Existential Encounter

parashas Vayishlach 5781

“And Jacob was left alone.”

– Genesis 32:25, JPS 1917 Tanach

Jacob, who had recently acquired a family, as well as a secure livelihood, after twenty years of working for his Uncle Laban, was finally returning home. Yet, he would have to face the consequences of unfinished business with his brother Esau, who may have still been harboring a grudge against him after all of the years. More significantly, Jacob will find that he first needs to face himself, in acknowledgment of his own character. Was he the deceiver, who reappropriated the blessing of the first born that should have gone to his brother Esau? Or was he the right man to have obtained the blessing, because he truly represented the values that were destined to be passed on to his descendants?

If the blessing had gone to Esau, then the Abrahamic legacy may have been squandered, made less substantial by a lack of spiritual vision on the part of the recipient. For, Esau was primarily focused on Olam HaZeh (This World), where instant gratification, hedonism, and the base desires of the animal soul (nefesh habehamit) prevail over the godly soul (nefesh ha’elokit), unless reined in under the guiding principles of higher values, such as those found in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, as well as those inculcated by the commandments, and all throughout kitvei kodesh (holy scripture).

Although Jacob upheld those higher values, he had to know within himself, whether or not he was truly worthy of having received the blessing. His deference towards Esau exemplifies a change in his character. Jacob sent generous gifts ahead of him, in order to appease the anger of Esau; later, he will bow seven times as he approaches Esau. Yet, before that meeting, he was left alone at night with himself, his conscience, and the prospect of losing everything he had obtained in life the next day. One can only imagine what thoughts were occupying his mind at this pivotal moment in his life; for, the burdens of his past must have weighed heavily upon him.

The Torah records that “there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (Genesis 32:35, JPS). This man was really an angel, sent to detain Jacob until the morning, when he would have to face Esau; as the Rashbam explains, Jacob had considered fleeing, to avoid the confrontation with Esau. Yet, during the wrestling match that ensued, Jacob prevailed, thus showing that he indeed realized his weight in gold, not the gold found in the earth, rather the gold of spiritual value, in the eyes of G-d. As confirmation of his integrity, the angel informed him, that he would no longer be called Jacob (heel, deceit); he was given the name, Israel (uprightness, integrity).

parashas Vayishlach 5780 – Diminished Merit

B”H

Shiur for parashas Vayislach 5780

“Jacob sent messengers (malachim).”

– Genesis 32:4

According to Sforno, Jacob sent messengers, in order to find out Esau’s state of mind concerning him (Sforno, sefaria.org). Jacob had spent twenty years working for his Uncle Laban; now, Jacob was returning to his native land, as stated in Genesis 31:13. He was concerned that Esau may have been still harboring resentment towards him, for having acquired both the birthright and their father’s blessing for the firstborn. When the servants that Jacob sent ahead as messengers returned, they reported that Esau was approaching with four hundred men.

Rather than confront Esau, his brother, in battle, Jacob chose to send gifts to him, as part of a three-fold strategy. He hoped to appease Esau’s anger, by way of sending droves of animals ahead to him, through his servants. He also divided his entourage into two camps, placing his servants first, and then his family, so that if the first camp was attacked, the second could escape. Additionally, he prayed to H’Shem, asking Him for reassurance that he would be delivered from the hands of his brother, Esau.

When Jacob prayed to H’Shem, he said of himself, “I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown Thy servant” (Genesis 32:11, JPS). According to Rashi, he felt as if his merit was diminished, perhaps, because of some sin that he had committed, so that he could not presume to think that H’Shem would deliver him from the hands of Esau (Shabbat 32a). Nachmanides comments that he “didn’t rely on his righteousness;” rather, “he made every effort to save himself” (Ramban, sefaria.org). Because he felt unworthy, he took practical measures on his own, in order to avoid a deadly confrontation with Esau.

In like manner, it is best not to feel entitled to H’Shem’s blessings in our lives. Instead, we should learn from Jacob, by prevailng upon H’Shem’s gadol chesed, the greatness of His kindness (Sforno, sefaria.org), while also making an effort on our own to overcome our challenges in life. In this manner, we reflect the Talmudic saying in our lives: “if you make an effort, H’Shem will meet you halfway” (Nedarim 39). As is elsewhere written, “And to him that ordereth his way aright will I show the salvation of G-d” (Psalm 50:23, JPS 1917 Tanach).