16 Dec 2016

Haftara for Vayishlah 5777 All in the Family

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Haftara for Vayishlah 5777 – All in the Family

Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. — Lewis B. Smedes

Book of Obadia (1:1-21)


The book of Obadia which is read for the haftara of Vayishlah is only one chapter, and it is not clear who the prophet Obadia was[1]. The unique aspect of his prophecy is that it focuses almost entirely on the nation of Edom, who are the descendants of Esav, the twin brother of Ya’akob. It is a harsh rebuke against them for treating Israel cruelly and as though they were strangers rather than brothers. It ends with Israel’s vindication.


We, the nation of Israel, have a complicated relationship with our older twin brother, Esav who is also called ‘Edom’[2]. The relationship was one of great struggle from the time that we shared a womb.
The children almost crushed one another inside her…(Gen., 25:22)
Yet, we are commanded by Torah to never treat his descendants poorly and to remember that he is, after all, our brother.
You are not to abominate an Edomite, for he is your brother. (Deut., 23:8)
Esav, however, has not always dealt so magnanimously with us, and has acted as though there was no brotherhood between us. The prophet Obadia spends five verses in our haftara chastising him over it.
For the crime against your brother Ya’akob, disgrace shall envelope you,
and you shall perish forever.

On that day when you stood aloof, when aliens carried off his goods, when foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Yerushalayim, you were as one of them!

How could you gaze with glee on your brother…on his day of calamity?!…Gloat over the people of Yehuda on that day of ruin?!…Stand at the passes to cut down its fugitives?!  (1:10-14)
In Torah there is clearly a value placed on remembering our shared brotherhood, and there is one instance in our parasha where Esav does express his love.

Esav ran to meet him, and hugged him, and fell on his neck and kissed him…(Gen., 33:4)
Said Ribbi Shimon: This indicates that for once Esav kissed Ya’akob with all his heart. (Bereshit Rabba, 78:9)
Years later, in our haftara, the memory is lost and our brother Edom contributes to our demise.

We no longer hear of the name Edom or Esav being used, however, the Talmud sees the continuation of his legacy in the overarching identity of the world’s Western nations[3], who sadly have tried to accomplish his original goal for us in many instances through history.

Esav held a grudge against Ya’akob…Esav said in his heart: ‘Let the days of mourning for my father draw near and then I will kill Ya’akob my brother. (27:41)
However, after over two-thousand years of struggling against the threats of the nations, we defy and survive. Not as some abstract manifestation of what was once Israel, but as Israel the ancient nation, alive and well with our memory of the last two millennia intact. We are the ones who remember, and that is the thorn in the side of our brother. We not only remember, we remind them.

This week I had the opportunity to hear two Western leaders address the Jewish community and their relationship to it. The first was the British Prime Minister, Theresa May who was the keynote speaker at the Conservative Friends of Israel lunch which I attended. Among the 800 guests 200 were MP’s and parliamentarians. She made the ‘ground-breaking’ announcement that the UK was adopting the broad definition of anti-Semitism drawn up by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). She said that ‘There will be one definition of anti-Semitism – in essence, language or behaviour that displays hatred towards Jews because they are Jews – and anyone guilty of that will be called out on it’. Her remarks drew a standing ovation.

The other leader was His Majesty King Felipe VI of Spain in Madrid. He addressed the Conference of European Rabbis who awarded him the Lord Jakobovits prize of European Jewry. In his address he spoke of ‘All of Spain’s efforts in recent years to return the country’s Jewish culture to its rightful state are simply a duty in the name of justice’. He spoke of the Sephardim ‘who, for five centuries, stayed true to their heritage and taught their children to love the memory of Sepharad’. In his discussion with me he asked about the Royal Family’s relationship to the Jewish community in England and mentioned that he wanted to model it in Spain[4].

Upon reflecting on these events, listening as a Jew to the leaders of these Western nations speak about us, I was grateful that they were speaking of strong expressions of good will towards my people. It sounded more like Esav’s brotherly love than his hatred.

Could it be, though, if we had not survived the expulsion from England by Edward I in the 12th century and later returned, and if we had not persevered against all odds after the expulsion from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, would there be any recollection? We bring up discomfort and dark parts of their past in our very presence.

Surely, the return to our homeland after all these years cannot be entirely comfortable for those who might wish to let the past lay. Our haftara insists that to forget our familial bonds is a crime.

No one knows for sure how our relationship with the West will play out. The world order is changing and the West is recalibrating its stance on many issues. As paradigms shift we find our intellectual, psychological and social sensibilities shifting with them. In these developments, however, a prophecy has begun to come true and Israel has returned home. If the number of UN resolutions against it are any indication, the world is concerned. One cannot help but read the last words of the haftara and wonder how the prophecy of Obadia might one day come to pass.

For liberators will march up on Mount Zion to judge Mount Esav; and God will reign. (1:21)
Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck
[1] Cf. Rashi and Ibn Ezra on first verse. See also Da’at Mikra.

[2] Genesis, 25:30

[3] Rome and the Christian world was seen as its manifestation. Sifre, Vezot HaBerakha, 343; Cf. Bereshit Rabba, 75:5. See also Da’at Mikra, Tere Asar, Ovadia, Introduction, p.7

[4] It is quite ironic that the Jews coming back to Sepharad is actually mentioned at the end of the haftara! Although it is likely that here it refers to Asia Minor.


Parasha Perspectives

VIII Vayishlach

28a              Ya’akov goes home (32:4-33:17)
Ya’akov prepares to meet brother (32:4-22)
Ya’akov fights & becomes Yisrael (32:23-33)
Ya’akov meets Esav (33:1-17)
28b              Ya’akov and family move to Shechem (33:18-20)
28c               Dinah: the revenge of Shimon and Levi (34:1-31)
29                Journey to Bet-el (35:1-8)
30                God renames Ya’akov and makes him a promise;
Rachel dies as Binyamin is born (35:9-22)
31                Ya’akov’s sons listed. Yitzchak dies (35:23-29)
32a              Generations of Esav (26:1-19)
32b              Generations of Seir the Chori (36:20-30)
33                The kings of Edom (36:31-43)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS