Parashat Vayishlach: How to encounter Eisav


Jacob sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. And he commanded them, saying, “So shall you say to my master to Esau, ‘Thus said your servant Jacob, I have sojourned with Laban, and I have tarried until now. And I have acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, man-servants, and maidservants, and I have sent to tell [this] to my master, to find favor in your eyes.’” The angels returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is also coming toward you, and four hundred men are with him.” (Sefer Bereishit 32:4-7, this and all Tanach and Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)

These four verses begin our parasha. Yaakov had just spent 20 years with his reprehensible and duplicitous father-in-law, Lavan. The Haggadah clearly tells us that Lavan was more than a liar and a cheat--he sought the destruction of our nascent nation:

Go and learn what Lavan the Aramean sought to do to our father Yaakov. Pharaoh issued a decree [of death] solely against the males. Lavan, however, desired to totally destroy everything [i.e. Yaakov’s entire family]. As it is stated: “The Aramean desired to destroy my father…”(Translation my own)

Thus, when Lavan declared in Sefer Bereishit 31:43: “The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine…” it was more than a review of relationships and livestock ownership:, he was denying the independent spiritual and physical existence of B’naiYaakov.

Now, in our parasha, Yaakov is about to meet his great and formidable nemesis – his brother, Eisav. Yaakov keenly felt the famous words of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “It is a well-known fact that Esau hated Jacob…” (Sifrei Bamidbar 69) The Torah tells us: “Jacob became very frightened and was distressed.” (Sefer Bereishit 32:8) Indeed, Rashi (1040-1105) notes that Yaakov’s fear was clear and direct: “He [Yaakov] was frightened lest he be killed [Bereishit Rabbah 75:2, Midrash Tanchuma, Vayishlach 4]…” Yaakov split his family into two camps, with the hope that at least one would survive. Once again, Rashi gives us “the story behind the story”: the remaining camp will escape: Against his [Eisav] will, for I will wage war with him. He (Jacob) prepared himself for three things: for a gift, for war, and for prayer. For a gift, (verse 22): “So the gift passed on before him.” For prayer, (verse 10): “G-d of my father Abraham…” For war,: “the remaining camp will escape.” - [from Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Vayishlach 6]

Rashi’s midrashically-based comment contains the essence of Yaakov’s three-part strategy for confronting Eisav: “doron, milchamah, and tefilah” (“gift, war, and prayer”). At first, he tried to propitiate Eisav through gifts of tribute. At the same time, Yaakov called upon Hashem in heartfelt, soul-wrenching prayer. He also prepared himself to physically wage war against Eisav, in case these first two were ineffective.

Our Sages note that the Yaakov-Eisav encounter is a theme of every Galut (Diaspora) encounter between the Jewish people and the non-Jewish world. This has particularly been the case whenever “Eisav” has stood as a physical, spiritual, and existential threat to our people. As our Sages stated: “Maaseh Avot siman l’banim”-the actions of the forefathers foreshadow those of future generations. We survive because we have learned from Yaakov how to confront and overpower the countless “Eisavs” that have attempted to destroy us. As my rebbi and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, z”tl (1903-1993), stated so beautifully: [In the case of Yaakov and Eisav] The impossible and absurd had triumphed over the possible and logical: heroism, not logic, won the day. Is this merely the story of one individual’s experience? Is it not in fact the story of Knesset Israel [the Congregation of Israel], an entity which is engaged in an “absurd” struggle for survival thousands of years? (“Catharsis,” Tradition, Volume 17, Spring 1978, page 41)

Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Ha-Levi Horowitz z”tl (1565-1630), the Shlah Hakodesh from the name of one of his major works, notes that doron, milchamah, and tefilah are essential elements in our relationship to Hashem – particularly when we call upon Him to save us from “Eisav’s” swift sword. He reinterprets doron (gift) as tzedaka (charity), and milchamah (war) as doing teshuvah (returning to the proper path of observing the Torah), whereas tefilah (prayer) maintains its normative meaning: Just like he [Yaakov] occupied himself with gifts, prayer, and war, so, too, should we comport ourselves with the sons of Eisav…In addition, in order to ensure a powerful foundation and the continued existence of Diaspora Jewry, we need to prepare ourselves via gifts, prayer, and war in the service of the Creator – May He be Blessed – so that He will save us. [In our time,] these three things represent teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka. Doron refers to tzedaka, tefilah is understood in the standard manner, and milchamah is teshuvah…

The Shlah Hakodesh views tzedaka, tefilah, and teshuvah as being the derech hachaim (the most efficacious method) to deal with the “sons of Eisav” in the pre-Messianic era, so that our meritorious actions may bring Mashiach: These approaches will remain in place until the verse “Now, let my master go ahead before his servant, and I will move [at] my own slow pace, according to the pace of the work that is before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my master, to Seir.” [33:14] This will be in the time of the Messiah as it says: “And saviors shall ascend Mt. Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the L-rd shall have the kingdom.” [Sefer Ovadiah 1:21] The coming of the Messiah is the direct result of the merits that will accrue on behalf of these three actions [i.e. tzedaka, tefilah, and teshuvah].

With G-d’s help, may we have the courage, wisdom, and understanding to wrestle with the “Eisavs” of our time by employing the time-tested approaches of teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka. May we ever have the spiritual strength and power to employ this derech hachaim to successfully navigate the many challenges of Galut, so that we may witness the arrival of the Mashiach soon and in our days.