Another week of passion plays in shul as we make our way through Breishis. The rabbi just won't let up. Just a little while ago it was Ishmael, and this week it is Esav. This really feels like I am watching a medieval passion play. Here comes the good guy - Yaacov. He is perfect. Here comes the bad guy - Esav. He is evil. Boo, hiss...If I understand him correctly, it is not that Esav is viewed as a bad guy per se that bothers him--there are bad guys--but that he is made into the bad guy to the point that it would be parody, except that its not parody.
A couple of months ago the following letter and response appeared in one of those free ad-heavy Jewish magazine you find in New York:
I hope it can be read clearly. The letter is about a previous writer's portrayal of Lavan as akin to Stalin or Hitler! I believe the same letter could have been written about Yishmael and Esav. The point is that it is true that these three are "bad guys" in the midrash, to a certain extent Yishmael and Lavan are "bad guys" in the text of the Torah itself. But Hitler and Stalin-esque?
The rabbi correctly noted in response that the Haggadah cites a rabbinic interpretation of Deut. 26:4 אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, 'the Aramean [ie, Lavan] sought to destroy my father [ie, Yaakov]' as opposed to the peshat which might read 'a wandering Aramean [ie, Yaakov] was my father.'
That the former is not the literal translation needs very little to establish. One can simply quote the Artscroll Stone Chumash note on the words they translate 'An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather'--"The translation is that of Rashi, who follows the Midrashic interpretation of Sifre, which is also the version found in the Haggadah. Accordingly, the Aramean is the deceitful Laban, who tried to deceive Jacob at every turn, and finally pursued him with the intention of killing him, and would have done so had not God warned him not to dare harm Jacob (see Genesis 31:29-30). In the plain sense, the term is rendered my forefather [i.e., Jacob] was a lost [i.e., homeless or penniless] Aramean, meaning that Jacob lived in Aram for twenty years of his life (Ibn Ezra)."
Lest we get stuck on the discussion about the tension between the דרש and the פשט it should suffice to note that there really isn't the official midrashic portrayal of any of these characters. Yishmael is viewed in a negative light at times; in others he is truly penitent. The same can be said for the others as well.
The point is that both the rabbi and the letter writer are correct in pointing to opposing sources and opinions regarding these figures, and that only highlights the fact that there is a complex reality to their treatment in the rabbinic tradition, even if it is true that the weight of opinion would seem to be with the rabbi; albeit it is a long leap from that to treating Lavan as the proto-Hitler.
The rabbi's response ends with a postscript:
By the way, Esav and Yishmael were also related to Avrohom Avinu. Will you take up their cause as well?
I imagine the writer of the letter didn't see himself as taking up Lavan's cause so much as opposing the Spaghetti Westernization of the Torah tradition.