Friday, December 8, 2006

From Eisav with Love

We know that the lives of the forefathers are not merely a story of the past; they are also the blueprint of our future. The account of the conflict between Yaakov and Eisav foreshadows the history of the Jewish people and also serves as a guide for the correct approach in dealings with our enemies (Ramban). In these troubled times, it warrants an extra close reading.

In the beginning of the parsha, the tension builds. Yaakov returns to the Land of Israel and prepares to face the enemy he had fled so many years earlier: his very own brother, the unforgiving Eisav. Yaakov manages to peacefully defuse a potentially deadly confrontation with a three-prong preparedness strategy: prayer, appeasement and defensive war. Of all three, it is the prayer that is the most fascinating.

In his prayer, Yaakov pleads with G-d, “Please rescue me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav” (Bereishit 32:12). Does G-d not know who Eisav is that Yaakov has to inform Him that they are brothers? Besides, what is the relevance of their familial relationship at a time like this? What is Yaakov trying to say here?

The answer is chilling. Eisav is plagued with multiple personality disorder. One Eisav we are aware of, the other is less known. There is the violent, murderous Eisav and there is also the sweet brother Eisav who puts his arm around us and wants to be our friend. One destroys the body, the other, the soul. Yaakov prays to G-d to save him from the hands of both (“Bais HaLevi,” R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1820-1892).

The night before Yaakov is to face his bother, Yaakov does battle with the monster Samael. Spiritual counterpart of Eisav, the angel Samael is the incarnation of evil itself (32:25; cf. Malachei Elyon, Samael). This nightlong struggle symbolizes the struggle with evil the Jewish people will endure through the long night of national galut (exile). Like Yaakov, we will persevere and ultimately emerge victorious. But it might speed the process along if we better understood the nature of the battle.

Yaakov’s battle is described by the Torah with the word, “vayei’aveik” (32:25). This unusual word is translated as “wrestling,” but the root of the word is far from obvious. Rashi has two interpretations of this word. Either it comes from the root “avak” which means dust; when people fight they kick up a cloud of dust. Alternatively, it has the Aramaic root “avik” which means a knot; when two people wrestle, they hold onto each other and their limbs intertwine. The Chasam Sofer (R. Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839) understands these two interpretations to be descriptive of the two types of interactions Eisav has with Yaakov. One is a violent attack which kicks up dust. The other is when Eisav hugs us.

When Yaakov finally meets up with Eisav and his four hundred men, a strange thing happens. Instead of a war, we have a family reunion. Eisav runs to up to Yaakov and gives him a hug and a kiss. (Did he forget to take his meds?) Both brothers break down and cry (33:4).

Why was Yaakov crying? He should be relieved, not moved.

I would posit that Eisav’s hug was deeply disturbing to Yaakov – he would have much preferred a fight. Yaakov knew that this hug meant that there would come a time when Eisav would hug Jews again, and some of them might return the hug. At this vision, our father Yaakov broke down and cried.

Yaakov knew what he was saying when he prayed to G-d, “Please rescue me from the hand of my brother, the hand of Eisav.” Indeed, both Eisavs were active that day. First, the aggressive Eisav approaches with an armed force of four hundred to destroy Yaakov and his family. Then, as soon as Yaakov manages to escape that danger, Eisav the “brother” appears. He extends to Yaakov a warm invitation, “Let’s get going and move on, I will travel alongside you” (33:12). Brother Eisav wants to bond. Yaakov declines the offer and avoids that danger as well.

It stands to reason that the last scene in the drama, the interaction which takes place just before the final parting of ways, would hint at what is to happen at the point at which our galut is about to wind down and enter its final throes.

Rabbi Moshe M. Eisemann

In other words, in the end Eisav will embrace the Jewish people and lovingly welcome them into his melting pot. This is certainly the situation today (at least in America). Following the guidance of Yaakov, we must respectfully decline. It is up to us to reject the assimilationist Eisav and stand up for authentic Jewish values. It is the only way to ensure the survival of Jewish identity in the final stage of the Diaspora. It is the challenge of our times.


  1. Great d'var Torah!

    I brought up the subject the other day in the context of Greek culture vs. Judaism (since Hannukah is almost here), and one person had a very negative reaction to my words, saying something to the effect that the "old-fashioned rabbis are killing creativity and keeping us in the dark ages". The embrace of Esav and the darkness of Yavan are very strong indeed.

    A gutn Shabbos.

  2. Evil in this case represents a lack of belief in HaShem by Esau. During the course of his existence, Esau consciously
    discarded belief in HaShem. The soul of Esau was then polluted. According to Luzzatto, there is a Governing Council of souls, and it would seem that they decreed that this "evil" angel would be sent down to meet Jacob for a specific purpose. That "purpose" was to:
    1. Show Jacob that Esau was 100% evil.
    2. To teach Jacob that there would be an on-going struggle with Esau, but that with patience and fortitude and some pain, Jacob would be triumphant.

  3. What is the appropriate way to speak about or address Eisav? Are we permitted to speak lashon harah of one's enemy? May we speak of our enemy in unfavourable terms or must we still be menchedik when speaking about our enemies?

  4. Following the lead of the Midrash and Rashi, maligning Eisav is the thing to do. I would add that being sweet to our enemies is a dangerous idea for several reasons. Foremost among them, it weakens our position in our own minds. A mentch is a man with the clarity to call a spade a spade.
    For more on the Jewish attitude to evil, read this article by R. Meir Soloveitchik entitled, "The Virtue of Hate."