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Overcoming Eisav

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

Parshat Vayishlach begins with the preparations of Ya'akov Avinu for the encounter with his estranged brother Eisav. Immediately before their encounter the Torah relates:

Ya'akov lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, Eisav was coming, and with him were four hundred men; so he divided the children with Leah and with Rachel and with the two maidservants. And he placed the maidservants and their children first and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and her Yoseph last.[1]

Rashi comments on the order in which Ya'akov placed the mothers and their children:

אחרון אחרון חביב – the more precious and beloved last[2]

Many of the commentators[3] explain that Ya'akov arranged his family in this order in the hope that if Eisav would attack, perhaps his anger would subside after the killing of those in front and those further back would be spared.

I must admit that even writing these words causes my hands to tremble. Granted that Rachel was Ya'akov's favorite wife, and Yoseph as well was his chosen son, but could that affection influence the question of saving his family members lives? Does favoritism for certain children make the lives of the others more expendable? This would be a troublesome question for any parent and spouse, kal va'chomer for Ya'akov Avinu, the chosen of the Avot.

Chazal admonish Ya'akov[4] for later showing favoritism towards Yoseph by giving him the special coat. Surely the favoritism displayed in our Parsha is much worse, yet here he is not rebuked at all!

Futhermore, this behavior is explicitly forbidden according to Jewish law:

If non-Jews told a group of Jews: "Give us one of you to kill. If not, we will kill all of you" they should allow themselves all to be killed rather than give over a single soul to the non-Jews.[5]

Another difficulty that with this verse is that it seems to be in conflict with the pasuk in the previous perek that describes the way Ya'akov divided his camp in anticipation of Eisav:

Ya'akov became very frightened and was distressed; so he divided the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels into two camps. And he said, "If Eisav comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape.”[6]

According to this verse, in chapter 32, there were two camps that were divided in no particular order and with no knowledge of which would survive. According to the verse in chapter 33, there were three camps or groups - the two maidservants, Leah and her children and Rachel and Yoseph. Why are there these discrepancies?

Without going into an extensive analysis of the verses in these two chapters, I would like to portray the events that transpired as explained by the Rashbam and come to a different understanding of the verses mentioned at the outset of this dvar Torah.

The Rashbam explains[7] that though Ya'akov intended on meeting up with Eisav on his way back home, when his messengers reported to him that Eisav was on his way to meet him with four hundred men, though the messengers conveyed it as the four hundred men were in honor of Eisav for Ya'akov, Ya'akov did not believe them and was convinced that Eisav had evil intentions. As a result, Ya'akov takes immediate action to prepare for the worst, and splits his camp into two distantly located camps so that in the event that the one be attacked the other would be able in the meantime to flee for safety.

Ya’akov davens as well to Hashem to aid him to survive the encounter with Eisav.  He then organizes the large gift of various animals to be sent with messengers to give to Eisav to possibly appease him, but more likely to delay Eisav and serve as a decoy so that Ya'kov, in the meantime, would escape with his family. And indeed Ya’akov wakes up in the middle of the night and begins his family's escape.

However, Ya'akov is stopped. He encounters an "ish" – a man/angel that battles with him. The Rashbam explains that the reason Ya'akov is attacked by this angel is precisely because he was fleeing his destiny and exhibited doubt regarding the fulfilment of the promises Hashem had made to him. The Rashbam draws upon other cases in the Tanakh when people who went on a path against the will of Hashem, experienced similar encounters: Moshe confronted by the angel who tries to kill him; Bilam is confronted by the Malakh on his way to Balak; Yonah is swallowed by the fish while escaping Hashem.

The Rashbam does not address though what was the outcome of this encounter. Besides the fact that it delayed Ya'akov, and he was not able to avoid Eisav, were there other consequences?

It appears that Ya’akov was transformed as a result of this confrontation. The discovery of this encounter was that Ya'akov will prevail against his enemies and overcome them. No longer is Ya'akov to be called Ya'akov, the deceiver, rather Yisra'el, yashar-el, the one who walks straight and upright.

Once Ya'akov overcomes the enemy within, he is ready to face Eisav, the enemy without. After the encounter with the angel, Ya'akov sets up his camp and family not to try to elude Eisav but rather to face him sternly and with conviction. He arranges the family not with the intention to maybe salvage the precious few that might remain after the massacre, but rather to present to his brother who he is and what he had become in the years gone by. The order is ascending, but not with the intention of expendability, but rather with the intention of emphasizing spiritual value and achievement.

On the threshold of the return of Ya'akov Avinu to Eretz Yisrael he is told to shirk off the tendency to evade and hide his true worth and identity. The path to victory lies in upholding his virtues and values and displaying them proudly before Eisav.

Shabbat Shalom


[1] Breishit 33;1-2.

[2] Rashi ibid.

[3] Radak, Shadal and others.

[4] Bavli, Shabbat 10b.

[5] Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah 5;5.

[6] Breishit 32;8.

[7] Rashbam, Breishit chapters 32 and 33.


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