Esav’s rule, the descendants of Esav went from being chieftains to being full-fledged kings, a much higher level of organization and leadership. A chieftain has power over his clan by virtue of the loyalty sworn to him personally, while a king’s subjects owe him allegiance and are subject to his power and authority, even though they may never have direct contact with the king. His influence extends through his officers and ministers by virtue of his ability to “hunt people.”

If this ability is used for the sake of gathering as much power as possible, to replace G-d, then it is damaging to human society.

The Haftarah tell us that at the End of Days, Esav’s quest for power will no longer be tolerated. When Moshiach comes, one of his tasks will be to send a delegation to Esav and “judge” them. Esav’s descendants cannot be allowed to attempt to wrest power away from G-d, and replace His Will with their own. If people are to serve G-d, to do what is good and right, they must be free. They cannot be “hunted” by the likes of Esav.

Does that mean that Esav will need to be totally destroyed? The Ramban quotes a Midrash that suggests otherwise.

ר ‘ דרשו אלוף עירם, שהוא עתיד לערום תיסוריות למלך המשיח, במהרה יגלה:
And regarding Iram, the rabbis said: he is destined to gather treasures for the Moshiach, let him be revealed soon. (Ramban, Breishit 36)

Iram, the very last of the “chieftains” mentioned in the Parsha, refers to the final incarnation of Esav, during the days of Moshiach. Moshiach will find him a role that utilizes his powers and abilities for the good of mankind. In our society, “gathering treasures” requires the “hunting of minds.” Our entire economy is based on the ability of people to communicate and influence others, be it finance, sales, or the management of large corporations. This sphere can be viewed as yet another frontier to conquer, yet another way to amass power, yet another way to manipulate people. Or, it can be viewed as a way of “gathering treasures for Moshiach” – making the wealth of the entire world available to those who need it.

In the End of Days, Esav will be the financial arm, supporting the voice and vision of his brother Yaakov. The talents of Esav and the talents of Yaakov will be used together for the good of all. Esav will no longer compete for power, neither with Yaakov and nor with G-d. And then, “וְהָיְתָה לַה’ הַמְּלוּכָה” – all kingdom will be Hashem’s.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my parents, Peter & Nella Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ואמי מורתי חנה בת זעליג ז”ל

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VaYishlach: The Potential for Brotherhood

Two weeks ago, in the Haftarah of Toldot, we read that Esav’s dismissive attitude to serving G-d is hateful in the eyes of the prophet. This week, the Haftarah of VaYishlach describes the retribution that will be meted out to the nation of Edom in the days of Moshiach. It states:

…וְדָלְקוּ בָהֶם וַאֲכָלוּם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה שָׂרִיד לְבֵית עֵשָׂו כִּי ה’ דִּבֵּר
They will set them afire and consume them, and there will be no survivor to the House of Esav, for Hashem has spoken. (Ovadiah 1:18)

It appears that the Haftarah is saying that Esav and all his descendants will be destroyed, and there is no possibility for redemption. The Midrash, however, presents a more nuanced interpretation of this verse:

לא יהיה שריד לבית עשו – יכול לכל? ת”ל: לבית עשו, בעושה מעשה עשו והכתיב: שמה אדום מלכיה וכל נשיאיה! א”ל: מלכיה ולא כל מלכיה, …מלכיה ולא כל מלכיה פרט לאנטונינוס בן אסוירוס
“There will be no survivor to the House of Esav”: Does the prophet really mean absolutely none? Rather, it says, “the House of Esav”, that is, whoever acts like Esav. But elsewhere, it says (Yechezkel 32): “Edom will be destroyed, its kings and all its princes!” He answered: It says “kings”, and not “all kings” – which king is the exception? Antoninus son of Aseurus. (Avodah Zara 10b)

The Midrash asserts that only those that continue to act like Esav and perpetuate his negative attitude toward serving G-d will be punished. There is, according to this Midrash, at least one of Esav’s descendants who did not follow that path – Antoninus, a Roman emperor who was a contemporary of R’ Yehudah HaNassi.

The relationship between R’ Yehudah HaNassi (also known as “Rebbe”) and Antoninus is mentioned in many stories throughout the Midrash and Gemara. Their first encounter was when Antoninus’ mother saved the life of the infant Yehudah, by allowing his mother to bring Antoninus as proof to the authorities that she did not violate the ban on circumcision. Ultimately, this became the foundation for a genuine and fruitful friendship. Antoninus showed great respect to Rebbe, not only as a person, but as the embodiment of the wisdom of Torah.

The Midrash sees their relationship as the fulfillment of the prophecy given to Rivka regarding Yaakov and Esav:

שני גוים בבטנך גיים כתיב, אלו אנטונינוס ורבי, שלא פסקו מעל שולחנם לא צנון ולא חזרת לא בימות החמה ולא בימות הגשמים:
“Two nations in your womb”: [The word “nations”] is spelled “proud ones”: referring to Antoninus and Rebbe (R’ Yehudah HaNassi), whose tables lacked neither radishes nor lettuce both in summer and in winter.
(Rashi on Breishit 25:23)

There were many kings before then, in both nations, who might have been called “proud ones” – Julius Caesar, King Solomon – but never in at the same time. Yitzchak’s blessing to Esav asserts: “When one is up, the other is down.” Indeed, when the Jewish People were at their zenith, Esav’s nation Edom was at their nadir, and when Esav’s descendants settled in Rome and launched the rise of the Roman Empire, the Jewish People suffered their greatest defeat.

The only case of Yaakov and Esav both being “proud ones” at the same time was Antoninus and Rebbe. Antoninus, as the Caesar of the Roman Empire, represented the Kingdom of Edom at its height. R’ Yehudah HaNassi, the political and spiritual leader of the Jewish People, represented the Kingdom of Israel, temporarily restored to glory. Their “pride” is illustrated in the Midrash by the wealth of their respective royal tables. Just as the infant Yaakov and Esav were nurtured together in Rivka’s womb, lacking nothing, so nature transcended its seasonal limitations to provide bounty for their royal descendants. This proves that Yaakov and Esav’s struggle had never been about resources. The potential for harmony had been present all along; the dissonance between them was caused by Esav’s dismissal of the spiritual destiny of his forefathers. Antoninus’ respect for the Torah of R’ Yehudah HaNassi cleared the way for this potential to be realized.

The Talmud recounts many philosophical discussions between Antoninus and Rebbe. These discussions were quite different from other debates in our history, whose object was to humiliate us by “proving” that the Jewish outlook on life is false and our mission obsolete. In contrast, Antoninus had no agenda other than the pursuit of truth. Like all genuine discussions between people who respect each other, the insights flowed both ways:
ואמר לו אנטונינוס לרבי: מאימתי יצר הרע שולט באדם, משעת יצירה או משעת יציאה? אמר לו: משעת יצירה. אמר לו: אם כן בועט במעי אמו ויוצא! אלא: משעת יציאה. אמר רבי: דבר זה למדני אנטונינוס, ומקרא מסייעו שנאמר לפתח חטאת רבץ
Antoninus said to Rebbe: “From what point does the Evil Inclination begin to rule over a person, from conception or from birth?” He said, “From conception.” He answered, “If so, a baby would kick his way out of the womb! It must be from birth.” Rebbe said, “This idea was taught to me by Antoninus, and it has a verse to support it, as it says (Bereishit 4:7) ‘sin bides by the opening’.” (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 91b)

Not only does Rebbe accede to Antoninus’ reasoning, he finds textual support for it, and quotes this newly acquired idea in his name.

The subject of this particular debate is relevant to the question of whether or not “there will be a survivor to the house of Esav”. Esav was born with a set of inclinations which tend toward violence, yet he was born into a family of righteous people. Did his Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) “kick in”, so to speak, even before he was born? According to his descendant Antoninus, the Yetzer Hara only takes effect when a person comes out into the world. It was Esav’s choice whether he would use his abilities and inclinations for good or for evil. It is the choice of each of his descendants whether or not they follow in Esav’s footsteps or forge their own path in harmony with Yaakov. Antoninus himself chose to use his power for good. According to the Midrash on the Haftarah, Antoninus is more than a private individual who happened to be a nice guy, more than a foreign ruler who happened to be “good for the Jews.” Antoninus is the alternative to the total destruction of Esav, showing that it is possible for Esav to live with Yaakov in mutual respect, prosperity, and brotherhood.

Copyright © Kira Sirote
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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The Book of Ovadiah is the smallest book in the Tanach. It consists of a single chapter of 21 verses, making it the perfect length for a Haftarah[1]. It is one of the books of the Trei Assar, the twelve prophets whose short books were collected into a single compilation precisely because small scrolls such as Ovadiah would otherwise have gotten lost.

Ovadiah’s prophecy is not addressed to the Jewish People, but rather to the nation of Edom. This is not unusual; there are many examples of prophecy directed at other nations, such as Egypt[2], Assyria[3], and Aram[4]. The purpose of such prophecies is two-fold. First, the nations also need to know how they fare in the eyes of G-d. The second purpose is for us, so that we should know that G-d judges other nations, and that He has plans for all of humanity.

Some prophets are introduced with their name, their father’s name, their city, and the kings to whom their prophecy was directed[5]; some give only their name; and some[6], not even that.

When it comes to Ovadiah, we are given his name, but not his era:

(א) חֲזוֹן עֹבַדְיָה כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי ה’ לֶאֱדוֹם

1) The vision of Ovadiah: This is what the Lord Hashem says to Edom…

There’s no “who prophesied during the reign of King So-and-So” to pin him down, and there are no references to current historical events to give us a hint. Chazal, who always try fill in gaps left by the Mikra (“Text”), provide several options for this prophet’s origins based on his name and his topic.

Radak presents two distinct opinions in his introduction to Ovadiah:

חזון עובדיה זה הנביא לא ידענו באיזה דור התנבא ודעת רז”ל שזהו עובדיה שהיה עם אחאב ועוד אמרו כי עובדיה גר אדומי היה והתנבא רע על אדום היינו דאמרי אינשי כפא דחק נגרא בגויה נשרוף חרדלא אמר בו בעל הערוך האומן שחק הכף אותו הכף עצמו שורף פיו בחרדל חזק

1) The vision of Ovadiah: We don’t know in which generation he prophesied. The opinion of our rabbis was that it’s the same Ovadiah who worked for Ahav; and they also said that he was a convert from Edom and prophesied evil that would come to Edom. As people say, the tree itself provides the handle for the axe that chops it down.  (Radak on Ovadiah 1:1)

One opinion is that Ovadiah was a convert from Edom. Since there is no reference to Ovadiah being a convert from Edom in the text of his book, it must therefore be Mesorah, a tradition that the rabbis received from their teachers.

As an Edomite convert, Ovadiah would carry greater moral weight: the prophet who is descended from Edom is uniquely qualified to prophesy against it. One might imagine a contemporary case: if a Catholic priest would convert to Judaism, and be sent as an ambassador to the Vatican with a harsh message from the government of Israel. Someone who had been there, and chose a different path, is in the position to say to the rest of the nation: “You, too, could have acted differently”.

The second opinion that Radak quotes is that Ovadiah the prophet is the same person as Ovadiahu the servant of King Ahav, who rescued one hundred prophets from Queen Izevel’s (“Jezebel”) purges (Melachim I 18).

This identification is perplexing for several reasons. First, if Ovadiahu was himself a prophet, he would have been in as much danger from Izevel as the prophets he was harboring. Secondly, the time period does not work out – if the prophecy was given during the SecondTemple, as Radak maintains elsewhere in his commentary, or even near the end of the First, then the prophet lived several hundred years after Ahav. Therefore, when Chazal say that Ovadiah the prophet is Ovadiahu the chamberlain, it is not meant to be taken as historical fact. There must be more to it than the similarity in names; we need to look deeper to find their real meaning and purpose.

The Radak continues, quoting the Midrash:

אמר הקב”ה יבא עובדיה שדר בין שני רשעים אחאב ואיזבל ולא למד ממעשיהם ויפרע מעשו הרשע שדר בין שני צדיקים יצחק ורבקה ולא למד ממעשיהם

G-d said, Ovadiah who lived with two such villains as Ahav and Izevel, and didn’t learn from their deeds, let him settle scores with Esav the villain, who lived among two such righteous people as Yitzchak and Rivka, and didn’t learn from their deeds.

This Midrash frames both Esav and Ovadiahu against the backdrop of their environment. If we take it as a given that a person is influenced by the company he keeps, then Ovadiahu should have been as evil as Ahav and Izevel and Esav should have been as good as Yitzchak and Rivka.  Neither of these were true. That means that the original supposition is false – while a person may be influenced by his environment, for good or for evil, the outcome is far from inevitable. Just as Ovadiahu was able to choose not emulate the deeds of Ahav and Izevel, so, too, Esav could have chosen to emulate the deeds of Yitzchak and Rivka.

If Ovadiahu, who was in the worst possible company, and had the best possible excuses to turn away from G-d, instead became the “Servant of G-d” (“oved Y-ah”) his name implies, then Esav, who was in the best possible company and had no reason to turn away from G-d, must have made the choice to leave deliberately.  Ovadiah then becomes the ideal person to send as a messenger to Esav’s descendents, then nation of Edom.

And if it is not the actual person from the time of Ahav, but rather another one of the same name, he would be carrying the same message: serving Hashem is a choice that one can make, regardless of where you were born.


[1] Ideally, a Haftarah is made up of 21 verses – 3 verses for each of the 7 Aliyot of Shabbat. Most are longer, and a few are shorter, but this one is just right.

[2] Yechezkel 29

[3] Yeshayahu 11, Yonah 1

[4] Amos 1

[5] Hoshea 1:1, Yeshayahu 1:1

[6] Malachi – it is not clear if it is a name, a pseudonym, or a title

Copyright © Kira Sirote 
In memory of my father, Peter Rozenberg, z”l
לעילוי נשמת אבי מורי פנחס בן נתן נטע ז”ל

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