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Friend or Foe?

By: Rav Yonatan Horovitz

Tensions are running high. Ya'akov is meticulously planning for his fateful meeting with his brother. As the famous words of Rashi convey, Ya'akov prepares for this encounter in three ways: diplomacy – represented by a somewhat outrageously sized gift, war – dividing his entourage into two camps thus increasing the hope that at least some will survive, and prayer – his supplication to God.

The obvious question is, therefore, why does Ya'akov want to meet Esav at all? As we are told at the beginning of the parsha it is he who initiates the meeting. If he is so scared of the results of this reunion with his brother, would it not have been better just to avoid it all together?

Ramban, in his opening comments to this parsha, states:

This whole episode is written to inform us how Hashem saved his servant (Ya'akov) and redeemed him from one stronger than him (Esav) and sent an Angel to save him. And to further teach us that he (Ya'akov) did not rely on his own righteousness but tried to ensure his safety by any method he could.

These comments of Ramban seem to compound the question asked above. If a miracle is required to save Ya'akov from Esav, why enter such an encounter in the first place?

We will suggest a number of answers to this question. The simplest answer is that he did not have a choice. Ya'akov had to return home as discussed in last week's parsha and the only way to do this successfully was to meet Esav and hope that he will allow him to pass through. Geographically, it is not clear that this is indeed the case because if Esav was already settled in Se'ir, Ya'akov could surely have taken the mid-country route and bypassed Esav altogether.

Another possible answer is based on what we suggested in our shiur last week. Rachel forced Ya'akov to confront Lavan, a process which he successfully negotiated, Ya'akov then felt the need to move to the next confrontation, that with his brother Esav. However, we would then question why it is that the exuberance and confidence which Ya'akov displayed at the end of last week's parsha while dealing with Lavan seem to have disappeared in anticipation of his encounter with Esav.  In response, we could propose that Ya'akov's attitude only changed once he has heard that Esav is moving towards him with four hundred men. Assuming that this was akin to a declaration of war, Ya'akov's earlier confidence melts as he prepares for a violent confrontation.

A further suggestion as to why Ya'akov initiates contact with Esav goes back to why they were estranged in the first place. Many years earlier after Ya'akov had maneuvered his father into giving him the blessing which had been intended for Esav, the latter is incensed and vows to kill his brother. Not wishing to upset their aging father, Esav says he will only do so once Yitzchak has passed on.

It is possible that Ya'akov has harbored guilty feelings about this whole episode for the past twenty years.  Without entering into a lengthy discussion as to the merits or lack thereof of Ya'akov's taking of the bracha, suffice it to say that there are many midrashim which criticize Ya'akov for his actions.  We could suggest that at this point Ya'akov wishes to make peace with his brother, to apologize for what happened earlier and to try to rekindle their brotherly relationship. Rav Yehudah Gilad in his book "Et Kolecha Shamati" even proposes that Ya'akov effectively returned the bracha to Esav.  (This idea is based on an original take on the entire brachot event and is worth reading.)

Ya'akov hoped that Esav would have forgotten the events of many years ago or at least cooled down and not still want to kill him. These hopes are shattered when his messengers return from their visit to Esav and inform Ya'akov that his brother is advancing towards him with four hundred of his men. Ya'akov interprets this to mean that Esav has retained his hatred for his little brother and is coming to finally exact payback for what Ya'akov did to him. Whilst still hoping to find favor in Esav's eyes by treating him as his master (adon) and sending him generous gifts, he still prepares for the worst case scenario, that of outright war.

But did Ya'akov correctly understand Esav's intentions? Rashbam (Bereishit 32:7-8) states that the four hundred men with Esav were actually accompanying him as a sign of respect and honor which he wished to show Ya'akov. Rashbam proves that the use of the word "likratcha" demonstrates respect. Why then does Ya'akov panic on hearing this news? According to Rashbam it is because Ya'akov did not believe that these were Esav's true intentions but was convinced that Esav was out to do him no good but rather harm.

The advantage of this explanation is that it helps us to understand the way the actual meeting transpires. As we read Ya'akov's intense preparations and hear him pray with fervor to Hashem, we expect the worse. We may be rooting for Ya'akov and hoping for the best, but we are very unsure as to what Esav will actually do when they meet. And lo and behold, hugs and kisses, comradery, concern and even an offer to join forces for a while - all these and more can be found in the jovial reunion between the two brothers.

So what happened? Based on the Ramban quoted above, Hashem stood by Ya'akov and miraculously saved him. The episode prior to the meeting, Ya'akov's strange encounter with the man/angel, clearly had an effect on how the events transpired and it may be to this episode that Ramban refers. But if we adopt the approach of Rashbam, we are not at all surprised by Esav's actions. He had never intended to hurt Ya'akov; rather he wished to greet his dear brother with the respect and honor he deserves. After so many years, it seems that Esav was happy to let bygones be bygones and reunite with his long lost twin brother.

If we adopt the Rashbam's notion of Esav's goodwill we may ask as to why the Midrash portrays Esav as such an evil character? For instance, we are all familiar with the Midrash which suggests that Esav intended to bite Ya'akov's neck but miraculously it turned into stone which resulted in saving Ya'akov's life and Esav ending up with a couple of broken teeth.

The simple answer to this question is that Rashbam is advancing a different approach to that of the Midrash. The more complex answer lies beyond the scope of this shiur and requires a more in-depth understanding of the aims and methodology of Midrash.

Whichever explanation we wish to follow, there is definitely more in this story than meets the eye. Maybe this is a message for interpersonal relations in general. They are often more complex than is first seen. As the mishnayot in Pirkei Avot enjoin us, one should be careful not to judge the other person until one has been where he is and one should do one's best to view others in a favorable light. This is true with respect to our family friends and colleagues. And it is true too about those of whom we learn in Tanach.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav Yonatan


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