Esav, Lavan and Yisrael

  • Rav Michael Hattin






Esav, Lavan and Yisrael

By Rav Michael Hattin





Last week, we read Parashat Vayeitze, which dealt primarily with Yaakov's sojourn in the Land of Aram in the household of his uncle.  Lavan his uncle, it will be recalled, had welcomed the hapless refugee into his ostensibly benign embrace only to later commit a series of outrageous deceptions against him over the course of the next twenty years.  Beguiled concerning his wives, Lavan's daughters, and his wages, from Lavan's flocks, Yaakov inevitably found himself in the uncomfortable and unenviable position of becoming Lavan's indentured bondman.  Only by a stroke of Divine intervention and by utilizing the element of surprise was Yaakov able to escape Lavan's clutches and return home to Canaan. 


Our analysis last week detailed the most salient episodes of their uneven relationship, and the inescapable conclusion emerged that Lavan was not simply a charlatan of limited capabilities.  In fact, Lavan showed himself to be a rogue of unusual skill, able to manipulate both his victims as well as outside observers by employing a carefully concocted combination of superficial familial concern, feigned civic sensitivity and a pretentious moral conscience. To all appearances as white and blameless as his appellation, Lavan was in fact composed of more menacing stuff.  In the end he would have carried out his threat to destroy Yaakov and his family had God not warned him in an unusual nocturnal vision to 'be careful not to say anything to Yaakov, neither good nor bad' (Bereishit 31:29).


Thus, after twenty long and arduous years, the two of them parted, Yaakov continuing westwards to Canaan and Lavan returning to his ancestral home in the lands of the east.  For what purpose did God bring them together?  What mark did those twenty years leave on their respective lives?  Surely Lavan indicates by his conduct up until the very end of his affiliation with Yaakov that in those two remarkable decades for both men, he has changed not one iota.  Yaakov, on the other hand, has acquired in the interim wives, children, flocks and followers - in short the makings of a nascent nation.  But has he achieved nothing else, is his character unaltered and his faith no more refined? Or, perhaps, does he leave Aram with more than material accomplishments, embarking upon a dynamic spiritual trajectory that will in the end transform him?


Preparing to Meet Esav and Return Home


As Yaakov nears the borders of Canaan, skirting the territory of Seir since occupied by his estranged twin Esav, ancient recollections and fears begin to seize hold of him.  Has Esav forgiven him for wresting the birthright and blessing from him, or has he been stoking the old animosities in Yaakov's absence, patiently waiting for the day of vengeance to exact fatal retribution?    Yaakov decides on a threefold course of action, ever since incorporated into the exilic Jewish conscience as constituting the approach most likely to succeed against an overwhelming external threat.  "Yaakov prepared himself in three ways," suggests Rashi (11th century, France) in comments borrowed from much earlier Midrashic sources, "By offering prayer to God, by furnishing gifts of pacification to the enemy, and by preparing for battle…" (commentary to 32:9).  Although the text describes the approach of Esav and his armed company in sinister terms, at last the two brothers tearfully embrace and effect reconciliation.  Significantly, however, Yaakov declines Esav's repeated offers of providing an escort for his arrival, and in the end they part; Esav returns to his mountain stronghold of Seir, and Yaakov continues on his journey to Canaan.


Considering the matter from a structural standpoint, the broader context offers us an unusual bracketing effect: Parashat Toldot begins with the story of Yaakov and Esav and goes on to describe the conflict that eventually emerges between them and that forces them apart.  Yaakov, alone and indigent, flees from his brother's wrath at the outset of Parashat Vayeitze, only to enter into his unscrupulous uncle Lavan's employ and to eventually suffer a falling out with him.  Alienated and assailable, Yaakov flees Lavan's ire and returns home, but not without crossing the path of Esav his double, with whom he must first effect an uneasy dיtente. 


In fact, Yaakov's life has come full circle, for he had left the home of his parents behind in consequence of his brother's rage, and cannot return to his ancestral hearth except by confronting it.  Twenty difficult years have elapsed, years of thankless toil, precarious livelihood, and insufferable vulnerability.  And written large across the canvas of that score of years, in bold letters visible from afar, is a single, disquieting word: DECEPTION.


The Motif of Deceit and its Utilization by Yaakov


Had Yaakov not deceived his brother by taking advantage of Esav's ravenous and exhausted state to wrest the inestimable birthright from him?  Had he not impersonated Esav, at his mother Rivka's behest, in order to delude his aging and blind father into bestowing the patriarchal blessing upon him, and had not his exile been the dismal result?   Had Lavan his kinsman not seized every opportunity to hoodwink Yaakov, to deprive him of what was his by right, all the while appealing to some higher value to justify his indiscretions?  Had Yaakov himself not been forced to adopt a questionable stratagem in order to increase his flocks, and had he not 'stolen Lavan the Aramean's heart' (Bereishit 31:20) by fleeing stealthily while the latter was preoccupied with his sheep shearing? 


In the background of the saga, looming like a shadowy specter of the night, is Esav.  Who is Esav, Yaakov's nemesis, and what is his contribution to the story?  As we have seen, it is the conflict with Esav that drives the narrative forward and eventually forces it back upon itself, but the Torah only provides a brief sketch of the man and his exploits.  We first meet him at his unusual birth, where he emerges with a ruddy complexion and an unusually thick coat of lanugo.  Later he becomes a tracker, spending his time in the field in pursuit of game.  We see him again, hungrily devouring the red pottage offered by Yaakov in lieu of his birthright.  Later still, we see aspects of a finer side, when he obediently heeds his father's request to secure game and then lovingly prepares it.  We catch a glimpse of his emotional depth, when he cries out in anguish and heart wrenching sorrow upon learning of Yaakov's successful ruse.  But the most enduring image of Esav, a man portentously colored in sanguine shades and clothed in thick hair and animal skins, is that of Esav the Hunter.  It is as a hunter that he first sells his birthright, and it is as a hunter that he loses his blessing.  Clearly, the Torah wishes to indicate that his unsuitability for that precious office is somehow a function of his trade.


A hunter, of course, is characterized by cleverness, an agile and surefooted disposition, and a calculated ability to maintain composure.  At the same time, the victorious hunter must possess a crafty and sly demeanor and must be capable of concealment and camouflage.  The hunter is in actuality a deceiver in disguise, for success in the field depends upon being able to dupe unsuspecting game and then summarily dispatch it.  The picture is thus complete, for it now emerges that both Esav and Lavan, though adopting different methods, in fact are cut from the very same cloth.  The Hunter and the Deceiver are one and the same, for the essential approach of creating a relationship of trust and confidence, then suddenly and unexpectedly betraying it, is common to both.


In contrast to his kin, whose deceptive exploits are apparently indicative of inborn traits, Yaakov adopts deception only when circumstances demand it.  He fools his brother because he knows that Esav will never willingly surrender the birthright, even though in his eyes it is of little worth ("and Esav despised the birthright" – Bereishit 26:34).  He tricks his father at Rivka's command because they know that Yitzchak is not only blind to Esav's unsuitability, but also deaf to her entreaties to reconsider.  Yaakov must counter Lavan's duplicity in seizing his wages, by cleverly manipulating the sheep mating patterns to yield offspring that will be counted as his.  He must flee Lavan in secrecy because Lavan will not release him voluntarily.  As we saw last week, however, the most telling indication that deception is extraneous to Yaakov's fundamental character is his impassioned and cathartic outburst when Lavan ensnares them at Mount Gilead.  In provocative words that Lavan NEVER DISPUTES, Yaakov describes his twenty years of faithful service, of devotion, of responsibility, and of integrity.  Yaakov never took from Lavan's flock while it was under his care, nor did he even exercise the shepherd's privilege of consuming animals from the flock or of being absolved from loss due to unforeseeable circumstances.  He had been upright, honest and loyal.  Nevertheless, Yaakov has dwelt in the shadow of deceit for most of his life, first in the eclipse of his brother, and later in the darkness of Lavan's obscurations.  Have the cumulative and corrosive effects of those experiences left their tarnish on his soul?


The Fundamental Lesson of the Experience


It is just this possibility that holds the key to understanding the Divine necessity of Yaakov spending his formative years in the company of his ignoble kin.  As he is himself aware, the legacy of Avraham and Sarah, their concern for justice and righteousness and their faith in a single and absolute Deity that are its foundations, that legacy has been cautiously transmitted by Yitzchak and Rivka with trembling hands.  But the world needs more than individuals who will champion the ways of God, and the Divine purpose in the selection of Avraham is for him to found a nation.  That critical mass of  people will be able to impact on an uncaring world to a degree differing by orders of magnitude from the efficacy of Avraham and Sarah.  Yaakov is more than dimly aware that with him will begin the succeeding stage in the process, as the individuals of his household will coalesce into a clan, a tribe, to finally become a faith community and a nation with a land. 


But how will that nation makes its way in the world, and how will it succeed in communicating ideals so exalted yet radical that the fierce and feral human heart, struggling for a higher purpose but reluctant to embrace a higher law, finds them at once endearing yet execrable?  Will that nation adopt the approach of the sensual Esav, clever and cunning, brimming with dynamism, vitality, and deadly force, to impose its 'noble vision' on the globe?  Will it instead take up the methods of Lavan, manipulative and Machiavellian, a master of doublespeak and deception, to advance its magnificent ends of forging a better world?  We ourselves, possessing the singular perspective of sixty centuries of recorded history, are only too painfully familiar with regimes and nations, religions and governments, that have imposed their utopian ideals through coercive power, prevarication and unholy enforcement, in a sincere attempt to improve the lot of humanity.  How destructive the attempts and how dismal the results!


And so our father Yaakov must experience firsthand the effects of these methods, must laboriously live through them, must feel the sting of betrayal and the fear of annihilation.  Only then will he fully internalize the fundamental axiom that the Nation of God, no matter how exalted its objectives, must employ just and gentle means to achieve them.  The word of God, if it requires the duplicity of Lavan or the duress of Esav to gain its adherents, is a bombastic and colossal failure.


The Struggle with the 'Angel'


It is not mere coincidence that on the eve of his confrontation with Esav, after twenty years of enduring the painful lessons taught at Lavan's Institute of Artifice, Yaakov must first face the 'mysterious man.'  Most commentaries have understood the overthrow of this angelic being to represent the struggle against and eventual triumph over external threats that Yaakov and his descendents will encounter during their long march through human history.  At the same time, however, we may understand the episode as signifying another important truth, namely the transformation of the self that Yaakov now stands to embrace.  To confront Esav is to confront the past, to finally face the uncomfortable truth that deception of any sort is a tragic error in the founding of a people who will champion morality, integrity and justice.  "(The angel) intoned: 'your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but rather Yisrael, for you have striven with divine beings and with men, and have prevailed!'" (Bereishit 32:29).  As Rashi (11th century, France) perceptively comments: "It will no longer be said that you seized the blessings by employing underhandedness and deceit (as the name 'Yaakov,' or 'grasper of the heel' suggests).  Rather, you are now given those blessings with an exalted openness, and indeed God will change your name to 'Yisrael' (Prince of God)…for you have striven against Esav and Lavan and have prevailed!" (commentary to 32:29).


Thus, although Esav and Lavan emerge after twenty years wholly unchanged by the experience of their interaction with Yaakov, it was not for their sakes that the meeting took place.  It is Yaakov, the progenitor of a Godly people, who is called upon to grow, evolve, develop and mature.  His difficult firsthand encounters with the worst aspects of human nature have not broken his resolve, nor jaded him to the goal of living a more just life.  On the contrary, he has carried those experiences forward with him, finally internalizing what began as a dawning realization that the way of Esav and Lavan cannot be the way of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka.  The challenges that Yisrael's descendents will face as a nation may differ markedly from the threats that Yaakov faced as a vulnerable individual at the mercy of the unscrupulous.  But the precious instruction that Yaakov took from those episodes will stand the Nation of Israel in good stead, serving as a guiding light to illuminate their path and help them recover their way, even when they have strayed far from the ideals of justice and truth.


Shabbat Shalom


For further study:


Note how Yaakov strongly reacts to the actions of Shimon and Levi when they employ a clever but cruel ploy to overpower the people of Shekhem in order to carry out the entirely justified rescue of their sister Dina, who had been violated by Shekhem the governor's son.  "Yaakov said to Shimon and Levi: 'You have upset me and discredited my reputation among the inhabitants of the land…'" (Bereishit 34:30).  See the telling comments of the Ramban (13th century, Spain) on verse thirteen, where he argues that Yaakov's displeasure was not because the people of Shekhem were guilty of no wrongdoing.  Quite the contrary, they were steeped in the immoral, idolatrous practices of Canaan.  Rather, Yaakov was angry because Shimon and Levy had broken their word of trust that they had extended to the Shekhemites, and had misused the covenant of circumcision to ensnare the people of the city and to defeat them.  This incident, reminiscent of other acts of duplicity with which Yaakov was well familiar, here merits his unqualified condemnation.  In light of the above analysis, how is it also indicative of Yaakov's assumption of the mantle of Yisrael?