Through careful study of the parsha, we learn how to behave and how to conduct ourselves when dealing with others. In this week’s sedra of Vayishlach, we take note of Yaakov’s interactions with his brother Eisov and take heed of the many lessons applicable to us in our day.
The parsha opens with Yaakov sending malochim to approach Eisov. Rashi comments that the word malochim in this instance refers not to mere messengers, but rather to angels. We wonder what there was about this mission that could not be performed by men, necessitating angels to fulfill the task.
Additionally, we must understand why Yaakov immediately assumed that there was malice in the heart of his approaching brother. Perhaps upon hearing that his brother was returning home after having done well, Eisov wanted to greet him and express his love.
Lovon was regarded by the populace as a good person, meticulous in his honesty and fidelity to convention. We know that he was anything but, because Chazal reveal to us the deeper meaning of the pesukim that present Lovon as a fine individual. In fact, Eisov was quite similar to his uncle Lovon.
After offering to pay Yaakov for watching his herds, Lovon cheated him and substituted Leah for Rochel. When challenged by Yaakov, Lovon defended himself by saying that he could not go against the local minhag of marrying the older sibling before the younger one. The epitome of chicanery for all time is a stickler for heeding not only to important things, such as agreements, but also to smaller local customs. Of course, we know that it was all insincere grandstanding.
The Baal Haturim in Parshas Toldos (25:25) writes that the numerical equivalent of Eisov is shalom, peace. Perhaps we can understand the significance of this gematriah as indicating that Eisov always presents himself as a man of peace. He speaks of peace and his actions appear to be motivated by a sincere desire to spread peace and brotherhood in the world.
Yaakov feared that if he would send a human representative to explore his brother’s intentions, the messenger would be impressed by Eisov’s outward appearance and would be comforted with his words and demeanor suggesting that he seeks a peaceful existence with Yaakov. They would fail to properly deliver Yaakov’s message.
Upon the return of the envoys, the only thing the Torah recounts is that they told Yaakov that Eisov was on his way to visit him. Without hearing anything else about how their conversation went, Yaakov knew that he was in danger and set about preparing himself for battle. If Eisov was coming towards him, it could only mean trouble.
It is interesting to note that Yaakov’s message to Eisov (32:5) was “Im Lovon garti. I lived with Lovon until now. I observed all the mitzvos and was not influenced by his behavior” (Rashi ad loc.). Of what interest was it to Eisov whether Yaakov observed the mitzvos while he was in the house of Lovon?
Yaakov and Eisov were in an eternal war that began prior to their birth and lasts until the arrival of Moshiach. Yaakov is righteous (25:27), an ish tam yosheiv ohalim, while Eisov is an “ish yodeia tzayid ish sodeh,” a wicked man with many guises. The two were opposites. One was good and the other evil, one refined and the other a brutish barbarian.
Eisov was motivated by earthly pleasures, Yaakov by spiritual growth. Yaakov ignored the physical and concentrated on the spiritual, rising to the level at which “demus deyukno chakukah tachas Kisei Hakavod.” But despite the levels he attained, the malach of Eisov sought to deter him from his holy path (ibid. 32:25).
The malach of Eisov, the Soton and the yeitzer hora are the same. They always seek to pull us down and ruin us. They present themselves in different guises, sometimes as a malach, sometimes as a tyrant, a Nazi or a Cossack, sometimes as a friendly ruler, and other times as a loving brother. The intent is always the same: to drive us from the proper path. They come offering different inducements and often speak kindly, seemingly interested in our welfare. We should not be fooled. We must know that Eisov is evil, no matter how he presents himself.
Thus, when the malochim told Yaakov that Eisov was on his way, he knew it was trouble, because Eisov is always trouble. Though he may speak of peace and offer incentives and encouragement to follow his peace process, proffering diplomatic advice and financial benefits, know that he is Eisov and his goal is the same. He might appear as a loving brother, but his heart is always filled with malice and spite. He offers opportunities and opens vistas, but to follow is folly.
Yaakov, who survived and flourished while under Lovon’s dominion, knew the secret to survival with Eisov was to stay away from him and to be prepared for battle should he ever arrive. That is why Yaakov told him that even under the thumb of Lovon, he observed the mitzvos and was not influenced by his roughness.
He was sending Eisov a message that he would not be impressed by Eisov’s advice and admonishment. Rather, he would maintain his devotion to Torah. He thought that there was a chance that this would deter Eisov from his evil plans. Yaakov was good and would remain good, despite any threats and incentives Eisov could muster.
The Ramban (33:15) writes that this parsha “contains a hint for future generations, for all that transpired between our forefather Yaakov and Eisov will happen to us with Eisov’s children, and it is fitting for us to go in the path of the tzaddik (Yaakov).”
Prior to the Second World War, when Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jewish people became evident, one of the Radiner roshei yeshiva asked the Chofetz Chaim what the fate of European Jewry would be.
The Chofetz Chaim responded that throughout the ages, no one ever succeeded in killing all of the Jews. He said that this was presaged in Yaakov’s words in this week’s parsha: “Im yavo Eisov el hamachaneh ha’achas vehikohu vehoya hamachaneh hanishor lifleitah.” Yaakov divided his people and possessions into two camps and said that should Eisov come and succeed in beating one of the groups, at least the second will survive.
When Yaakov uttered those words, he established a precedent for the Jewish people for all time. They were words of fact and advice that would be in force for as long as we are at the mercy of Eisov.
In fact, when the First World War broke out in 1914 and the front lines came dangerously close to Radin, the Chofetz Chaim was conflicted over whether to flee. He performed the Goral HaGra and was directed to those very pesukim that describe Yaakov dividing his camps into two groups. He divided his family and yeshiva into two groups, with one remaining in Radin under the leadership of Rav Moshe Londinski and Rav Yosef Leib Nenik and the other, led by the Chofetz Chaim, feeling in 1915 into Russia.
As in the time of Yaakov, both groups survived.
The Shela (Toldos 35) explains what Rivka meant when she sent Yaakov to accept the brachos from Yitzchok. She said, “Olai kililus’cha beni” (27:13). Rivka was the smelter in which Yaakov was purified and refined. All the impurities were absorbed by Eisov, who was with him. Any of the rubbish that stuck to Rivka from Lovon the swindler was assumed by Eisov as well. Thus, Lovon and Eisov were swindlers, while Yaakov was pure silver, without any impurities. Yaakov was representative of Adam Harishon (Bava Metziah 84a), while Eisov characterized the poison that the nochosh hakadmon brought into the world.
Rivka was telling Yaakov that it was her task to remove any remaining curses from Yaakov and to render it unto Eisov, where it belongs, for he is accursed like the snake while Yaakov is blessed.
We can add that since Yaakov is the boruch and Eisov is the arur, “Ein boruch misdabeik im ha’arur,” he who is blessed does not affiliate or connect with they who are cursed.
Yaakov yearned to be separate from Eisov, and for all time we yearn to follow his ways. We desire to be blessed, and to earn those blessings we must do our best to separate from that which is evil.
While the Ramban is commonly understood to be a communal lesson in how to deal with our overseers in golus, as is evident from the Medrash he quotes, there is also an inherent message for each individual person. Know that the yeitzer hora seeks to entrap and destroy you. Beware of him and the different ways in which he presents himself. Nobody should ever consider themselves to be beyond his grasp. He is wiser and faster than us, and quite successful at what he does.
Later in the parsha, we read of Sh’chem’s desire to take Dinah as a wife (34:4). He and his father, Chamor, who happened to be king of the area, met with Yaakov and the shevotim and presented themselves as responsible leaders who offered Yaakov and his family entry to their kingdom as if they were interested in their welfare. They then turned around and sought to convince their people to agree to the terms set by the shevotim for the marriage to go through. Father and son told their constituents that the Jews were good businessmen, and if the people would agree to perform milah, they would gain access to the Jews’ possessions and flocks (Bereishis 34:23).
And so it has been throughout the ages. Jews convince themselves that the nations of the world and their leaders care about us, like us, and have our best interests at heart. We forget the admonishment of Chazal (Pirkei Avos 2:3) that “Hevu zehirin barashus she’ein mikorvin lo l’adam eloh letzorech atzmon.” Jews love to hobnob with politicians, deluding themselves into thinking that they are actually interested in us and our issues. We forget the lessons Yaakov Avinu taught about how to deal with governments.
We view Eisov with respect and high regard, as if he is concerned about us and our welfare. We are impressed when he expresses his interests in living with us in peace and are stunned when we read of increasing anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews. Eisov is polished, wears expensive clothes, has beautiful diction, boasts a broad vocabulary, and flashes a winning smile. We are incredulous when Eisov turns on us.
Some of our brethren, misguided as they are, present themselves as brothers and co-religionists who seek nothing but peace and harmony. As their philosophy dooms them and sends them and their children veering from the path of Torah to that of total assimilation, they continue promoting their agendas, claiming that the heirs of Yaakov are guilty of deviating from the modern gospel. They say that we are hardliners, set in old-fashioned ways. We are characters in an old Yiddish theater play, while they are writers, producers, wealthy investors and entrepreneurs. We are lazy shleppers, while they are hardworking success stories. And when a plane takes off late and won’t make it to its destination on time for Shabbos as promised, who gets slammed and blamed? You guessed it: Us, the uncouth chareidim.
The middah of Eisov is alive and ever-present. It is rare for anyone to publicly proclaim, “We don’t like you. We detest the way you look. You make us nervous and we are determined to make you feel uncomfortable.” Instead, they say, “We embrace you and welcome you. We only want to make you feel comfortable. This is an exercise in making you fit in, nothing more.”
Eisov is begematria shalom, for that is the garb he uses to gain entry into our camp and upend us.
Great men, descendants of Yaakov, have always opted for the emes of Yaakov, stating the facts as they are and accepting the ramifications. We seek shalom. We work for unity and loving brotherhood. Our goal is to work together to enhance the common good. But we won’t sacrifice our essence to attain those goals.
Yaakov Avinu wanted shalom, but when he heard that Eisov was coming, the posuk (ibid. 32:8) relates, “Vayira Yaakov meod.” He was afraid. He feared that he would be killed. He worried that he would kill someone. But capitulation to Eisov was never an option.
The novi Micha said, “Titein emes l’Yaakov” (7:20). Yaakov Avinu, the fountain of emes, yearned for shalom, but his primary concern was that it be within the context of emes.
He sent malochim mamesh to Eisov. He told Eisov that he had no intention of compromising on the truth. “I will not change my ways and will not adapt to conform to your correctness.”
Let us endeavor to internalize a desire for emes and shalom. Let us hope and pray that peace will reign supreme in our world, and that a united desire for truth will lead to calm and harmony. Let us seek to bring about a truthful truce wherever Jews disagree.
We look forward to the day of which the novi Ovadiah speaks in this week’s haftorah: “Ve’olu moshi’im beHar Tzion lishpot es har Eisov.” The era will soon arrive when the persistent battle between tov and ra, emes and sheker, and ruchniyus and gashmiyus will come to an end, soon and in our day.