This Week's Torah Portion: Jacob Returns Home

Dëvar Torah – Parashath VaYishlach (Genesis XXXII, 4-XXXVI, 43)

This week’s parasha begins with Ya‘aqov’s approach to Sé‘ir, where ‘Ésav had established the nation of Edom, on his way home to Eretz Yisra’él.


As he entered the country, he sent an embassy to ‘Ésav. The great 16th century commentator Rabbi ‘Ovadya Sforno tells us that the purpose of this delegation was intelligence gathering: “To know what was in his brother’s heart concerning what he would do to him.” As our parasha tells us, they returned with a chilling report: “We came to your brother, to ‘Ésav, and he is also moving toward you with four hundred men” (XXXII, 7).

The reason for his approach with such a formidable force (the Targum Yonathan calls them “400 polemarchin,” i.e. military officers, and the Midrah Tanchuma haQaddum vëhaYashan tells us that each was himself in charge of 400 men!) was, as Rashi explains, “for you were spying, he is my brother, but he is dealing with you like the evil ‘Ésav, he is still with his hatred.”

As a result of this ominous finding, the next verse tells us: “Ya‘aqov was very afraid.”

Now, we must bear in mind that Ya‘aqov was not returning to the Holy Land in a fit of homesickness. He was responding to a prophetic vision in which Ha-Shem had told him:

I am the G-d Who appeared to you at Béyth É-l, where you anointed a stone … now, arise, leave this country and return to the country of your birth (XXXI, 13).

During the vision which Ya‘aqov had experienced at Béyth É-l, to which the verse alludes, he was told, inter alia:

 And behold, I am with you, and I shall guard you wherever you go, and I shall return you to this land (XXVIII, 15).


Thus it is plain that Ya‘aqov had been assured both of Divine protection and of his personal, eventual return to the Holy Land. What was wrong? Did he have no faith in the Master of the Universe? What was he afraid of? 

Our parasha goes on to tell us that, impelled by the ill tidings of his ambassadors, Ya‘aqov made strategic preparations: he divided his family and property between two camps (XXXII, 9); he prepared a substantial gift for ‘Ésav (ibid., 14-20); and, having taken what practical action he could, he sought Divine succor in prayer (ibid., 10-13; cf. Rashi on XXXII, 9).

In the course of his prayer, Ya‘aqov says:

I am less than all the kindnesses and all the truth which You have done with Your servant (ibid., 11).

Rashi, following the Talmud (Shabbath 32a), explains his meaning:

My merits have been lessened by the kindnesses and the truth which You have done with me; therefore, I am afraid, lest since You promised me I have been defiled by sin, and that will cause me to be handed over to ‘Ésav.

This, then, was Ya‘aqov’s fear: Not that G-d wouldn’t keep His promise; rather, Ya‘aqov understood that promise to be conditional, not absolute, and the man of truth feared that a strict accounting of justice would find him wanting, that perhaps his “account” of merits was “overdrawn,” such that any small sin would suffice to put him over the edge. Perhaps ‘Ésav’s hostile approach signified that he was the instrument of Divine retribution.


If this is indeed the case, we can now understand what seems to be a dispute among the authorities of the midrash concerning Ya‘aqov’s embassy, which is also reflected in the commentaries.

In Bëréshith Rabba (LXXV, 2), we find Rav Huna disapproving of Ya‘aqov’s embassy:

“He who grabs a dog by the ears is a passer-by who involves himself in a quarrel not his (Proverbs XXVI, 17).” Said the Holy One, Blessed is He, to Ya‘aqov. He was going on his way and you sent to him, saying, “Thus has your servant Ya‘aqov said!”

And Rabbi Yëhuda bar Simon (ibid.) echoes:

“What will you say when He appoints over you — and you yourself have taught them about you — to be officers over you?” (Jeremiah XIII, 21) said the Holy One, Blessed is He, he was going on his way, etc.

In short, Ya‘aqov was inviting trouble by sending to ‘Ésav. He had not been sitting in wait for Ya‘aqov, after all; how did ‘Ésav know if or when he might come back to Eretz Yisra’él? Ya‘aqov could have slipped through Sé‘ir and been in the Holy Land without ‘Ésav seeing or hearing a thing. For someone who was afraid that “his merits had been lessened,” calling ‘Ésav’s attention to his presence seems a pretty foolhardy thing to have done.

The Ramban comes down on the side of Rav Huna and Rabbi Yëhuda bar Simon, writing: “And the Rabbis have already criticized him for this,” citing Rav Huna’s statement. He finds a parallel in later Jewish history:


And in my opinion this also indicates that we precipitated our own downfall at the hands of Edom, for the kings of the Second Temple period (the Chashmona’im) entered into a treaty with the Romans, and this was the reason for their downfall at the Romans’ hand.

If Ya‘aqov would suffer at the hands of ‘Ésav, he had brought it on himself.

But there is another view, also prominent in the midrash. Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi’, president of the Jewish community in Eretz Yisra’él under the Romans, once asked his secretary Rabbi Afes to write a letter to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Accordingly, Rabbi Afes drew up a letter with the salutation: “From Yëhuda the president to our lord Emperor Antoninus.”

When Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi’ read the salutation, he tore up the letter and bade Rabbi Afes write: “From your servant, Yëhuda.” Rabbi Afes remonstrated with him over thus debasing himself, and Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi’ retorted: “What, am I better than my ancestor? Did he not say, ‘Thus said your servant Ya‘aqov?’” (ibid., 6, cf. also Midrash Tanchuma, VaYishlach 3).

And Rabbi Yonathan says:

Anybody who wishes to placate a king or authority and does not know their ways and tactics should lay this parasha before him and learn from it the methods of appeasement and placation (ibid.).

Thus, this view would have it that Ya‘aqov’s approach to ‘Ésav was wise and prudent, and the Sforno seems to support this in his comment on Genesis XXXIII, 4:


Ésav’s heart was turned in a moment by Ya‘aqov’s humble pleadings, as we do in the exile with ‘Ésav’s descendants.

The two opinions are not necessarily contradictory, and this is suggested by the fact that the Ramban, too, in his introductory remarks to the parasha, considers it a model of diplomacy for Jewish leaders dealing with non-Jewish potentates. Viewed as shtadlanuth (“lobbying, intercession”), it surely can be argued, as the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash indeed do argue, that Ya‘aqov’s notifying ‘Ésav of his presence in Sé‘ir was imprudent, given ‘Ésav’s history of violence in general and enmity toward Ya‘aqov in particular. “Grabbing the dog by the ears,” to extend King Shëlomo’s metaphor, is a very good way to get bitten. However, Ya‘aqov’s handling of the situation to extricate himself from danger once ‘Ésav knew of his presence is a model for emulation, making the parasha a textbook of Jewish diplomacy for shtadlanim down through the ages, from Rabbi Yëhuda haNasi’ until today.

But Ya‘aqov was operating on a different level. Whatever the ups and downs of our relations with ‘Ésav’s descendants throughout our long and bitter exile, we must remember that ‘Ésav to Ya‘aqov was not some foreign potentate; he was his brother.

This goes far to explain why Ya‘aqov took the peculiar route that he did to return to the Holy Land, for he did not have to pass through Sé‘ir at all. Paddan Aram was comprised of the territory of northern Syria and northern Iraq. Ya‘aqov could easily have bypassed Sé‘ir and entered Eretz Yisra’él through the Golan and Galil. Instead, his course bypassed the Jordan River on the east, rounding the Dead Sea to enter through the Negev, deliberately exposing himself to danger from ‘Ésav. Why? The Ramban’s explanation that this was the most direct route to where Yitzchaq was seems insufficient in and of itself.


‘Ésav may have been, as the ambassadors reported back, “still with his hatred,” but Ya‘aqov’s feelings were very different. He had instructed his delegation to tell ‘Ésav, inter alia, “I have sent to find my lord, to find favor in his eyes,” and Rashi elaborates: “for I am at peace with you and seek your love.”

This, in my humble opinion, is what the Ramban is hinting at in relating Ya‘aqov’s course to his father’s location in the Negev: that Ya‘aqov wished to be able to tell his father of his reconciliation with his brother.

Herein lies the lesson for us, for we too have brothers like ‘Ésav — fellow Jews estranged from Torah, ignorant of Torah. Especially in Israel, but unfortunately increasingly elsewhere, they are being influenced by a flood of spiteful, anti-religious propaganda being issued by a numerically tiny group of ideologues to fear and disdain those who, by the grace of G-d, have remained shëlomei enunei Yisra’él, loyal to Torah. How to reach them? In Ya‘aqov we have our model.

First and foremost, as a group and as individuals, religious Jews cannot allow hatred on the part of others to affect them. We must be willing to take risks, to meet and talk and gently correct misconceptions and alleviate ignorance. We must send “gifts,” demonstrating concern for all aspects of our brothers’ welfare (such as the tremendous qiddush Ha-Shem, sanctification of G-d’s name, by such general charities run by religious Jews as Yad Sarah and Ezra laMarpeh, two names which should be familiar to almost anyone in Israel). We must be prepared to fight the propagandists, when necessary. And all of this must be accompanied by our heartfelt prayers.


Exactly as Ya‘aqov prepared to meet his brother.


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