Question: In L’David Hashem Ori – which we recite from the beginning of Elul until Shemini Atzeret – we read the following: “Bikrov alay me’re’im le’echol et besarai – When evildoers approach me to devour my flesh.” Why does the verse use the word “me’re’im”? Why not use “resha’im” or “anashim ra’im” instead?
Summary of our response up to this point: The description of King David’s yearning for closeness with Hashem in L’David Hashem Ori, plus allusions to returning to Hashem, make this psalm a very suitable conclusion to our prayers at this time of year.
In Genesis 32:12, we find Jacob afraid as he prepares to confront Esau, and so he prays to Hashem: “Rescue me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him lest he come and strike me down, mother and children.” Rashi comments that Jacob repeats himself – “from the hand of my brother, from…Esau” – because Esau’s behavior towards him was not that of a brother, but rather that of the notably wicked Esau.
But why was Jacob’s afraid? Did he distrust Hashem’s tripartite promise to the patriarchs that their progeny will become a great nation?
Last week we discussed another person who expressed doubt before Hashem. King David proclaims his piety in Psalms 86 but doubts whether he will merit the World to Come in Psalms 27. R. Yose (in Berakot 4a) explains that David thought he might be excluded from the World to Come due to some sin he may have committed.
Similarly, Jacob feared that perhaps some sin would make him unworthy of being the recipient of Hashem’s promise. He did not doubt Hashem’s ability to save him from Esau; rather, he doubted whether he deserved to be rescued.
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We return to Rashi’s explanation of Jacob’s words. Jacob prayed (Genesis 32:12): “Hatzileini nah miyad achi miyad Esav ki ya’rei anochi oto pen yavo ve’hikani em al banim – Rescue me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, lest he come and strike me down, mother and children.” Rashi explains that by repeating himself – “from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau” – Jacob is really saying, “Rescue me from the hand of my brother whose behavior is not that of a brother but is rather that of the wicked Esau.”
It is difficult to understand, though, why Jacob referred to someone as wicked as Esau as being his brother since doing so would seemingly reflect poorly on both his father and grandfather, implying some blemish in them!
The Ohr HaChayim, too, finds great difficulty in Rashi’s explanation. He asks: Why did Jacob need to repeat the word “miyad – from the hand of”? Had he said, “Rescue me from the hand of my brother, from Esau,” he still would have been repeating himself and we still could have expounded that what he truly meant to say was, “Rescue me from the hand of my brother whose behavior is not that of a brother but is rather that of the wicked Esau.” After all, surely Jacob didn’t need to specify that Esau was his brother in this entreaty.
Perhaps, argues the Ohr HaChayim, Jacob understood that as an adversary, Esau possessed two qualities that could serve him well. First was the merit of being the son of Isaac (and the grandson of Abraham). Second was his great strength. To counter these threats, Jacob felt he needed great strength to rescue himself and his family and prayed that Esau’s zechut avot – the merit of his forefathers – not protect him.
The Ohr HaChayim offers two other explanations, the second of which also brings the message home quite clearly. Jacob meant to proclaim: Can one find greater wickedness than someone who seeks to murder his own brother? Furthermore, Esau is someone whose overall wickedness is well known, and therefore a righteous person should not fall before him.
However, it is from his first explanation that we might infer the following: Jacob knew very well of Hashem’s promise to Abraham and Isaac (and to him). However, he also remembered that Isaac originally intended to give the blessings to Esau, leaving Esau the recipient of that promise. While it is true that Jacob was also made the same promise, he thought the possibility existed that the promise could nevertheless be fulfilled through Esau and his progeny. Thus, Jacob had something to fear and thus entreated Hashem.
Now, just as “achi – my brother” takes on a whole new meaning in Jacob’s prayer, so, too, the word “me’re’im – evildoers” in L’David Hashem Ori might take on an alternate meaning and be read as “me’re’im – from friends.” If we translate this word that way, King David is telling us the following: that we must be careful – perhaps even more careful than usual – to protect ourselves from friends who seek our harm.
Now why would a friend wish us harm? Perhaps he is a friend (or someone whose company we enjoy) who seeks to entice us to join in some sort of transgression. Alternatively, perhaps “friend” refers to that very dear “friend” that one acquires in one’s earliest youth, namely the yetzer hara. This is an even tougher situation than Jacob encountered; Jacob only had to meet his brother Esau at a particular occasion while the yetzer hara is a companion who is constantly at our side.
Thus, had King David used the word “reshaim – wicked ones” or “anashim ra’im – evil people” instead of “me’re’im” in the verse “Bikrov alay…,” we wouldn’t have learned this additional lesson that one must be on guard from “friends” who constantly seek our harm. It is precisely during this period – from the beginning of Elul until Shemini Atzeret – when we concentrate our efforts on teshuvah and zero in on overcoming our greatest obstacle in that path: the yetzer hara, who comes in the guise of a friend.
May it be His will that we merit our deliverance and witness the glory of our rebuilt Temple and Jerusalem speedily in our days.
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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