The haftarah for parashat Vayishlakh is the entire book of Ovadiah. It’s the shortest book in the Tanakh, only one chapter, and 19 verses long. All but the last verse are in a poetic form.
Obadiah/Ovadiah/Ovadiyah means “oveid Yah” or “servant of Yah (G”d)”. Scholars dispute the dating of the text. Based on its content, it must have been written at a time when the Edomites, descendants of Esau/Esav, might have sold out their brother Israelites, to an enemy. This leaves us with two likely time periods: the middle of the 9th century BCE (around 850) when the Philistines attacked which would have been referring to the nation of Israel, the northern Kingdom; or during the cusp between the 6th and 7th centuries (between-605-587 BCE), when Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem and began the Babylonian Exile. Consensus appears to be for the later date, though if we accept this, then it is the Kingdom of Judah that is, ultimately, betrayed.
In parashat Vayishlakh, Yaakov/Jacob and Esav/Esau part relatively amicably-at the very least, theirs is a tenuous truce or peace between them. In Ovadiah’s prophecy, Esav/Esau, in the form of the nation of Edom, finally take their revenge of Yaakov/Esau, by betraying their distant brothers, the descendants of Yaakov/Jacob, to an enemy nation. Ovadiah then speaks of the punishment that will befall Edom, and his prophecy tells of how the remnant of the house if Yaakov/Jacob will utterly defeat and wipe out the Edomites, and restore the nation of Israel.
Ovadiah’s prophecy is often interpreted as an “end times” prophecy, it might even be considered proto-apocalyptic by some scholars. It’s not clear whether Ovadiah’s vision of a restored nation of the Jewish people was local or global.
The commentaries of the rabbis generally put Ovadiah’s prophecy in the more universal setting – the time of Moshiakh, of G”d’s Kingdom on earth. That’s no surprise. The early rabbis lived through the Syrian-Greek and Roman occupations and destructions, the Roman’s final defeat of the Jews and ending of the Jewish nation. For them, Edom represented not the Philistines or the Babylonians, but Rome itself. Later, after Christianity became dominant, it assumed the role of Edom instead.
The last verse of the book of Ovadiah, which made its way into liturgy (where it precedes the well-worn “bayom hahu” quote from Zechariah 14:9), is clearly cast in these more global ambitions:
For liberators shall march up on Mt. Zion to wreak judgment on Mount Esau; and dominion shall be the L”rd’s.
From a strictly Jewish particularistic perspective, it speaks of a time when the G”d of Israel shall be the G”d of all peoples. There’s no getting around the fact that, from a late rabbinic and medieval perspective, it was a hope for a time when the Jews would ascend Mt. Zion and overthrow the rock of Peter, and the Papal throne of Rome.
Are there not parallels here? In the case of Judaism and Christianity, the younger has far surpassed the elder, and, in effect, stolen its birthright. (It could be argued that the blessing was stolen deceitfully, with the used-car-salesman-like tactics of Paul, who chucked wholesale all the parts of Judaism that was off-putting to the gentiles he determined to convert when he finally saw that trying to convert the Jews was going nowhere. That’s sort of like Yaakov donning a goat skin to deceive his father.)
Though we struggle and strive for understanding between the three great Abrahamic faiths (and indeed, between all people of faith, and all people whose faith is of a kind not based on religious precepts) the tension and enmity between them, like that between Yaakov/Jacob and Esav/Esau seems perpetual.
Of course, we could take this a whole other direction. Let’s skip the non-Torah stuff (i.e. the haftarah) and root ourselves firmly in the parasha. In this case, it seems the Torah is recommending more of a “live and let live” attitude. Yaakov/Jacob and Esav/Esav let bygones be bygones, and co-exist, albeit apart, peacefully. That, surely, is a vision more attuned to our modern sensibilities.
Then there’s yet another alternative. We accept both the Torah’s view, and that of Ovadiah. We globalize and extend the vision of Ovadiah (and others) in a universalistic vision of a time when G”d shall be One and G”d’s name shall be One, and all people’s shall worship G”d. (Sorry, atheists, this does sort of leave you out, though I suspect that in any ultimate kingdom of G”d, any messianic future, the atheists will be as welcome and comfortable as anyone else.
We need not take the vision farther down the apocalyptic path, or any sort of triumphalist path. We need only to look near the end of our parasha, when together, Yaakov/Jacob and Esav/Esau, once (and perhaps always) bitter rivals, come together to bury their father. When we can all come together, and bury the twisted soul that was Yitzchak/Isaac, and what it represents in our past and present, perhaps we will have eliminated from our midst that pakhad Yitzchak, that idea of G”d as the “Fear of Isaac”. We can purge our faiths and religions of those qualities within it that now embarrass us (like triumphalist, particularistic, militaristic ideas) and move on to a truly new age for humankind.
Ken y’hi ratsoneinu – may this be OUR will.
2009 by Adrian A. Durlester