Ya’akov Meets Esav, In Multiple Ways

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

In Parshat VaYishlach, Rashi interprets im Lavan garti in ways Kli Yakar thinks are contradictory. Rashi first says Ya’akov was assuring Esav he had not become important or powerful, just a ger, a stranger, to Kli Yakar a sign Ya’akov had chosen to approach his brother with humility; Rashi’s second option was that Ya’akov was indicating he had observed the 613 mitzvot all his time with Lavan, a statement of seeming confidence Esav will not be able to hurt him. Yitzhak had blessed Esav with the ability to overthrow Ya’akov’s superiority only when Ya’akov or his descendants fail in their service of God (a traditional understanding of Bereshit 27;40, ve-hayah ka’asher tarid, u-farakta ulo), and that time was not now.

Complementary, Not Contradictory

Kli Yakar says his heart tells him the two interpretations are both true, not separate options, the way Rashi presented them. He argues Ya’akov’s message of not having achieved power or prominence told Esav his father’s blessings had not been realized. Esav might have counterclaimed the blessings only hadn’t come true because Ya’akov had not kept the Torah, so Ya’akov proactively informs him his spiritual standing with God was intact.

Not that Ya’akov was insulting Yitzhak by saying his blessings had failed. Rather, Kli Yakar  thinks Ya’akov was claiming the ruse failed, that extracting a blessing under false pretenses had not successfully moved what Yitzhak intended for Esav over to Ya’akov. It was his way of telling Esav the blessings clearly would benefit whomever Yitzhak really meant them to, not he who fooled Yitzhak into articulating them in proximity to him.

Kli Yakar doesn’t tell us if he thinks Ya’akov was sincere, indeed doubted whether the blessings were his, or was saying it to assuage Esav. [I assume the latter; even that, though, raises an interesting question about blessings, why indeed they were effective for Ya’akov if Yitzhak was misled. Not our issue here.]

He adds a fascinating addendum. But for Kli Yakar’s fears of overconfidence [the Hebrew is I lo mistefina, were I not embarrassed, a traditional expression of restraining oneself from taking conclusions to their fullest extent—I am sure this is correct, but will not act on it all the way], he would excise the words davar aher in Rashi, unite the two readings as one. He felt so sure Rashi wanted us to read im Lavan garti both to mean “and did not become important and powerful,” and “I kept all the mitzvot,” the two together conveying Ya’akov’s message.

His certainty suggests to me he may really have thought this was peshat, the simple reading of Rashi, that Rashi thought Ya’akov used a word with two implications and intended Esav to catch both. Or he knew it was derash, less simple, more homiletic, but did not care.

Either way, it adds another interesting possibility to how Ya’akov sought to allay Esav’s anger.

Bidding Farewell to the Vilna Gaon

Aderet Eliyahu comments on the eight Edomite kings listed at the end of this week’s parsha. I could not find the way to share his view here either comprehensibly or concisely enough. As I concede I will not be able to include him in our discussions, I did not want to “ghost” the Vilna Gaon, wanted to admit openly I am not yet able to translate his ideas as they deserve. Moving on to what I do feel able to do…

Wrestling with His Own Wrongs

Hatam Sofer sees multiple layers to Ya’akov’s incident with the angel, whom tradition identified as the representative of Esav. First, he uses an idea from Hullin 91a, found also in Rashi to 32;25: Ya’akov was left alone because he went back across the stream for pachim ketanim, small jars. The Gemara said they mattered to Ya’akov because the righteous do not steal, so every small jar counts.

Ya’akov in particular is known as an ish emet, a man of truth; if we add the numerological value of pach (the word for jar) to emet, truth, we get Yisrael (Israel). Ya’akov was spending time alone, Hatam Sofer is saying, to push beyond being a man of truth to achieving the quality of Yisra’el [three assumptions I spot: first, the significance of gematria, the number value of letters, as a way to see the full story of an incident; second, that Ya’akov knew his central quality was truth; third, that Ya’akov was supposed to become Yisra’el, and knew that as well].

The angel of Esav, seeking to stop it, wrestles with him, hurts the hollow of his thigh [translation from  Sefaria]. In one pretty insight, Hatam Sofer notes the word for “hollow” is kaf, the reverse of pach, the singular of the jars Ya’akov had gone for. The angel didn’t randomly strike a part of Ya’akov’s body, he is suggesting, the angel went for a part that has the numerological value Ya’akov had sought to add to his emet qualities to produce Yisra’el. Had he succeeded, Ya’akov would be left with only emet, the pach he had added negated by the kaf the angel had wounded.

Ya’akov won anyway and extracted the new name.

[Hatam Sofer has three more ideas on this one verse, but I am going to skip one, a discussion of how the angel might have been punishing Ya’akov for his failure to fulfill his vow to tithe all he had if  God protected him. It is too long and involved to share here.]

Marrying Two Sisters—Was Ya’akov Ever Out of Israel?

His next idea turns the word levado, alone, into a reverse acronym for the words the Torah uses to introduce the Dinah story, va-tetzei Dinah bat Le’ah, Dinah the daughter of Le’ah went out. Hatam Sofer says the wound the angel inflicted on Ya’akov led to the upcoming troubles in the parsha, the Dinah tragedy, Reuven’s sin with Bilhah, and the death of Rahel. Since Rivkah had promised her son she would take upon herself any curse he received, Ya’akov also heard of her death at this juncture, an idea Rashi tells us.

Rivkah seems to have promised Ya’akov only to take those curses Yitzhak might issue should he catch Ya’akov trying to take his brother’s blessing. Hatam Sofer is assuming that since Yitzhak promised Esav he would overthrow his brother’s rule when Ya’akov sinned—the ve-hayah ka’asher tarid we saw in Kli Yakar, too—and these troubles stem from a sin of Ya’akov’s, see below, Rivkah was implicated, too.

The sins that enabled the angel to hurt Ya’akov, Hatam Sofer suggests, were the two sisters he married, and his delay in fulfilling his vow to God. The second idea I leave for some other time, but the first surprises us because Ramban addressed the issue, said that when the Gemara says the Patriarchs observed the Torah, it was only in Israel; Ramban even thought it a reason Rahel died on her way into the Land.

Hatam Sofer appends a comment from Hullin 91a, where R. Shmuel bar Nahmani says the angel appeared in the form of a non-Jew, and R. Shmuel b. Abba thinks he took the form of a Torah scholar. He relates the two to the sins of Ya’akov, the Torah scholar idea being an issue of Ya’akov’s deficiencies in honoring his parents, but the non-Jew being his having married two wives. For all that he was indeed outside of Israel, and the Patriarchs did not keep the Torah outside Israel, Hatam Sofer says wherever Ya’akov was, the Divine Presence was with him (Kli Yakar had said the opposite, leaving Israel was leaving the Divine behind), and therefore it was like he was in Israel, and should not have married two sisters.

Another bombshell from Hatam Sofer: “in Israel” really means “with the Divine Presence,” and if Ya’akov always had the Divine with him, he was “in Israel,” and sinned—somewhat—in marrying sisters. [It’s a little difficult, because if so, Ramban gave a meaningless answer to how Ya’akov married them.]

A Surprising But Sincere Moment of Rapprochement

Part of the reason Ha’amek Davar is popular, I think, is that many of his ideas articulate a tolerant version of Judaism that resonate with moderns. His reading of Esav’s hug and kiss of Ya’akov offers an example. He notices the verbs for the hug and kiss are one-sided, to his reading Esav doing all the hugging and kissing, because Ya’akov could not find it in him to reciprocate to “Esav adono, his master.” I think he means Ya’akov was too awestruck by the powerful Esav to be so comfortable with him, because he gives another example, Shmu’el’s kiss of Shaul after he anointed him king. This was a kiss of declaring position, so Shaul did not return it. Sometimes, physical acts only make sense in one direction.

But they do both cry. Where Ha’amek Davar certainly knows traditional sources that deny Esav’s sincerity, he refuses to believe it. He says Ya’akov was moved to true love by his brother’s actions, saw Esav’s honest interest, in that moment, in a good fraternal relationship. Then he generalizes: throughout history, when the descendants of Esav awake themselves to a pure and better self, to recognizing the value and significance of the Jewish people, we too awaken ourselves to remember Esav is our brother, as we see with Rebbe, the revered, legendary, editor of the Mishnah, whom tradition thought had a true friendship with Antoninus, a high-ranked Roman official (possibly emperor).

Ve-chen harbeh, he says, and many others, too. We struggle with Esav often, probably usually, but whenever they remember what they should, we respond in kind, Ha’amek Davar is sure.

When Ya’akov met Esav, Kli Yakar thinks he tried to convince Esav he had failed to take his blessings, Hatam Sofer thought he was at risk because of two personal failures, the more surprising one being his having married sisters, and Ha’amek Davar sees a true reconciliation, a reminder we should always be open to when non-Jews do honestly want a good relationship with us.

About Gidon Rothstein

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