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Parshas Vayishlach - Balancing the Physical and Spiritual, Part One

By: Rav Dov Lipman

The Parsha begins by relating that Yaakov sent messengers to Esav.  The Torah specifically relates that Esav was living  in “the land of Seir, the field of Edom.”  Why did Yaakov establish contact with Esav?  It was not necessary for Yaakov to pass Seir on the way back to Canaan and there is no evidence that Esav was paying any attention to Yaakov at that particular time.  After all, thirty four years had passed since Yaakov left home and Esav was enjoying a life of power and affluence in Seir.  This point is really brought home by the Midrash which teaches that Yaakov’s communication with Esav was as if he “grabbed the ear of a passing dog” since Esav was completely disinterested in Yaakov at that moment. Why, then, did Yaakov make this contact, especially considering the risks of Esav reacting with vengeance and violence towards him?

To answer this question, we will re-learn the entire story of Yaakov and Esav.  We will be following the explanation of Rav Hirsch through most of the story.  Let us look back at the beginning of Parshas Toldos. The Torah describes that Rivka was suffering during her pregnancy and was told by G-d: “Two nations (goyim) are in your stomach, and two powers from your insides will come out.”  (25:23)  Rav Hirsch explains that she was being told of two different entities that would be emerging from her twins  G-d then continues and informs her in that same verse: “The stronger one will be stronger and the mighty one will serve the younger.”   Rav Hirsch explains that this is where we are taught that one of the twins would be focused on spirituality and morals while the other would be more inclined towards strength and power.  The one with strength and power will dominate the other but, as the verse concludes, in the end it will be clear that the mightier entity was simply serving the weaker and more spiritually focused one.  This prophecy could unfold in one of two ways as will be described shortly.

The Torah then describes the actual birth of the twins and remarks: behold there were twins in her stomach.”  (25:24)  The word “behold” indicates some element of surprise.  Why was there surprise if Rivka was already told that she would bear twins?  Rav Hirsch explains that Rivka had been told that the two boys were going to be extremely different and, despite the external differences which will be described in a moment, the two boys were similar in every other way.  The “behold” captures her surprise over how similar they were despite the very significant contrast she had expected based on her prophecy.  This reveals to us that Yaakov and Esav, despite their different tendencies as foretold by the prophecy, actually shared many similarities which would impact the parenting of Yitzchak and Rivka.

In what ways did the boys differ at birth?  The Torah describes Esav as being “reddish” and “full of hair.” (25:25)  Rav Hirsch explains that “reddish” connotes that he was vibrant and full of life.  The growth of hair indicates that he had enough strength and was physically developed enough for hair to grow.  Everyone who was there saw these physical traits in Esav as indicated by the verse, “and THEY called him Eisav.”   Regarding Yaakov the Torah simply records that he was holding onto Esav’s heel. (25:26)  Yitzchak was the only one who recognized the significance in this. Therefore, according to the Torah, he, alone, named the boy, Yaakov.  Rav Hirsch explains that Yizchak understood that Yaakov holding Esav’s ankle symbolized that Yaakov would be a quiet follower who would ultimately rise up and grab hold of Esav and what he stood for.

We have now seen that both Rivka and Yitzchak were aware of a difference in the destinies of Eisav and Yaakov.  The Torah explains (verse 27) that the boys grew up and, at that point, their true selves began to emerge: “And Esav was a  man who knew how to trap, a man of the field, and Yaakov was a simple man who lived in tents.”  Let us begin with Yaakov.  His “simple” nature indicates his focus and single-mindedness.  What mattered to him was knowledge and internal growth.  What about Esav?  Rav Hirsch points out that just as with Yaakov it first describes his nature and then his vocation, the same must be true with Esav.  His nature was to know how to hunt and trap.  How does a person hunt and trap?  The key is to appear innocent externally while inside one is really planning to kill.  In Rav Hirsch’s words, the person has “self control for a lurking self interest.”   This was Esav’s nature and, as a result, he was a “man of the field,” who needed to be out and about. 

We must pause for a moment to explain that this contrast in personalities, interests, and even destinies between Esav and Yaakov was not necessarily meant to be as stark as it ultimately became.  Numerous commentaries explain that G-d’s original plan allowed for Esav and Yaakov to share the leadership of the Jewish people.  Yaakov was to be the one who focused more on the spiritual matters and scholarship while Esav would tend to the physical needs of the nation.  They were each blessed with natures which could have ensured great success in these roles.  (By extension, Esav would have married Leah and produced six tribes with the Yaakov-Rachel union creating the other six)  The prophecy given to Rivka stated that two “goyim” would come from her.  That word literally means “nations” but it can also mean “tribes” or “groups” as we see in the Rashi on Beraishis 35:11.  Thus, the prophecy was unclear and this potential partnership was certainly what Rivka hoped for. 

Esav’s nature and the path to his potential destiny was a precarious one.  If not harnessed properly, the drive for physicality and materialism could lead to terrible results.  This is precisely what occurred.  As Rav Hirsch explains, Yitzchak and Rivka mistakenly raised the two boys as if they were exactly the same.  Let us not forget the similarities between the boys that we alluded to before which could have led to their overlooking their contrasts.  As a result, Esav’s nature was squelched because they were both raised as “Yaakovs.” This, no doubt, led to feelings of resentment and played a role in his rebellion.  In fact, the way he behaved while growing up was consistent with his nature as a “man who knows how to trap.”  Externally he went along with everything his parents asked of him while knowing that when he grew older his true self would emerge.

The Torah then explains (verse 28) that Yitzchak and Rivka actually had favorites – another parenting flaw.  As Rav Hirsch explains, they were attracted to their opposites.  Yitzchak, who was very private and quiet in his ways, recognized an enthusiasm, a power, and an exciting life force in Esav. He yearned to see these qualities in his offspring because he felt it was necessary for the developing nation to have these traits as part of its make up.  It must be noted, as the Torah relates, that Esav was cunning in convincing Yitzchak that he had this positive side to him.  Through his mouth he charmed Yitzchak into believing that he was a good person and could combine his love of the outdoors with spirituality.  Rivka grew up with her brother Lavan.  She already experienced a person who loved materialism and would do anything for money.  She wanted to make sure that the developing nation had a leader who had more self-control and inner focus.  Thus, she favored Yaakov. 

With all of this background, we can explore the two major encounters between Yaakov and Esav.  The first situation is the “sale” of the birthright as described in 25:29-34.  A number of questions arise from that story.  First of all, how could Yaakov take advantage of Esav at a time that he was clearly desperate for food?  This is completely inconsistent with what we would expect from our forefather!  Secondly, is it even possible to sell a birthright?  Does such a sale actually have legitimacy?  Furthermore, we do not even see it enacted at all since Yaakov is never blessed with greater monetary inheritance than Esav. What, then, was this story actually about?  All of these questions are magnified by the language of the Midrash which teaches that Yaakov and Esav were “playing games” with each other here and nothing of significance actually transpired.                       

Rav Hirsch explains that Yaakov gave Esav food immediately and unconditionally. That becomes clear in verse 34 where it does not say “And Yaakov gave to Esav…” but, rather, “And Yaakov had given to Esav…”  We must also say that the issue at hand here was spiritual in nature because we see no results on a monetary level.  So, what happened?  Esav came in and said, “Give me food, I am hungry.”  Yaakov gave him food and then said, “Just as you crave food, I crave the spiritual birthright.  You hunt all day and only care about your food.  It will be a disaster if our father dies and you become the leader.  I crave being the spiritual leader of the emerging nation the way you crave food.”  Esav responded that he has no interest in leading this spiritual nation.  Then they played their “game” and Esav pretended to actually give it to Yaakov. 

What a moment!  This was an encounter where Yaakov took Esav on “head to head” regarding their ideologies.  Through this encounter, it became clear to Yaakov that Esav was truly unfit to serve in his potential role as a forefather even in a more physical and strength oriented capacity.  This story establishes their priorities once and for all and serves as a precursor for the stories to follow.  (Rav Hirsch also explains that this established in the course of history that the Jewish people gladly yield materialism to the Gentiles as long as we are permitted to quietly pursue our spiritual mission.) 

The next story about these sons revolves around Esav’s marriage. (26:34-35) Yitzchak and Rivka are distraught because of his decision to marry into the Chiti family, especially after Yitzchak just moved back to Canaan in order to isolate himself from the Plishtim.  It is important to note that this was not a simple mother-in-law displeased with a daughter-in-law situation.  The Torah mentions Yitzchak first when describing the parents’ broken hearts.  Even the parent who favored Esav was displeased.  Esav’s actions here seem to cement his abandonment of the family’s traditions and his breaking away from his parents.

The second significant encounter regarding Yaakov and Esav occurs when they were receiving Yitzchak’s blessings.  Chapter 27 describes how Yaakov does the unthinkable in tricking his father to give him the blessings.  Rav Hirsch points out that our search for an explanation should not focus on Yaakov but, rather, on Rivka.  Yaakov is reluctant  to do this.  Aside from the fact that it runs completely against his nature, he clearly fears  the potential consequences.  (see verses 11 and 12)  Rivka assumes full responsibility and, as his mother, she  insists that Yaakov follow her orders. (verse 8 and 12, the latter  emphasizing “his mother”)   Let us shift to Rivka.  First of all, how could she try to trick her husband?  Second, what was she thinking?  She was not a foolish person.  Didn’t she know that it was inevitable that Yitzchak’s mistake would be discovered?   What did she think would happen then?  Would the blessing take hold?  Would she have a functional marriage?

Our conclusion must be, explains Rav Hirsch, that Rivka’s goal was for Yaakov’s trick to be discovered upon Esav’s return. There was Yitzchak, who always favored Esav, holding on to his hope that Esav would share the leadership role with Yaakov.  He stuck to his belief that Esav’s physical nature together with the so-called spirituality which Eisav portrayed to him would be essential to the nation’s future.  Even after Esav married improperly, Yitzchak was still prepared to bestow the nation’s material blessings upon him.  Rivka set out to show Yitzchak how easily he could be deceived.  Yitzchak had to recognize that Esav was deceiving him the entire time.  In the words of Rav Hirsch, “If the simple man could succeed in convincing Yitzchak that he was the trapping man, for sure the trapping man could succeed in pretending to be the simple man.”   Sure enough, after Yitzchak discovers his mistake, he “trembles greatly” (verse 35)  He trembles because he realizes that he was capable of being fooled and that for all these years Eisav had fooled him.  In terms of the blessing, though, the correct person, Yaakov, received it.

Which blessing was this?  According to our approach, all along the plan was for Yaakov to be the spiritual leader of the Jewish people.  He was to receive the blessing for spiritual success.  He does receive that blessing in 28:5 where he is given the “blessing of Avraham” which is the blessing of spiritual greatness.  So, the blessing which he received through this ruse was the material blessing.  Rav Hirsch points out that this is clear from some of the things which Yitzchak says and does in the build-up to the blessing and during the blessing, itself.  In verse three, Yitzchak instructs Esav to bring him food before bestowing the blessing upon him.  Why did Yitzchak want food before giving the blessing?  Rav Hirsch explains that Yitzchak was trying to demonstrate to Esav that material things can be used for a spiritual purpose.  Food, for example, can be the medium that enables a person to focus on G-d being the source of all gifts and inspire him to give a blessing.  Yitzchak had his doubts about Esav’s ability to properly steer his physical blessings towards spiritual goals which would have been necessary if he were the material father of the nation.  Therefore, in the process of giving the blessing, he hoped to clarify this point to Esav.

This theme continues when Yitzchak smells who he thinks is Esav in verse 27 and proclaims that he smells like the field.  Rav Hirsch explains that Yitzchak was hoping to steer Esav away from his hunting and to channel his craving for the outdoors towards agriculture.  Thus he emphasized the beautiful and positive smell of crops in the field as opposed to the bloody and negative smell from hunting.                      

The words of the blessing themselves indicate that this was the blessing for Esav as the physical father of the nation who would have to look after the sustenance of the nation as well as interacting with other nations.  First, in verse 28 it deals with rain and crops.  Then, it mentions in verse 29 that other nations should serve the Jewish people – a respect which would come as a result of our wealth.  Then Yitzchak mentions one brother competing against the other.  Rav Hirsch explains that the goal here was for Esav, as the material father, to try to compete with Yaakov on a spiritual level, as well.  Those who are out working and bringing in sustenance should still attempt to reach great spiritual heights through prayer and Torah study and should “compete” with those who study full time in the spiritual realm.

However, as we have pointed out, it was not meant to be.  Yitzchak, himself, came to realize that Yaakov was the proper recipient of the blessing for physical leadership, as well.  As Yitzchak tells Esav (verse 37), other than spiritual leadership which could only go to Yaakov and material leadership which was now transferred to Yaakov, there is no other blessing within the tradition of Avraham to bestow upon him.  Esav then asks (verse 38), “Is there no blessing for someone outside of the dynasty of Avraham?”  Yitzchak responds with a blessing clearly indicating the Jewish perspective that there is a role for the Gentile population as well.  He blesses Esav with material wealth and military success.  However, these blessings are only significant because they ultimately strengthen Yaakov – perhaps because of the concept of all nations recognizing G-d in the time of the ultimate redemption.

Not only is it important to note that there was a blessing for Esav even outside of the Avrahamic family, but we should also notice Rivka’s attitude towards Esav even after this episode.  The Torah emphasizes that he was still very much her son (verse 42) and she, herself, makes sure to call Esav “your brother” when talking to Yaakov.  Rav Hirsch also points to the last time Rivka is mentioned in the Torah.  Her lasting legacy is that she was “the mother of Yaakov and Esav.”  (28:5)   Judaism is a religion which does not cast off the other religions.  We recognize that they, too, play an important role and can merit eternity in the World to Come. Ultimately, the entire world will embrace our G-d and the truth of our tradition.

Despite this recognition, Yaakov is now the one and only father of the Jewish people.  He has to lead in both the spiritual and the material realm.  This is quite a change for the “simple man who sat in tents.”  Last week we explained that the word “Vayeitzei” (28:10) which describes Yaakov leaving home to go find a wife, captures the fact that Yaakov had to forsake who he had been and develop a new self.   He left home with his new expanded role and had to function in that role in his dealings with the deceiving Lavan and in focusing on work for the next 20 years.  Our Parsha begins with Yaakov returning home.  He is once again entering the land of his fathers and the Promised Land.  We asked why he established contact with Esav.  Based on all of the above, perhaps we can understand as follows.  Yaakov had been suddenly thrust into the role of material father.  This could not have been easy for him.  He could have also been concerned that in dealing with Lavan for so many years, perhaps he went over the line with his involvement in that material world.  After all, as we saw in Esav, that is a precarious position and requires being able to perform a very delicate balancing act.  How could Yaakov insure that he re-entered Israel with his dual leadership role while retaining the proper balance on the material side? 

Perhaps Yaakov felt that it was essential for him to encounter Esav one more time.  He had to see and experience the person who went too far on the material side and lost that precarious and delicate balance.  That would give Yaakov a greater sense of how to re-establish himself in this role which still ran counter to his nature. This goal was worth the risk of violence from Esav for without establishing the proper balance and understanding of the material role, the developing nation could be led completely astray and away from its spiritual destiny.   

In actuality, the encounter which Yaakov initiated was extremely productive and successful.  Let us take a look at what occurred.  First, Eisav presents himself with 400 men – his army and his entourage displaying his power and strength. (33:1)  Yaakov, on the other hand, appears with his family – the company which truly matters to him.  In verse four they hug, kiss, and cry.  As Rav Hirsch points out, a cry cannot be fake.  These were sincere emotions which both of them felt for each other.  After all, they were brothers.  There is a teaching of our Sages that when Esav kissed Yaakov, this was actually a bite.  This does not necessarily mean that he literally bit him.  Rather, perhaps Yaakov noticed that the kiss of Esav, representing being in close contact with someone of Esav’s values, is actually a bite.  It is negative.  It can hurt a “Yaakov” spiritually.  By seeing Esav and his group, Yaakov learned not to ever get too close to “Esavs” when  interacting with the outside world in his new role as the nations’s material father.

The true lesson for Yaakov came when he and Esav commented on their individual possessions.  When Yaakov attempted to give Esav gifts, Esav commented, “I have a lot.” (verse 9)  The words “a lot” indicate that there is plenty but that there is room for more.  Yaakov, on the other hand, stated that what he has comes from G-d and that, “I have everything. ” (verse 11)  Yaakov was stating the philosophy that while he has to be involved in the physical world in his new role and while he has accumulated much wealth, the proper approach and balance is to recognize that whatever he has ultimately comes from G-d and that G-d will provide him with whatever he needs.  He should not be on a constant search for more which is an Esav-like ideology as Esav revealed in his statement.

Yaakov has gained immensely from this final encounter with Eisav.  At the end, the Torah records that Esav went “to his way” back to Seir.  He would continue to live according to the lifestyle he chose.  Yaakov left from there and, ultimately, “Yaakov arrived complete to the city of Shechem.” (33:18)  He now had a mastery over his dual role as the only leader of the nation.  Presumably, this level of “completion” and the balance he created for himself enabled him to react with restraint and in an “un-Esav-like” manner when his daughter, Dina, is subsequently raped in Shechem.

Now that we have the full story we understand why Yaakov felt compelled to contact Esav despite the risks.  We see how much he gained from this meeting and the significance this had to the future of our nation.

We can learn two important lessons from all of the above.  First of all, this story gives us insight regarding what our perspective should be towards the non-Jewish world.  We respect them, do not ignore them, recognize that they have a role in the world, are cautious in our dealings with them, and await the time when they will also recognize our G-d and the truth.  Even more importantly, we learn more about ourselves and our mission.  Yes, we must be spiritual people.  However, we must also involve ourselves with the material world.  We learn from Yaakov how careful we must be not to go too far when pursuing the latter.  There must be balance. We must make certain that our physical dealings serve to enhance our spiritual side rather than detracting from it.  If we strive to find this balance and take the necessary safeguards, we will be emulating our ancestor, Yaakov, who served as our father in both the spiritual and physical realms.