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Parshat Vayishlach

“So Says Your Servant Yaacov”

The beginning of Parshat Vayishlach describes the meeting between Yaacov and Esau. Yaacov returns to the Land of Israel twenty years after he had fled to escape the wrath of Esau. When Yaacov learns that Esau is coming to meet him accompanied by four hundred men, Yaacov is extremely fearful and takes measures to protect himself: “He prepared himself in three ways: with presents for Esau, with prayers, and with preparations in the event of war” (Rashi on Genesis 32:9). The first item – the presents – raises a number of questions.

If the goal of the presents was to assuage Esau’s anger, one would expect that Yaacov would choose the presents with great care. However, the Torah states the exact opposite: “Yaacov took whatever was at hand as a present to his brother Esau.” The expression “whatever was at hand” implies that it was unimportant to Yaacov exactly which presents he would send. How can one understand Yaacov’s indifference regarding the nature and the quality of the presents he sends to Esau when their function was to save his life and the lives of his family?

Another question. If Yaacov indeed feared that Esau was still intent upon killing him, together with his entire family, what are the chances that Esau would cancel his plans upon receiving a present of several dozen sheep and cattle? In the course of the last twenty years, Esau has become a wealthy man (“Esau said: I have plenty”, 33:9), who rides at the head of an entourage of 400 men. Is there really any chance that sending him a few cattle will influence Esau to such an extent that all his hatred and anger toward Yaacov, that has remained unmitigated during twenty years, will now be forgotten and that all will be forgiven? Surely, the sending of the cattle must have a much deeper and more important meaning than merely a present from Yaacov to find favor in Esau’s eyes.

There is yet another aspect of Yaacov’s behavior that requires an explanation. In his words to Esau, Yaacov repeatedly refers to himself as “your servant” and refers to Esau as “my master.” These expressions appear no fewer than twelve times. Why did Yaacov emphasize so often that he is merely a servant of Esau? Did Yaacov believe that by repeatedly demeaning himself, he would cause Esau to forgive him?

Not only with words does Yaacov demean himself, but also with actions. When Yaacov sends his wives and children to meet Esau, he orders each one to bow before Esau: “The concubines and their sons approached Esau and bowed down, and also Leah and her sons approached Esau and bowed down, and then Joseph and Rachel approached Esau and bowed down” (33:6-7). When Yaacov himself walked toward Esau, he humiliated himself even more: “Yaacov bowed to the ground seven times as he approached his brother” (33:3). Seven times!

To understand the behavior of Yaacov, one must consider the reason for Esau’s anger. Esau was furious because Yaacov obtained the blessing intended for Esau through deceitful means (“He [Isaac] said [to Esau]: Your brother came with deceit and took your blessing”, 27:29). But what happened in practice? Was the blessing fulfilled? Yaacov’s answer is “no!” Through his words “your servant” and “my master,” Yaacov is implying to Esau that there were no tangible consequences resulting from Isaac’s blessing and, therefore, Yaacov’s deceit was not so important. The goal of all Yaacov’s words and actions was to emphasize to Esau that their father’s blessing turned out to be mere words, without any practical content.

In his blessing (27:28-29), Isaac said: “You (Esau) will be the master over your brother (Yaacov).” But in fact, says Yaacov, “I am your servant, and you, Esau, are my master.” In his blessing, Isaac said: “The sons of your brother (Yaacov) shall bow down to you.” But in fact, as Yaacov demonstrates, it is my wives and my sons who bow down to you, Esau, and I myself bow down to you seven times. Moreover, during the last twenty years, I did not even own my home (“I lived with Lavan”, 32:4), while you, Esau, ride at the head of an entourage of four hundred men, master of all you survey (“Your countenance has a godly appearance”, 33:10).

With his words and actions, Yaacov is saying to Esau that our father’s blessing was really of no importance and, therefore, my deceit in stealing the blessing was not such a terrible deed.

The most interesting way that Yaacov emphasizes his subservience to Esau is by giving him presents. In the ancient world, there was a concept known as “tribute,” defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “a present given to a ruler in acknowledgment of submission.” The purpose of Yaacov’s presents was not to give Esau something valuable or important, but rather, the presents served as a public expression on the part of Yaacov of his submission to Esau. Therefore, the Torah tells us that the nature of the presents was not important (“whatever was at hand, a present to Esau”). Rather, it was the act of giving the presents to Esau that was important, serving as Yaacov’s public admission that Esau was the master, while Yaacov was the vassal.

There is yet another aspect that deserves comment regarding the dramatic meeting between Yaacov and Esau. Was there any basis for Yaacov’s fear that after so many years had passed, Esau’s anger remained so intense that he was still determined to kill Yaacov?

To probe the depth of Esau’s anger, one has to understand that his anger toward Yaacov did not result only from the financial aspects of the blessing. There was another, deeper reason for Esau’s anger, related to the dynamics of the special relationship that existed between Esau and his father, Isaac. The biblical verses describe how much Esau loved his father and how much his father loved him (unlike his mother Rivka, whose relationship to her son Esau is hardly mentioned).

One of the highlights of the special relationship between Esau and his father was scheduled to take place at the moment when Esau stood before his father and received his blessing. And now Yaacov has destroyed this unique moment! This is the true meaning of the enormity of the “sin” of Yaacov in Esau’s eyes – not only did Yaacov steal the physical benefits of the blessing, but much worse, Yaacov destroyed the unique moment – the receiving the blessing – that would forever bond Esau to his father. It is difficult to exaggerate the anger that Esau felt toward his brother because of his deceit, and easy to understand Esau’s decision to kill Yaacov.

The events immediately following the stealing of the blessing teach us the depth of Esau’s love for his father. Esau had a burning desire to kill Yaacov because of his deceit. However, Esau realized how much pain and suffering such an act would cause his beloved father. Therefore, Esau controlled himself and decided not to kill Yaacov as long as his father was alive. (“Esau said to himself that the period of mourning for my father is near; only then I will kill my brother Yaacov”, 27:41). Esau’s principal concern was always the welfare of his beloved father.

It is instructive to compare Esau’s behavior with that of Joseph’s brothers. The situation was very similar in both cases. The brothers hated Joseph just as Esau hated Yaacov. But, unlike Esau, the brothers did not control their anger and took concrete steps to get rid of Joseph. The result of their murderous attack on Joseph, which ended in the brothers causing their father to think that Joseph was dead, was the following:

“Yaacov tore his garments, put ashes on his loins, and mourned for his son for a long, long time. All his sons and all his daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, saying, ‘I will mourn until I go to my grave’ and his father wept for Joseph” (37:34-36).

Only after their murderous attack on Joseph, did the brothers understand the great pain and suffering that they had caused their father, but then it was too late; there was nothing that could be done.

It is important to note the words of Esau. He did not say “I will wait until my father dies” and then kill Yaacov. His love for his father was so great that he was unable to utter or even to think the terrible words, “my father dies.” Instead, he used the circumlocution: “the period of mourning for my father.” There is much to be learned about how to honor one’s father from studying the behavior of Esau.



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