My Killer, My Brother

The instruction not to provoke the descendants of Esau reminds us that there is always potential for family reconciliation.

Commentary on Parashat Devarim, Deuteronomy 1:1 - 3:22

Moshe Rabbenu (Moses, our teacher) begins his valedictory address with the first portion of Devarim (Deuteronomy). He’s giving the final instructions before the reins of leadership are transferred to Joshua. In the course of describing the history of the land to which they are about to return, Moshe warns them in the following verses that they are not to provoke the descendants of Esau.

Deuteronomy 2:2-5

Then the Lord said to me: You have been skirting this hill country long enough now turn north. And charge the people as follows: You will be passing through the territory of your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on…

Your Torah Navigator

1. Why are the children of Esau referred to as kinsman?

2. How is the word provoke defined here?

The Midrash in D’varim Rabba, sees the fact that the descendants of Esau are called kinsmen as significant. Esau’s descendants have no spiritual connection with the Jewish people. They are pagans, and they are not privy to any revelation, but God has promised them a parcel of land and it is important that the descendants of Jacob honor that promise.

Subsequent verses permit our forebears to buy food, drink and supplies from them, but not engage in provocative behavior–even though they must have been seen as an army marching on a mission of conquest.

The Midrash also states that origins are important, because origins often create the potential for deep connection as well as deep enmity. It says:

D’varim Rabba (Lieberman) Parashat Devarim 22

Your kinsmen, the descendants of Esau, even though they are the descendants of Esau, they are still your kinsmen. Another verse echoes this sentiment by saying, “Your kinsmen who hate you…” (Isaiah 66:5). Even though they hate you, they are your kinsmen… And this sentiment is also echoed in the verse, “…and the outrage that will be done to your brother Jacob… (Obadiah 1:10). Even though he may kill you and plunder you, he is still your brother…

Your Midrash Navigator

1. What’s the difference between fraternal hatred and hatred of one who is not related to you?

2. Which hatred has the greatest potential to be transformed into love?

3. Does the adage “You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family” resonate with this midrash? How?

A Word

In times of great strife, when kinsmen become brothers in name only, origins of relationships offer the potential for a way back, when they once shared something in common. The Midrash is teaching that these origins were given, by God and cannot be removed by human design. No matter what outrage people perpetrate, they cannot abrogate the potential for reconciliation, because they were not the ones who created the relationship. It is this fact that humbles us and makes us see the world as a place that existed before us and will exist after us, and the darkest moments between peoples will give way to the memory of being kinsmen once upon a time.

As we explore the three weeks and the nine days that lead up to Tisha B’Av and recall the destruction of the Temple, we are reminded that someday these will be days of rejoicing. And brothers who have become enemies will be brothers once again.

Reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.


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