A Drash for Vayishlach (5767)
by Marc Mangel
The story of when Yaakov met Esav seems to be obsequiousness heaped upon obsequiousness. Yaakov sends many gifts ahead and tells his servants that say they are to say to Esav “These are from your servant Yaakov…It is a tribute to my lord Esav…Your servant Yaakov is behind us”. Yaakov bows seven times when he meets his brother and refers to himself as “your servant” (33:5). Esav runs to Yaakov, weeps, and hugs him…and declines all the gifts because he, Esav, has plenty.
The Chazal are split on the behavior of Yaakov. Some feel [R. Huna, R. Judah ben Simon, Berishit Rabbah, Ramban] that Yaakov debases himself through appeasement of Esav (although Esav seems to harbor no grudge).
Others believe that Yaakov is a model for how Jews should behave in larger society. R. Judah HaNasi – codifier of the Mishnah – worked closely with the Romans and advocated diplomatic discretion when addressing authority, choosing to forgo honors to achieve practical ends. Sforno (an Italian 16th century commentator) contrasts Yaakov’s prudence with the behavior of the Zealots of the Second Temple Period and brings Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (the founder of Rabbinic Judaism, who was almost prevented from escaping by the Zealots) as proof text: “If not for what the zealots did, our Temple would not have been destroyed” (Gittin 56b).
I would like to offer a modern interpretation, based on the Dirah Bethactonim philosophy by the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, something that the Chazal could not have known. Remember that Yaakov and Esav are sons of Rivka – the great prophetess who is responsible for the development of the Jewish people through her actions. Perhaps during their years apart, each brother worked on his own spiritual development and behavior and came to recognize that every human being carries the essence of God. Not a manifestation or God or angels, but the true essence of God. [Indeed, we might surmise that it is essence of God within him that allows Yaakov to wrestle to a standstill with the angel the night before he meets Esva; but that is a different drash]. When they meet, they are now able to see behind and below their superficial differences, to their true essence.
We thus have two messages about our interactions with other people. Yochanan ben Zakkai, Judah Ha Nasi, and Sforno teach us that “bending like a reed is better than breaking like an oak” [Ta’anit 20]. Yaakov and Esav, through the Rebbe, teach us to look beyond the shell and see the essence of God in everyone.