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Yaakov's Real Fear

December 5, 2020

Was Yaakov being dramatic? Did he not give Eisav enough credit? The beginning of Parshat Vayishlach teaches that Yaakov was frightened about his impending encounter with his brother, Eisav. He prepared gifts to appease him, readied his troops for battle just in case, and, of course, beseeched Hashem for support. “הצילני נא מיד אחי מיד עשו, save me from the hands of my brother, from the hands of Eisav, (Bereishit 32:12)” he pleaded. He was clearly very concerned of what lay ahead.

And yet, when they finally do meet, Eisav seems to be rather genial and brotherly! “ויחבקהו ויפל על צואריו וישקהו, and he (Eisav) hugged him (Yaakov), and fell on his neck, and he kissed him. (Bereishit 32:4)” Commentaries differ on the sincerity of Eisav’s kiss and embrace, but the simple reading seems to be that Eisav lovingly hugged his brother! Even R. Shimon bar Yoachai, who (cited in Rashi Bereishit 32:4) posits, “הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא את יעקב, It is law, it is known that Eisav hates Yaakov,” agrees that in this particular instance, “נכמרו רחמיו באותה שעה ונשקו בכל לבו, His compassion overcame him in that moment, and he kissed him with all of his heart.”

In fact, as they converse, Eisav seems to be generous and kind towards Yaakov, and it is Yaakov who maintains a concerned distance! When Eisav offers, “נסעה ונלכה ואלכה לנגדך, we will travel and go, and I will walk alongside you, (Bereishit 33:12)” Yaakov responds that they should walk separately and Eisav should go ahead. When Eisav then offers, “אציגה נא עמך מן העם אשר אתי, let me assign to you some of the people who are with me, (Bereishit 33:15)” Yaakov again declines and promptly heads in the opposite direction from Eisav.

For all of Yaakov’s fear and anxiety at the beginning of the Parsha, Eisav seems to be a pretty nice guy, and Yaakov appears to be the one holding back their relationship! What was Yaakov so worried about?

Perhaps Yaakov’s main concern wasn’t that Eisav would attack him. True, he prepared for battle just in case, as that was a possibility. But he was even more nervous about exactly what ended up actually happening.

Yaakov had prayed, “הצילני נא מיד אחי מיד עשו, save me from the hands of my brother, from the hands of Eisav. (Bereishit 32:12)” The Beis HaLevi wonders why it is necessary to say “my brother” and “Eisav,” as Eisav was Yaakov’s only brother. Moreover, even he does mention their relationship, the Torah should not have repeated the word “מיד, from the hands of,” before both “my brother” and “Eisav!” He explains:

ויש לפרש הכוונה דיעקב בהודעו דעשו בא לקראתו הבין דלא ימלט מאחד משני האופנים, או דעשו ילחם עמו וירצה להורגו, או דיתרצה עמו וישוב מאפו וישב עמו בשלוה ואחוה כשני אחים. ומשני האופנים הללו נתיירא יעקב, דגם טובתו ואהבתו של עשו רעה היתה אצל יעקב... וזהו שביקש על הני שני אופנים הצילני נא מיד אחי מיד עשו שאיננו רוצה בו לא לאח ולא לעשו וביקש שיצילו משני ידים הללו.

One can explain that Yaakov’s thought when it became known that Eisav was coming to great him was that he must avoid two dangers. Firstly, the possibility of Eisav waging war and attempting to kill him. And secondly, that Eisav would appease him, and his anger would subside, and he would want to sit with him peacefully and in brotherhood, as two brothers… And this is what he davened, “הצילני נא מיד אחי מיד עשו, save me from the hands of my brother, from the hands of Eisav,” as he was not interested [in a relationship] with him, neither as a brother, nor as Eisav. And he asked [Hashem] to save him from both of these “ידים, hands.” (Beis HaLevi Vayishlach #1)

Yaakov understands that Eisav comes with two methods of attack: physical and spiritual. The physical danger is the obvious one. But Yaakov is keenly aware of the spiritual peril as well. Eisav was a wicked man, whom the Midrash claims hunted not only animals, but was a murderer too. Eisav is not the type of uncle that Yaakov wanted around his kids, influencing their decisions. Maybe Yaakov remembered how Hashem instructed Avraham to remove Yishmael from their home, so he wouldn’t negatively influence Yitzchak? Or maybe Yaakov was simply being wise and careful about the influences and exposures he allowed around his children.

In the end, it wasn’t wild, violent Eisav who showed up to the meeting, but Yaakov’s friendly, and even loving brother. But Yaakov didn’t fall for the trick. He knew that, like R. Shimon bar Yochai taught many years later, Eisav hates Yaakov, and even a momentary gesture of compassion would only lead to negative outcomes. Yaakov is polite, courteous, but distant. He greets Eisav, wishes him well, and then heads in the other direction. Sometimes, we have to remember to reinforce our values and priorities that we want to fill our homes. Do we want Eisav and his lustful, gluttonous lifestyle penetrating into our homes? Sometimes it’s our job to emulate Yaakov and know when it’s time to politely, but firmly, say “no thanks.” 

Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Fox

Sat, April 10 2021 28 Nisan 5781