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Obadiah's communication of the word of G-d to the descendants of Esau - the people of Edom:
"The House of Jacob will be a fire,
This very short Book of Obadiah focuses on the people of Edom - Esau's descendants (Gen. 36:1), who lived south east of Israel, to the East of the southern Arava. Not only did they rejoice over the sufferings of Jacob's progeny within the Holy Land, but they also took advantage of their plight to loot their territory and help the invader. Obadiah prophesied that Edom would be punished and defeated in Messianic times, along with other nations that were enemies of Israel.
The problem with this Haftara is its general context. Who was Obadiah? What was the situation of the Israelites at that time?
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 36b) links the Prophet Obadiah with the Obadiah who was steward to King Ahab of Israel, who 'feared G-d' and saved a hundred of the prophets from being slaughtered by Queen Jezebel (Kings I 18:3-4). The Rabbis teach that, of all prophets, this vision was left for Obadiah for two reasons. Firstly they have the tradition that he was a descendant of an Edomite proselyte, and therefore of Esau himself (Yalkut: Job 897). Secondly, Obadiah was the complete opposite of Esau. Esau lived amongst two righteous people, Isaac and Rebecca, and yet he did not follow their ways. Obadiah, on the other hand, was the courtier of Ahab and Jezebel - two monarchs noted in the Book of Kings for their wickedness. Yet he remained a righteous person. Moreover, at a time when the king and queen murdered all the prophets of G-d in favor of the prophets of Baal, Obadiah risked his life to shelter and feed a hundred surviving true prophets.
This would make Obadiah a contemporary of the very early prophets - amongst them Elijah - at approximately 840 BCE. This has been challenged for several reasons. Firstly, all the other Twelve Minor Prophets lived at least a century later. Secondly, there was no known conflict between Israel and Edom at that time. For the incident where Edom revolted against Joram, King of Judah (Kings II 8:20), implies that Edom, at the time of Ahab and Elijah was a vassal (under the domination) of Judah and probably the northern kingdom of Israel as well.
Ibn Ezra and the Radak place Obadiah within a much later period - when Edom indeed became a serious threat to the surviving southern kingdom of Judah. At that time, Edom did take advantage of its weakness to invade from the south and overrun parts of the Negev up to Hebron, and very likely even up to the borders of Jerusalem. That would have coincided with the years of strife under Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, culminating in the exile of the Jewish elite in 597 BCE and again, with the Destruction of the First Temple, in 586 BCE. Indeed the first five verses of Obadiah are almost exactly stated in the prophesies of Jeremiah (who was active in that period) against Edom (Jer. 49:14-17), where he states that G-d will make Edom 'least amongst nations, most despised amongst men.'
There are several customs concerning the reading the two Haftarot from Hosea (11:7-12:12; 12:14-14:10), and Obadiah (whole book) over the weeks of Parshiyot Vayeitzei and Vayishlach within both Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. Last week - for Vayeitzei - I combined the two Haftarot from Hosea, leaving the Book of Obadiah for this week - Vayishlach.
The words of G-d's wrath conveyed by Obadiah are related to Esau, the ancestral father of Edom. However, in the Torah narrative, Esau in many instances appears to have been sinned against, rather than been a sinner. In a moment of personal weakness, he was beaten by Jacob to the birthright. He father was tricked in to giving the blessing meant for him to his brother. Although he intended to avenge Jacob, he did not actually carry out his plan. Backed by his army of four hundred men, he could easily have done so on meeting Jacob journeying home from Haran. Moreover, he allowed him to participate at his father's burial (Gen. 35:29). Indeed, the Torah forbids the Israelites to abhor Edom 'for he is your brother' (Deut. 23:8).
Thus Esau's sins seem to be largely in the future - those of his offspring, rather than his own. As Obadiah states: 'for the outrage to your brother Jacob, disgrace will engulf you, and you will perish for ever' (Obad. 1:10). The 'outrage' - from the context of the prophecy - is more than a millennium after his death. Why does Esau appear to be held to blame for the sins of his of progeny?
This question strengthened by the following. Ishmael was also regarded as wicked during his earlier life - to the degree that he was expelled from Abraham's household. Tradition (based on Isaiah 21:13-17) has it that his descendants were also to impose agony and suffering on the Jews. For when Nebuchadnezzer exiled the southern kingdom of Judah, some were received into their new surroundings of the descendants of Ishmael - the people of Arabia (c.f. Isaiah ibid.), who offered the thirsty Jews 'hospitality' in the form of goat skins filled not with drink, but air, which instantly rushed into their lungs and choked them - as well as tormented their thirst still further with salted meat and fish (Tanhuma: Yitro 2). True, the Rabbis have the tradition that Ishmael repented of his sins towards the end of his life (Gen. Rabba 38:12). Nevertheless, the text does not drag him into the attacks of his descendants on the Jews, as it does with Esau. Why is only Esau given the harsh treatment of being associated with the behavior of his descendants in the manner described in the text of the Haftara?
One suggestion is that there are different types of teshuva - repentance. Esau's self-restraint in accepting, rather than attacking Jacob (following Jacob's huge gift to him) was on impulse. The Midrash (Sifri: Behaalotcha 69) quotes R. Shimon bar Yochai who said, 'even though it is an immutable rule that Esau hates Jacob, at that moment his feelings of mercy were aroused'. Indeed, much of Esau's conduct appears from the text to be on whim. Examples include his readiness, in his hunger, to exchange a bowl of soup with lentils for his future role of being the heir and director of the Patriarchal traditions, and his sudden resolve to kill Jacob because he received the blessing meant for Esau himself.
So his momentary acceptance of Esau to accept Jacob on his return from Laban, and his later allowing him to take part at his father's burial, may be seen as good deeds done on impulse. They do not contradict the fundamental elements in his character, or the Rabbinical tradition that 'it is an immutable rule that Esau hates Jacob'. Esau's momentary repentance was teshuva of sorts, but not real teshuva. There was no fundamental change in his character or attitudes. That may well explain why, in contrast to Ishmael, there is no Rabbinical tradition that Esau repented. And for that reason, the violence of his descendants against those of Jacob is linked with him.
Ishmael, on the other hand is recorded (supra) to have repented. The very fact that one of the Rabbis of the Mishna - R. Ishmael - is named after him, testifies to the power of that tradition. True teshuva is not a single good deed, but a fundamental change in personal character. That is for what ask G-d's help to work towards daily in the Amida. That would explain why there is a tradition that Ishmael repented, but no tradition that Esau did the same thing. And because Ishmael intrinsically improved himself for the good, he is not associated with the sins of his descendants.
We learn from here the value of teshuva sheleima - perfect repentance. On Yom Kippur we change our conduct to suit the day, and may well, on inclination, make new resolutions. The true test of the value of those changes is whether we maintain them and build on them during the year… Thus we may be worthy of being part of the process of the last words of the Haftara… 'the Kingdom will be G-d's' (Obad. 1:21).
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
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This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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