Vayishlach is in a word, huge. At 153 verses it covers an extremely wide field of events. It recounts Yaakov’s return to Eretz Israel, his wrestling match with an angel, his interaction with Esav, the story of Dinah bat Leah (the only recorded daughter of the Patriarchs), and the death of Rachel.
While I look forward to many years of pouring over and interpreting/re-interpreting this parsha; I’d like to focus on one aspect, the interaction between Yaakov and Esav. Their interaction begins long before they say a single word to each other.
וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּוֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּאן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת׃
“Yaakov was greatly frightened; in his distress, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps”,
Rashi interprets that verse ויירא…ויצר HE FEARED GREATLY AND WAS DISTRESSED — He was afraid lest he be killed, and he was distressed that he might have to kill someone (Genesis Rabbah 76:2).
My goal in my drashim this year is largely to see what real life connections we can pull out of each week’s parsha. And when I read this passage this year, it reminded me of the fear and distress facing the Jewish community today. Esav is often the “bogeyman” of Rabbinic literature, standing in symbolically for any enemy of the Jewish people. The Rabbis link him to Rome, and Targum Sheni lists him as the progenitor of Haman. In Talmud Bava Batra he is listed as a murderer and a rapist. Modern Rabbis often call Esav a “terrorist”. We see ample reason for Yaakov to be afraid. However we see some extraordinary care taken by Yaakov that seems to go beyond merely fear. Let’s explore this interaction.
Yes, Yaakov has reason to fear Esav, however, we see in his wrestling an angel and winning that the yeshiva boy is no slouch physically either. Yaakov however makes every attempt to avoid killing. He sends his brother gifts in waves thinking if Esav’s anger can be abated we can avoid bloodshed. This is not an endorsement of appeasement or a condemnation of self-defense, but a reiteration that all of humanity are made in b’tzelem Elokhim, and as such any reasonable effort to avoid ending a life must be made.
Thankfully the reunion between the twins is a peaceful one. Esav even acceding that the blessing belongs to Yaakov (at least in Rashi’s interpretation). However, even with the reconciliation, Yaakov still remains cognizant of who Esav is. He does not want to follow to Seir fearing both the violence and negative influence of his brother on his children. As stated in Pirkei Avot 1:7, “Nittai Ha’arbeli says: Distance yourself from an evil neighbor, [so that you not learn from his deeds, and, also, so that you not share in his downfall, for “Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor!”], a…”. So what does he do? He gives the first recorded instance of the “Seattle no”. For those who have never heard of this, it’s when you see someone you have not seen for awhile, they say you should get together sometime, and you answer, “Yes, we should do that sometime.” Without giving any firm answer on a when or what.
Before he distances himself though, he starts by testing Esav. My interpretation is that this is a gauge of if/how Esav has changed, and where his priorities lie. As we can see from both Talmud and Halacha, we want to distance from an evil neighbor, but the condemnation of a person relies on the testimony of at least 2 witnesses. So Yaakov makes 3 arguments. That he cannot go fast on account of the children, then on behalf of the animals, then he implies a material loss
First we talk about the children. If Esav has become a true mensch, that should be enough to explain why he can’t go faster. Children can only walk so fast. THere should be no argument from a caring person to Yaakov’s statement. However, children can be carried. This is the first level of testing because while a developed sensitivity to human suffering would quell any objections, there is a practical solution that can be acceptable to those with lower sensitivity. We can extrapolate from Yaakov’s need to continue that this argument did not work.
Next he brings up the animals. “The flocks and herds which are nursing are a care to me. (Gen 33:14 JPS) Yaakov first implores on an emotional level for the animals. Often psychologically, even if a person shows sociopathic tendencies towards people, they may still show compassion to animals. On top of that there is no immediate retort for this, you can carry the children, but you can’t carry the animals. THis is our second test, because though human suffering is a higher sensitivity than animal, the lack of solution to this should be self evident, and be sufficient reason to accept Yaakov’s objections. Yet, again, Yaakov needs to go on, showing that Esav fails again.
His final step, materialism. “If I push them (the animals) they will all die.”. Esav accepts. Materialism is what moves Esav. The children? Tough. Cruel to the animals? Tough. You’ll suffer a material loss? Well, that’s different. Only this loss moves Esav to accept Yaakov’s suggestion. One only needs to see the chaos caused by black friday to see the effects of concentrated materialism on the mind and the soul.
Now what does this teach us? On the surface, the quote from Pirkei Avot seems exclusive, and against our welcoming nature and mitzvot. However, when viewed through a halachic lense, we should remember that we welcome anyone, but we must also be safe, and determine if this person matches our values. Not necessarily observance, but values. If a person’s concern is about people, if they care for animals, if they value family, you can join to build that which cannot be built alone, community. If their only concern is the material, you may contribute, you may be the best friend in the world, but once you no longer present a material benefit, they will lose interest, and despite your best efforts, community will not thrive.