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Vayishlach 5770

By: Rav Michael Susman

I have always been fascinated by the relationship between Yaacov Avienu and his twin brother Esav, especially as viewed through the eyes of Chazal. On the one hand, the famous statement of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, "Esav Soneh l'Yaakov", Esav is a hater of Yaakov, is about as unequivocal as it gets. On the other hand we don't really see this hatred reflected in the passukim. This week I would like to analyze a single passuk in our parsha in order to try and shed light on this question. In this week's Parasha, the Torah tells us of the meeting between Esav and Yaakov as Yaakov makes his way back to Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, our familiarity with the tale takes a bit of the edge off of the narrative. Nonetheless, if we allow ourselves to read the perek and a half of the parasha as if it were the first time that we were encountering the story, we can't help but be struck by the tremendous tension Yaakov and his entourage are experiencing as they prepare for their upcoming encounter with Esav. The tension is magnified by the uncertainty of the reception that they will receive. Will Esav use this opportunity to avenge the perceived injustices that have characterized his relationship with his brother? Perhaps Esav will respond positively to Yaakov's attempts at reconciliation? The early indications are certainly discouraging, as Yaakov's scouts report that Esav is converging upon them accompanied by a large armed force. So which Esav will Yaakov ultimately confront? Since Yaakov can't be sure he must prepare for all eventualities. While the passukim tell us of these preparations, Rashi, quoting the Midrash gives us a perspective on how Yaakov wishes to present himself to Esav. Not surprisingly, this too reflects on Yaakov's inner turmoil as he tries to gauge how to best approach his brother. Commenting on the initial message that Yaakov sends to Esav, Rashi looks to explain why it was necessary for Yaakov to inform Esav that "im Lavan garti", I have dwelled with Lavan. Rashi suggests two possibilities. Firstly, says Rashi, Yaakov is telling Esav that he was an alien (ger) with Lavan and not an important or prominent personality. The message is that the bracha which Yaakov had taken from Esav had not been fulfilled, and hence Yaakov is no threat to Esav. Implicit in these words is a message of reconciliation. Why not let bygones be bygones? In any event Yaakov did not profit from the bracha that he took from Esav. The second possibility that Rashi suggests plays off the gematria of the word “garti”, which is 613. I have lived with Lavan, says Yaakov, and despite Lavan’s evil ways and negative influence my adherence to Torah and Mitzvot, to the value system I inherited from our parents was in no way compromised. I have continued to keep all 613 mitzvot. According to this interpretation Yaakov’s message to Esav is far more confrontational. Don’t take me to be a pushover, says Yaakov to Esav. I have confronted far greater scoundrels than you for a longer period of time and emerged victorious. What emerges from these two explanations is a picture of Yaakov struggling to send two different and perhaps contradictory messages to Esav. Choose, he says to Esav. The conciliatory Yaakov is prepared to be humble, and perhaps even bend a knee, in order to make peace with Esav. But he is also prepared for confrontation and even open hostilities, because, as he does not hesitate to remind Esav, he has been there before and is confident that he will emerge with the upper hand. As it turns out, Yaakov is not the only one who is of two minds about this reunion. On the other side of this meeting, Esav is conflicted as well. The key passuk for understanding Esav’s perspective is found in Perek 33 Passuk 4. There the Torah tells us of Esav’s reaction to seeing his brother and adversary return from exile. “Vayaratz Esav l’krato, vayechabkehu vayipol al tzavarav vayishakehu, vay’bchu.” And Esav ran to greet him, and he hugged him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they cried.” Most school children immediately identify this passuk through the the lens of the Midrash which suggests that Esav wished to bite Yaakov’s neck but was miraculously prevented from doing so. (Breishit Rabba). Ibn Ezra is famously dismissive of this Midrash, calling it a child’s tale and asserting that the simple pshat of the passuk implies that Esav meant no harm for Yaakov. To prove the point Ibn Ezra compares the fact that both our passuk and the passuk describing the fateful reunion of Yosef and his brothers (45:15) tell us that Yosef and Esav cried. Just as we know that Yosef’s crying reflected his sincere emotion, so too are Esav’s tears sincere. Rashi quotes a similar but not identical Midrash (Sifrei B’Halotecha 69). Rather than quoting the Midrash as suggesting that Esav intended to attack Yaakov, Rashi quotes this opinion as saying that Esav was not wholehearted in his display of emotion while none other than Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai asserts that despite the natural hatred that Esav bears toward Yaakov in this situation Esav was so overwhelmed by Yaakov’s display of contrition and subjugation that he too was swept away by the emotion of the moment and wholeheartedly hugged his brother. The source of the disagreement on this passuk is the significance of six dots which appear above the word “vayishakahu”. The Midrash in Breishit Rabba says that the number of dots will determine how the word that they are found above should be understood. If there are fewer letters in the word than dots then the focus should be placed on the word. If the dots are more numerous than the letters then the word’s meaning will be superseded. In our passuk there are an equal amount of dots and letters, hence the disagreement as to how to understand the passuk. In one of her studies on Parshat VaYishlach, Nechama Leibovitch compares the two schools, and based on the harsh reality of Jewish history of the past century, dismisses the contention that Esav can somehow be reformed. She closes by quoting Benno Yaacov, who compares various tearful reunions in Chumash, such as the meeting between Yosef and his brothers and the meeting between Yosef and his father. Surprisingly, the most flowery and extreme language is used to describe the meeting between Yaakov and Esav. This “over the top” description, says Yaacov, casts Esav as one "who doth protest too much" and in fact demonstrates that the emotions expressed were insincere. It is as if the Torah is making up for the lack of mutual love by being overly descriptive of the reunion. Ralbag offers a slightly more nuanced explanation of the role of the dots which appear on top of the word "vayishakahu", which in turn, suggests what I find to be a fascinating insight into Esav's state of mind. Ralbag (33:4) tells us that the purpose of the dots is to signal ambiguity. The kiss is somewhere between a true kiss and a non-kiss. (As we have noted in the past, Ralbag employs a unique three part commentary, focusing on an explanation of the words- beiur milim, an explanation of the story and the purpose-toelet- of the story. This explanation appears in the beiur hamilim section). What the Ralbag is telling us is that just like Yaakov, Esav is also torn by the upcoming reunion. How should he respond to Yaakov's entreaty? Should he be magnanimous? Should he seize the opportunity for revenge? Perhaps something in the middle? Even as he rushes to embrace his brother Esav is uncertain of what he feels. This approach opens up a fascinating possibility. What would happen if Esav truly decided to reconcile with Yaakov. Would such a thing be possible? Were we not fated to never-ending enmity with Edom? This is not a purely academic question. As R. Yehuda Shaviv points out in his analysis of the Haftara, Moshe Rabbenu himself held out the hope for such a reconciliation (see Bamidbar 20:14, Devarim 2:4 and 2:8). Ultimately Edom chose to remain bitter enemies of Am Yisrael rather than choosing the path of reconciliation. R. Shaviv even suggests that it was precisely because Edom had a choice that Ovadiah was chosen to rebuke them in the nevua which was chosen as this week's Haftara. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (39b) identifies Ovadiah as a ger of Edomite lineage. Who is better placed to rebuke Edom for failing to choose reconciliation on a national level then an individual who has chosen that very same reconciliation on a personal level? If we accept this analysis we are not only left with a fascinating possibility for an alternate history. We have an amazing testament to the concept of bechira chofshit. Even as enduring an idea as Esav Soneh L'Yaakov can not stand before free will. Despite all the bad blood between them the path of reconciliation stood open to these two brothers. Yaakov stood ready to embark on this path; Esav hesitated and ultimately chose not to. The rest is history. Shabbat Shalom

 

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