Vayishlach: Outrage at Injustice

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayishlach

This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, concerning the reconciliation
but eventual parting of the brothers Ya’akov and Esav. The haftarah,
however, is a bit harder to pin down, because there are, as last week,
different traditions as to which text is read, and in fact, one of the
traditions is that Ashkenazim read this week what Sephardim read last
week, from Hosea.

However, we’re going to follow the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, which
follows the practice of reading the book of Ovadiah, in its entirety
(only 21 verses), as the haftarah for Vayishlach.

OK, now that we’re all together on what we’re learning, what’s in the
learning?

The book of Ovadiah (probably a pseudonym, since Ovadiah means
“servant of God.”) is mostly a prophecy against the nation of Edom,
one of Israel’s neighbors that apparently took advantage of Israel
being in conflict with another nation and either plundered Israel or
at the very least didn’t help. (Cf. verses 1`2-14.) The connection to
the Torah portion is that Edom is understood to be descended from
Esav, brother of our ancestor Ya’akov (AKA Yisrael) – thus linking the
conflict between the brothers to later conflict between Israel and its
neighbor.

The ancient rabbis saw this conflict continue, and identified Edom
with the Roman empire- and thus the book of Ovadiah, who prophesied
Edom’s downfall, was seen not as the past, but as the future, a future
in which the hated Roman domination would be ended and the military
empire overthrown. The cruelty of Edom/ Rome is brought out in a
poignant verse:

“If thieves were to come to you,
marauders by night,
They would steal no more than they needed.
If grape-gatherers came to you,
they would surely leave some gleanings.” (Ovadiah, verse 5)

The basic idea is that even thieves have some honor- they would not
take everything out of a home, but only what they could sell or use,
and even those who raided a vineyard would surely leave <something>
behind, not out of compassion, but because a thief has at least some
rational self-interest, and doesn’t wantonly destroy. Yet I also hear
in these verses a rage against arrogance- because Edom/ Rome has not
been humbled, never experienced a sense of communal violation or
shame, they have no compassion, no understanding of justice and fairness.

There is a real anger in the book of Ovadiah, a sense of outrage at
the perceived lack of basic humanity: “how could you gaze with glee on
your brother that day, on his day of calamity?” (Verse 12) The prophet
is no dispassionate philosopher, but one who is offended at injustice;
not a magician or seer, but a deeply engaged voice of moral clarity.
Seen this way, the prophecy against Edom is not so much about a
particular nation at a particular time, but a symbol of a recurring
theme of history: those who that believe might makes right, and who
crush others because they can, will not stand forever. To believe this
requires both faith and courage- faith to keep struggling for justice
in a world which is often cruel, and the courage to ask hard
questions. That’s a prophetic faith, one which sustained our people
through periods of darkness, and which is no less needed today.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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