Haftarah: Vayishlach: The Challenge of Greatness
Obadiah Chapter 1: 1-21 Who was Obadiah? Which nation is Edom, the subject of Obadiah’s prophecy? The sages say that Obadiah is the same man we discussed a few weeks ago in
the haftara of Vayeira. He was the person who worked for the king, Ahab, and at great risk, hid, protected and fed the prophets of God hiding from Jezebel. “Let Obadiah, who lived with two of the most wicked people in history and maintained his righteousness, come and prophesize against Esau/Edom, who grew up with two of the most righteous people in history, Isaac and Rebecca, and yet became an evil man.” (Sanhedrin 39b) Others say that Obadiah was a descendant of Esau, a convert, who, because of his unique perspective of Edom, was the only prophet who could address their ultimate destiny. (Yalkut Shimoni, Job 897; Midrash Hagadol, Genesis 25:28; Zohar, Volume 1, 171) Both opinions hold that this prophecy was rooted in a unique perspective of the people about whom Obadiah was speaking. As far as I recall, this is the only prophecy that so clearly demanded this type of perspective.
Perhaps the answer lies in the subject of this selection. We know that Edom descended from Esau; however, it is interesting to read this prophetic selection while keeping in mind that the sages saw the Roman Empire as the personification of Esau/Edom. It is difficult to hear Obadiah speak and not hear echoes of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. We can see the remnants of their greatness in hundreds of ruins that stretch the length and breadth of their once great empire. What happened to Rome? What happened to Esau, the twin of Jacob who was destined to be his equal in this world?
It is difficult to connect the greatness of Esau described in Genesis with the cave and cliff dwellers addressed by Obadiah. We read in this week’s portion how Esau inherited and settled his destined land long before Jacob and his children were able to enter the Land of Canaan and settle it as the Land of Israel. Jacob appreciated the power and achievements of his brother. He sent multiple gifts to his brother, addressed Esau as “my master”, and prepared for a war he was unsure he would survive.
Esau had power and prominence. Esau had received his blessings. Jacob even hints that he has not benefited from the blessings he stole. Esau was riding high; he produced kings and fathered a nation. Esau, who shared a womb with Jacob, who was described to Rebecca as being a constant counter balance to Jacob, who was feared for his might, became a weak nation, hiding in between rocks and caves. Esau was dependent on other nations for protection. Obadiah looked at this once great nation and called out to them what all knew to be true: they were no longer what they could have been. Perhaps they would achieve greatness again as Rome, but it would not last. Obadiah knew that Esau was incapable of maintaining greatness, and because of his unique perspective, understood why.
Esau lived in the environment of Isaac and Rebecca and rather than emulate his great parents, chose to pursue the opposite of all that mattered to them. He appreciated their achievements and valued their greatness, but in his false bravado rejected all that was precious to them. Esau was only interested in his immediate success. He had no vision for the nation he was destined to father. He rejected the ideals of his parents who were focused on their dream for their nation.
Obadiah, born into Edom, grew up in a society that was solely focused on survival and immediate desires. The prophet experienced the limitations of his birth-nation and chose a different path for himself. He became an accomplished person. Obadiah was the chief-of-staff for Ahab and Jezebel. Had he followed in the path of his ancestor Esau, he would have been satisfied with his achievements, a convert rising to one of the most powerful positions in the Jewish kingdom.
But, Obadiah did not follow Esau. He would not have sold his long-term aspirations for short-term benefits as Esau had done. Obadiah the convert lived a vision and was willing to risk all – his life, money and family – to live that vision. He too, lived in the household of two accomplished and powerful people, Ahab and Jezebel. As head of their household he understood their weaknesses just as he perceived the inherent weaknesses of his birth-nation. He rejected his king and queen as he had rejected his mother people. Obadiah understood that greatness focused only on its own survival is doomed. He lived in the castle of fragile accomplishments and experienced its limitations.
Israel is different. Esau and Edom rose and fell. Ahab and Jezebel rose and fell. Rome would rise and would then fall. Israel too, will have moments of greatness and experience terrible failure, as had Jacob, but they will never fall as had Obadiah’s ancestor.
Israel’s greatness is their vision. It (was and) is not a vision of maintaining and surviving but a vision of a day when “God will be one, and His name will be one.” Israel’s vision is not for itself but of a world perfected, unified and connected to its source.
Achievement, accomplishment, and greatness are nurtured by a vision greater than their maintenance. They are cultivated by a dream of a perfected world in which the achievement, accomplishment and greatness are measured by the dream of the world unified in its connection to God.
Obadiah speaks to all of us. We aspire to greatness. We hope to achieve. We are driven by a desire to make a difference.
Obadiah challenges us to examine if our vision is that of Jacob, or of Esau. Is it a vision of us or is it a dream of unlimited potential for all of us? Esau chose the former and we can visit and admire his ruins. Jacob chose the latter and we can visit his children’s home in Israel and study halls all over the world. Jacob’s vision is alive, vibrant and well, and still, unlimited.