Ya’akov’s Efforts with Esav

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Akedat Yitzhak, Finishing Sha’ar Twenty-Six

Point of interest to me, I hope to you: Last year, we were finishing the sixth sha’ar of Akedat Yitzhak on 2 Tevet, so we did just about exactly twenty she’arim this year. Given the 104 she’arim in the book, I think with only four more years, we will have studied a small percentage of R.  Yitzhak Arama’s jam-packed book.  A little humbling, also a reminder of how much we can and are learning from him.

R. Arama spent the first part of the twenty-sixth sha’ar harping on the necessity of human effort, especially in order to earn the Divine Providence needed for optimal outcomes. The idea justifies Ya’akov’s significant efforts to avoid Esav’s wrath; they might look like a lack of faith or trust in Hashem, where those efforts were in reality Ya’akov doing his obligatory part.

Now, R. Arama turns to the parsha itself, his first step a fuller explanation of Ya’akov’s efforts to be saved from Esav. [Twice in these paragraphs, he uses a verse cleverly, which I always admire. First, when he wants to say/show Hashem gives us reason to see Ya’akov behaved properly, he says hinei Hashem nitzav alav, behold, Gd was standing over him, the way Hashem was described in the dream at the beginning of Parshat Va-Yetze. Then he says va-ani etnahalah le-iti, I will go at my pace, to explain the issues in the parsha, a phrase Ya’akov used to tell Esav to go on ahead without him].

Proactive Effort

Bereshit Rabbah has two views about whom Ya’akov sent to Esav, messengers or angels (the word malakhim can mean either). Those who say he sent people view his decision as an error, a lack of faith that needlessly alerted Esav to Ya’akov’s presence (the Midrash calls it holding a dog by the ears).

The view he sent angels assumes Hashem agreed to the effort and to the idea of seeking peace proactively. Adding to the support, the Midrash attributes the idea to Rabbanan, to R. Arama a signal it was the more widespread view.

Ya’akov also worked to hide his fear from his family. He referred to his brother as adoni, my master, with the messengers, to give the impression this was an ordinary family relationship, the younger brother sending greetings to his (naturally respected) older brother. R. Arama adds there was no need for the family to know his real worries. [It’s a throwaway line so I won’t spend space on it, but a reminder of the different views there can be about the propriety of secrets in families. I’ve been taught the value of transparency where possible, the problems secrets can bring; R. Arama came from a different worldview].

He has them tell Esav he was living with Lavan. a place where Esav was as welcome as Ya’akov, a way to say he had not been hiding, to take away one reason Esav might think of pursuing an old grudge (the original irritant might have died down, but he wouldn’t want Ya’akov to get away with having run away). Ya’akov mentions his wealth to spark Esav’s interest in restoring a brotherly relationship.

[I think R. Arama is trying to explain why Ya’akov boasts of his riches, usually an unattractive trait; he implies Ya’akov did it to open a door to more than avoiding war. Why else would he go beyond the minimal information necessary to quiet Esav’s wrath? Of course, it’s possible Ya’akov wasn’t sure telling him he had been living in the open where Esav could have found him would do the trick, so he was trying everything at once. Even if he did want more, he did not want great closeness, as we see in the encounter itself.]

The messengers news of Esav’s apparently violent intent spurs Ya’akov to try more, the best way he knew to secure Hashem’s assistance. He split the camp in two hoping killing half the family would sate Esav’s wrath [R. Arama assumes Ya’akov saw no possibility they could defeat or survive Esav, interesting in light of the fact ten or eleven of his sons would soon wipe out the city of Shekhem. Perhaps they all knew they were pretty good warriors, but Esav and his people were at another level.]

Ya’akov had a personal guarantee of protection and blessings from Hashem; he feared for his family, who were not similarly covered.

Ya’akov Prays and Sends a Gift

Ya’akov also prays, opening with an acknowledgement of the growth of his family to include two camps. R. Arama sees a dual purpose, to draw attention to hia having done his part to avoid/minimize the damage Esav could cause and to plead for his family’s safety. He knows they are not covered by the promises Hashem had made to him, knows Hashem’s blessings could come true in full despite losing many of his current living descendants. He does not want to, he wants to move forward into history with this whole family, and is praying to Hashem for help in making that happen.  Moshe has a similar reaction to Hashem’s suggestion in Shemot 32;10, after the sin of the Golden Calf, to wipe out the Jewish people and start over with Moshe.

[I think R. Arama means it would still fulfill the promises to the Avot, as Moshe was their descendant, too, yet Moshe properly saw it as a lesser outcome. R. Arama is reminding us as well, guaranteed outcomes can come in better and less good ways. Ya’akov does not want to lose loved ones regardless of how good life can be after, Moshe did not want the people destroyed for similar reasons. Today as well, as we move slowly or quickly towards the times of Mashiah, redemption can reach more or fewer of the Jewish people, depending on how moany of us find our way to meriting being a part of it.]

Ya’akov expected some kind of immediate answer, he slept there to allow a dream or vision to come. It didn’t, in R. Arama’s view because he had not yet done all he could, had not yet spent money on his salvation. The gift he sent Esav would also (R. Arama says) constitute a more proper payment for the first-born rights Ya’akov had purchased, would lead Esav to concede those rights more full-heartedly.

[Both points surprise me, the second slightly less. Despite earlier being sure Ya’akov and Rivka were right to engineer the blessings to Ya’akov, R. Arama also values securing Esav’s after the fact concession. I struggle more with the first point, though, the idea Ya’akov made a lot of efforts but not enough, and that unless our efforts involve money, we haven’t yet done all we could.]

Ya’akov awoke, and followed his intellect/instinct as to what he could do to calm Esav’s hatred. (He took the absence of a vision as a sign, and drew the correct conclusions.) He sent enough animals to be able to procreate on their own, so Esav could keep them as a separate flock, to always remember their brotherly connection. [Like when libraries receive large donations of books, and keep them in a separate section; I confess I am unconvinced Esav would do such a thing, because why would he?]

He spreads the gift out for Esav to have a chance to see what he had done, but also to build up Esav’s appreciation. When the sees the first set of messengers, with the gifts, he would think that was the whole gift, only to be surprised with a second set and then a third.

The Battle with the Angel

I’m skipping some lesser points, all the way to the battle with the angel, whom R. Arama agrees was saro shel Esav, the heavenly representative of Esav; he could not defeat Ya’akov because of Ya’akov’s great merits. The wound he gives Ya’akov symbolized later Jews who would be vulnerable to the powers of Esav, those who sinned (as with Amalek, the Destructions of the Temples, and all other times of trouble for the Jewish people, R. Arama says).

I have again skipped much (about angels and their role in the world), but for this one point: he says the angel refused to tell Ya’akov his name to avoid any mistake about Who caused events in the world. Angels should be nameless, R. Arama thinks, to ensure their actions are known to come from the One Who sent them.

One of the incidents in Tanakh we might have seen as a counter-example to R. Arama’s idea comes when Manoah, Shimshon’s father, asks the name of the angel sent to him, and seems to be given an answer, Pel’i. R. Arama re-reads the incident; in his view, Manoah had not realized it was an angel, thought he was speaking with a man sent to him with a message. The angel was about to go up to heaven in the fire they were using to cook food, and he made a point of rejecting the question about his name (as had Ya’akov’s angel). When he says ve-hu pel’i, he means he will not tell Manoah the name for it is hidden, pel’i, angels’ names are not shared.

Part of the role of Ya’akov’s angel was to verify he had now made all the efforts he could, and would now be safe and receive all the promised blessings.

The next morning, Ya’akov still limped, a symbol to R. Arama the battle left an impact, in that descendants who leave Hashem’s path will be vulnerable to being ruled by Esav. He thinks the particular body part tends toward sin, the reason Jewish practice avoids all benefit from the gid as well as the otherwise permitted fat near it. It’s a way of showing damage comes from sin, not from the agent of the damage.  By not eating the gid ha-nasheh, Jews remind themselves to avoid all the agents and vehicles of sin, such as hard-hearted or stubbornness.

I do not have room for his reading of a passage in the Zohar, I want to note how he introduces and ends his reading. He says he heard from many people the Zohar said x, was surprised by it at first, and then had a great idea, leading him to say if the saying exists, it says something wonderful. Meaning he did not know the Zohar, and did not have the access to it to check whether this statement existed.

Remaining Points

R. Arama notes Binyamin never bowed to Esav (he wasn’t born yet), a good reason for the Bet HaMikdash to be built in his share of Israel. It’s also why it was Sha’ul as king who dealt a major blow to Amalek, Esav’s descendant. (He does not mean Ya’akov and his family were wrong for bowing; in the moment, it was needed. Still, it leaves an impression, they were now people who had bowed to Esav. Fullest victory would be best located in Binyamin, who never bowed.)

Ya’akov turns down Esav’s invitation to join him, showing R. Arama a broader message. Ya’akov urges Esav to go ahead, because Esav is focused on momentary pleasures and successes, will have eight kings before the Jews have one, where Ya’akov’s longer path—including three exiles, says R. Arama—will bring him and his descendants to a fuller understanding of and connection to the intellectual truths of the world, making them a special nation, protected from the ordinary vicissitudes of the world.

At the end of that time, Ya’akov promises to come to Se’ir, Esav’s home, what the prophet Ovadyah speaks about in the haftara for the parsha, deliverers will ascend Mount Zion to judge Mount Esav. The judgment will be for all the gifts and various taxes Esav took from the Jews over the years (a subtle protest of governments of his time, I think).

Again without pretending I’ve covered all he says, R. Arama’s Va-Yishlah focuses on the necessity of Ya’akov doing everything he could before the angel ratified the blessings, before he could be sure he would escape Esav unscathed, as would all those of his descendants who followed his path, the longer path of building the intellect, finding longer-term truths, and living those.


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