Towards the end of Parashat Vayishlach, the Torah lists the names of the leaders who ruled in the area of Se’ir, before the region was overtaken by Esav, who established there the kingdom of Edom. Rashi (36:24) writes that this section was added because one of the figures mentioned is Timna, a princess of Se’ir who became a concubine of Esav’s son, Elifaz, and the mother of Amalek (36:12).
The Torah introduces this section by referring to the people of Se’ir as “yoshevei ha-aretz” (36:20). The simple explanation of this phrase, as Rashi and the Rashbam explain, is that these people lived in the region that would later be inhabited and controlled by Esav and his descendants. Additionally, however, the Gemara (Shabbat 85a), as Rashi cites, explains the term “yoshevei ha-aretz” as referring to this nation’s special agricultural acumen. They were able to identify which parts of the ground were suitable for which type of vegetable or tree, and they could even smell the earth and determine based on the smell which species should be planted there. The Torah alludes to this special skill with the term “yoshevei ha-aretz,” which implies not merely that the people of Se’ir lived in the land, but also that they keenly understood the land, knowing precisely which products to grow where.
What might be the deeper significance of this unique talent – knowing which plants should be grown on which pieces of land?
Symbolically, this skill of the people of Se’ir may represent the skill of identifying potential, of recognizing the different, unique capabilities of different people. Just as different tracts of land are uniquely suited to produce different types of vegetation, similarly, different people are uniquely suited for different types of accomplishments. We are born with vastly different innate strengths and weaknesses, have been raised in vastly different environments, and have had vastly different experiences over the course of our lives. All these factors, and others, combine to make each person’s individual potential unique and distinct. The skill noted by Chazal in describing the people of Se’ir is perhaps the recognition that no two people have the same abilities, that it is wrong to expect – and certainly to demand – the exact same result from two different people. We must learn to appreciate the many different forms of potential latent within different people, and we must endeavor to identify the unique potential within each of the people around us and do what we can to help that potential reach its maximum fulfillment.