The Encounter Between Yaakov and Esav

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein
Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Our parasha opens with Yaakov’s preparations for the meeting with his brother Esav. Chazal point to the different aspects of this preparation: “gifts, prayer, and [preparation for] battle.” Ramban cites a midrash that addresses the meeting itself:
“To his brother Esav, to the land of Se’ir” – Since the Negev (southern part) of Eretz Yisrael lies adjacent to Edom, and his [Yaakov’s] father dwelled in the Negev, he would have to pass through Edom, or close to it. And therefore he was concerned lest Esav would hear [of his presence], and he took the precaution of sending messengers to him in his land. Our Sages view this in a negative light (Bereishit Rabba 75:3), comparing Yaakov to someone who grabs a dog by the ears (Mishlei 26:17), etc. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “He [Esav] was busy minding his own business; why did you then send to him and say, ‘So says your servant Yaakov…’?”
To my mind, this too is an allusion to the fact that we were the original cause of our own downfall at the hands of Rome. For the [Hasmonean] kings of the Second Temple period made a treaty with Rome (Sefer Ha-Chashmonaim 1:8), and some of their representatives even went to Rome,[1] and this was ultimately the cause of their falling into their hands, as is recorded in the teachings of our sages and well known in historical works [Josippon, chapter 65]. (Ramban, Bereishit 32:4)
Chazal criticize Yaakov for initiating an encounter with Esav instead of taking a detour and avoiding the risk altogether. We will attempt to understand Yaakov’s motivation for choosing to confront Esav, rather than evade him.
First of all, it must be remembered that since Esav uttered his threat – “When the days of mourning for my father are at hand, then I will kill my brother Yaakov” (Bereishit 27:41) – twenty-two years have passed. While it is possible that his hatred has only intensified over time and that he is still waiting for his opportunity to kill Yaakov, it may be that his anger has subsided somewhat and that he is more amenable to dialogue. Perhaps Esav now has a more mature perspective that tempers his youthful hatred, which was visceral and instinctive. We are familiar with the impulsive side of Esav from the episode when he returns famished from hunting in the field, smells the steaming pottage, and happily exchanges the birthright for a bowl of food. Yaakov hopes that he has grown up and matured since then, and will now be willing to reconcile with his brother.
Why does Yaakov go to all this effort? We can answer this question with the words of the Admor Ha-Zaken, “A Jew dare not despair, and one dare not despair of a Jew.” Yaakov understands that he is dealing with a lost, wandering soul that might be saved, and he therefore will not give up on Esav. The gemara emphasizes this point:
R. Chiya bar Abin said in the name of R. Yochanan: An idolater inherits from his father by Torah law, as it is written, “For I have given Mount Se’ir to Esav as an inheritance.” Would [the law concerning] an apostate of Israel then be any different?! (Kiddushin 18a)
We find this idea in the form of a halakhic reason in Sefer Devarim, as well:
And the Lord spoke to me, saying: “You have encompassed this mountain long enough; turn northwards. And command the people, saying: You are to pass through the border of your brethren, the children of Esav, who dwell in Se’ir, and they shall be afraid of you. Therefore, take good heed to yourselves. Do not meddle with them, for I will not give you of their land even so much as a foot breadth, because I have given Mount Se’ir to Esav for a possession.” (Devarim 2:2-5)
However, it would seem that there is another dimension to Yaakov’s efforts. We must recall that beyond the time that has passed, allowing for maturity, and beyond the halakhic basis for a law that invokes Esav, there is also the simple fact that Esav is Yaakov’s brother. Yaakov remembers their childhood days, their shared experiences, their standing together under Yitzchak’s tallit. These memories cause Yaakov to feel longing for a home that once existence and the fraternity that prevailed between the brothers. It is perhaps for this reason that he exerts such extraordinary psychological and physical efforts in preparing for the encounter, hoping deep in his heart that Esav will draw close and become his brother again.
The encounter is described in the verses as follows:
And Esav ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and they wept. And he lifted up his eyes, and saw the women and the children, and said, “Who are those with you?” And he said, “The children which God has graciously given your servant.” (Bereishit 33:4-5)
Rashi quotes Sifri:
“And he kissed him” – The word va-yishakehu is written with dots above it, and opinions in a beraita in the Sifri (Beha’alotekha 69) are divided as to their significance. Some understand the dots as hinting that Esav did not kiss Yaakov wholeheartedly. R. Shimon ben Yochai said: It is a well-established principle that Esav hates Yaakov. However, at that moment he was filled with compassion, and he kissed him wholeheartedly.
According to R. Shimon bar Yochai, Esav is filled with genuine emotion. Although he has advanced towards Yaakov with four hundred men – and these are not roshei yeshiva, but rather soldiers trained to fight – at the sight of Yaakov’s family, Esav feels a sudden longing for home and family, and he kisses Yaakov “wholeheartedly.”
Family intrigues can create enormous tension. The people involved are not strangers to one another, but close relatives locked into a perpetual bond. A person’s attitude towards family members is rarely apathetic; he either loves them or hates them. We know a family member’s background, and therefore we develop very specific expectations of him. When these fail to materialize, it may cause hatred and grudges.
Yaakov, in preparing for his meeting with Esav, readies himself not only for battle, but also for an attempt at reconciliation, an opportunity to restore a lost soul to the spirit of Judaism, and to rehabilitate the fraternal love between himself and Esav, his brother.
[This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Vayishlach 5774 (2013).]

[1] See Ramban, Vayikra 26:15.