Giving Esav a Second Chance (Ideas #26)


The opening narrative of Parshat Vayishlach recounts the dramatic reunion of Yitzchak's two sons. Yakov's fear and apprehension give way to cautious relief as his brother is successfully appeased. Moreover, Esav seems to cave in to brotherly sentiment towards the very same Yakov he had previously marked for bloody vengeance. Our parshanim have seen this section as a paradigm of how we are to interact with the gentiles and with the Christian nations in particular (see especially Ramban and the summation of Abarbanel on the first section of 33).

Indeed, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch seems to view the reunion of the two brothers as foreshadowing the positive developments of his own time (33:4, 10-11). His Eastern European contemporary, Rabbi N.T.Y. Berlin (Netziv) also strikes an optimistic tone regarding the Jewish people's willingness to seek brotherhood with the descendants of Esav given the proper circumstances (33:4). While both of these commentators present very modern insights, they both concentrate on what Esav has to do to bring about rapprochement. This essay will be an attempt to analyze the flip side of this modern rapprochement - that which is incumbent upon Yakov.



While the Torah's treatment of Yakov and Esav shows much character development, there are some fundamental differences. Of central importance is the changing of Yakov's name to Yisrael. Name changes are extremely significant as they signify a change of identity. The change here is especially meaningful since it is a complete change as opposed to a mere emendation. While Esav does take on the nickname of Edom, it cannot be construed as indicative of any intrinsic transformation of identity. Indeed, the Torah never again calls him by this seemingly casual nickname. While a multi-faceted personality, Esav remains a static character in comparison with his twin brother.


A. Esav

While a major current in Midrash understands Esav's newly found affection for Yakov to be insincere, most commentators follow the midrashic opinion that goes according to the simple meaning of the text. Along with Rav Shimon bar Elazar (Bereshit. Rabba 78:9), these commentators sense that Esav feels true compassion for the brother he had once sworn to murder. Yet, as indicated by the lack of a name change, Esav doesn't fundamentally change - rather the very real transformation in his brother's character engenders a new response. This understanding of Esav's change of heart works especially well if we follow the approach that the four hundred men who accompany Esav at the beginning of the parsha represent a war party (see Bachya, Seforno et al.): Sometime between Esav's going out to confront Yakov and their actual meeting, a change of heart occurs in Esav. Most probably, when Esav receives the sophisticated retinue of gifts sent by Yakov, the wealth and political savvy thereby revealed creates enough cognitive dissonance regarding his perception of Yakov to force him to reevaluate his position towards his brother. By the time Esav actually meets Yakov, he understands that it is no longer Yakov whom he meets but rather Yisrael. Thus, it is his "new" brother that is able to effect a change in Esav's hostility.


B. Yakov

Yakov is introduced in the Torah as being "tam" and sitting in tents. The latter is traditionally understood to describe a studious and meditative character. The word "tam" conveys an innocence and purity. Rashi elucidates the trait of being "tam" by contrasting it with his brother's character. Whereas Esav wields an expertise in the ways of deceit, the words out of Yakov's mouth convey his true feelings. While such honesty is certainly admirable, in an imperfect world it can leave one very vulnerable. An amusing example is when Yakov admonishes a group of lazing shepherds for not working (29:7, see Rashi, Seforno). To put it into a modern day context, envision a truck stop, where truck drivers are lazily stretching out their meal - in comes a yeshiva bochur asking the group why they don't get back to work since it is obvious they would not want to cheat their employers. Clearly, he would need Divine protection to prevent him from making it on to the next morning's obituary list.


This example seems to indicate that Yakov felt it always appropriate to speak the truth. If anything, his one prior experience with deception, when he deceived his father for the blessing at his mother's behest, must have left him convinced that honesty is always the best policy. By comparison, Chazal point out that this approach cannot be applied in blanket fashion - telling the truth is not appropriate in every situation.

Alongside Yakov's sheltered approach to morality is a sheltered approach to the material world. Having no wife or children and pursuing sundry cerebral interests, Yakov's meager physical needs were easily addressed by his father's ample means. In fact, his parents' home sheltered him from needing to deal with the imperfections of the world. Like his father, Yitzchak(1), he could devote all of his time to developing his own spiritual world. In short, while living with his parents, Yakov lived an ivory tower existence.


In Lavan's house, Yakov comes of age. Apparently arriving with few physical possessions, he is forced to work for Lavan in order to earn his keep. His total pursuit of spirituality to the exclusion of marriage, family and financial pursuits comes to an end. Marriage, in and of itself, brings about an understanding of competing values. Quite obviously, no matter how good the marriage, two different people will always have some conflicting needs - thus dealing with these conflicts is an unavoidable part of sharing one's life. Moreover, having to provide for the needs of his family forces him to deal with the pressures of the working world. Realizing Yakov's innocence, Lavan exploits the "opportunity" by employing deceit in every aspect of their relationship. Yakov is thus abruptly thrown into very trying circumstances and is forced to learn that the world is complicated and not the utopian setting of the "yeshiva". He learns to deal with deceit, with domestic friction and with material exigencies - in other words, he learns how to apply his spiritual lessons and beliefs to the "real world".


After he leaves Lavan's house, Yakov has a galvanizing experience. He is about to enter a new situation from a position of wealth. He is about to rejoin his father with the new wealth from Lavan's house. This could be the beginning of a business dynasty. Yakov now has to come to terms with how far he wants to pursue his career potential at the expense of spiritual endeavor. He is at a point where he could be tempted to get carried away by the joys of wealth. This is precisely how Kli Yakar understands the words of Chazal when they explain that Yakov backtracked across the Yabok to collect small jars left behind and was subsequently accosted by the spiritual forces of Esav. In this act, Yakov shows a dangerous weakness for property. In the end, Yakov is duly criticized for risking his life in order to salvage such an obviously insignificant portion of his wealth.(2) While neither the text nor the midrash reveal exactly what occurred in Yakov's struggle with the mysterious "man", the context of Yakov's personal transformation outlined above gives strong support to Kli Yakar's understanding.

As a man of means, Yakov can turn into another Esav - ruled by his desire for physical gratification. The other option is to overcome this drive and become what is known to be "Yisrael". Yisrael is the one who can enjoy the physical world in its proper perspective and therefore be in control of his desires. In fact, the very name Yisrael is indicative of a new found "srara" or dominion(3). Moreover, if the reference to his dominion over "elohim" is understood to refer to the forces of Esav as per Kli Yakar, then we have good reason to believe that the personality transformation in question has much to do with his relationship to the physical. This is the essence of the struggle with the spiritual forces of Esav. Once Yakov has solidified the lessons of religiosity within the physical world as Yisrael, he will be greeted by Esav in an entirely new light.



In the Modern period, we have witnessed increasing contact between Jews and non-Jews. Seeking out paradigms of positive interaction in our tradition has tremendous practical ramifications. Yakov's failure and Yisrael's success in dealing with Esav provide just such paradigms.


One must not forget that Chazal (Avoda Zara 11a) indicate to us that Esav also wants the spiritual - the brothers are fighting for both worlds. If Esav were only interested in this world, there would be no contest about the next world = spirituality. While Esav is not willing to give up this world in order to get a ticket into the next world, that does not mean that he is automatically ready to forget about spiritual pursuits.


It is in the context of the transformed Yakov (i.e. Yisrael) that Netziv reminds us of the potentially symbiotic relationship that can exist between the descendants of Yakov and Esav, specifically embodied by Rav Yehudah haNasi (Rebbi) and Antoninus. The spiritual greatness of Rebbi was used to elevate Antoninus, while, in turn, Antoninus could assure much of Rebbi's temporal concerns (see Avodah Zara 10b). When the latter taught the former, the power and splendor of Rome was placed at the disposal of the Jewish leader. Seforno on 27:29 suggests that this potential symbiotic relationship was what was envisioned by Yitzchak when he wanted to bless Esav with physical wealth and power.(4)


Humanity, as represented by Esav, is not prepared for the proposition of Yakov. If we follow Rashi's understanding of Yakov buying the birthright from Esav, we see that Yakov cannot fathom any spiritual greatness coming from someone as involved in the world as his brother. Judging by Yakov's own pursuits, he seems to view spirituality as something that excludes physical and mundane interests. As such, there is no room for cooperation or symbiosis with Esav. Lacking any room for dialogue, Yakov is left with no alternative but manipulative coercion in order to acquire the spiritual opportunities given by the birthright, opportunities he believes could only benefit him and not his worldly brother. For most of humanity, emulating Yakov is not an attractive paradigm. Further, it is seen as insulting to mankind's very nature, as it shuts out anyone not willing or able to shun the physical. When the religious proposition is presented as choosing between this world and the next world, it breeds resentment and anger. Ultimately Esav's anger is focused on that which Yakov represents ( halacha ... sheEsav soneh leYakov). Moreover, a religious formula that can only maintain itself when divorced from the physical is seen as intrinsically flawed. The fact that it cannot work outside the ivory tower is understood to prove its inadequacy. Christian monastic tradition can be viewed as an extension of Yakov's proposition. So too can the Kollel culture of the last quarter century be viewed. (5)

Yisrael, as opposed to Yakov, represents an entirely different proposition - represented today in the body of normative Judaism. The physical is endorsed as positive when placed in the context of ultimate spiritual goals. It may be more difficult to succeed as a Yisrael than a Yakov: Yakov fights temptation by avoiding contact with it, whereas Yisrael fights it in direct confrontation, which entails constant vigilance (i.e. halacha - for example, rather than putting severe ascetic limits on our diet, halacha provides a spiritual framework through the requirement to invoke G-d before partaking of food and drink, etc.). Nonetheless, if we are to understand Yakov-Yisrael as a model for continued growth, it would follow that Yisrael represents a higher level of development. While possibly more difficult for those with a heightened spiritual endowment, it is the only possibility for the spiritual descendants of Esav. When the Jews display such a model, it can be appreciated by humanity at large. It is not coincidental that the paradigm of symbiosis is the relationship between Rebbi and Antoninus. Rav Yehudah haNasi was a Yisrael personality - the Talmud as quoted by Rashi on 25:23 compares the lavishness of his banquets to that of his royal Roman interlocutor. While the same Talmud tells us that Rebbi became ascetic in several respects, as Nasi there can be no doubt of his continued active involvement in worldly affairs. Thus, Rebbi was known for his wealth and power as well as for his scholarship - as such, an attractive figure for the spiritually keen descendent of Esav.



One hesitates to make any applications for fear of imposing ideas that do not necessarily follow from the above. Nonetheless, two modest conclusions do seem clear:


1) It behooves us to take the religious and ethical strivings of non-Jews in the Modern period seriously. While this may be obvious without the current textual analysis, Judaism is rooted in ancient times, when there was little common ground with the competing pagan ideologies. As such, denigration of any ideology outside of Judaism can, and often has been, the natural continuation of our view of the other. Thus, the analysis presented above can be useful in ratifying the notion, that there are times and places when we should work with the other in their legitimate spiritual and ethical pursuits.


2) Being an educational vanguard for the nations of the world, as implied by the term "mamlechet cohanim", requires us to evaluate our national behavior in terms of its usefulness to mankind. While this does not necessarily supersede all other considerations, in a world of increasing international communication and awareness, we cannot understand this role as a mere nicety for internal pontificating.


(1) see R. Adin Steinsaltz' essay on Yitzchak in Biblical Personalities.

(2) While Chazal (Chulin 91) seemingly justify the behavior by appending the dictum, "beloved are the possessions of the righteous", it is not clear whether this is meant to condone Yakov's behavior in view of the danger to his life.

(3) see R. Aryeh Kaplan's note on the derivation of the word "sarita" in 32:29.

(4) While Yitzchak is generally viewed as having made a mistake in applying this potential to Esav himself, the simple text is somewhat unclear. What would have happened had Yitzchak given the blessings as planned? Moreover, in 32:23, the Midrash (quoted by Rashi) blames Yakov for not allowing Esav the opportunity to do teshuva. In fact, the Torah Temima feels forced to say that Yakov knew that Esav would actually doe teshuva if he would have married Deena - otherwise, how can Yakov be blamed for preventing Esav from meeting Deena? As such, it is not clear whether Yitzhak was more blind in the short term than was Rivka in the long term.

(5) See Jacob Katz on this trend in "Orthodox Jews - From Passivity to Activism" in Commentary, June 1985, p. 38.