“And Yaakov became very frightened, and it caused him much pain, and he split the nation that was with him, as well as the sheep, the cattle and the camels, into two camps.” – Bereishis 32:7
Yaakov Avinu received word that his brother Eisav was coming to greet him. He understood fully well that this was not to be a warm family reunion. Eisav came accompanied by a band of four hundred armed men, bent on revenge. The Torah describes Yaakov as “very frightened,” so he prepared for war.
The Rishonim are bothered by why Yaakov would fear Eisav. After all, Hashem had promised to return him to his father’s house in peace. Throughout the many years, Hashem was right there protecting him, guarding him, keeping the promise. Why should he now fear a mere mortal?
The Dos Zakainim answers that Yaakov was afraid of the “zechus of Eretz Yisrael.” For the previous twenty years, Eisav had been living in Eretz Yisrael while Yaakov had not. Therefore, Yaakov was afraid that if he engaged in mortal combat with Eisav, that merit might win the day for him, and Yaakov might die in battle.
This Dos Zakainim is difficult to understand on a number of levels. First, the reason Yaakov wasn’t in Eretz Yisrael was not that he had abandoned the land, but that he fled from Eisav. He spent the first fourteen years in the yeshiva of Shem, and then he worked for Lavan.
But even more pointedly, what possible merit could Eisav have from living in Eretz Yisrael? He wasn’t practicing Torah and mitzvos. Quite the opposite, he was a rasha. His entire existence was focused against holiness. Eretz Yisrael is a land that has an enormous amount of kedushah and cannot tolerate wickedness; it is highly sensitive to tumah. Eisav’s very presence in the land should have been intolerable. So what type of merit would he have from being in that land? It would seem the opposite. His many years of defiling that holy land should work against him, not for him.
The answer to this question can best be understood with a perspective on capitalism.
If a man owns a successful small business, he might do a million dollars a year in sales. But that is the gross revenue, not the amount he takes home. As a rule in business, 15 percent of revenues is a reasonable profit margin. So if his mark-ups are strong and his expenses are in line, he might bring in a net profit of $150,000. Eighty-five percent of the money he earns goes to expenses. And this illustrates an interesting phenomenon. While his only motivation may have been to earn a living for himself, he is providing a substantial gain to those he does business with. In this scenario, $850,000 of his efforts are going to vendors, suppliers, and employees. And while it may not be his intention, he is making a substantial contribution to the economy as a whole.
In the same sense, Eisav was engaged in the building of Eretz Yisrael. While his interests may have been strictly his own, he maintained sheep, owned fields, hired workmen and built fences. His efforts directly benefited the land. It was cultivated and improved because of him. And this was Eretz Yisrael, the land that Hashem chose as the site for the Jewish people to settle, the home of the eventual Beis HaMikdash. Its very ground is holy. While he may not have been a credit to the land, and may not even have felt an attachment to it, because of him the land was built up – and that is a great merit.
Yaakov did not in any sense think that Eisav had more merit than he did as a person. He was well aware of the different lives they led. But Yaakov understood that Eisav had a tremendous zechus: he was responsible for building the land, and because of this Yaakov was afraid. In times of danger a particular merit can stand up for a person, and that can change the outcome of a confrontation.
We Don’t Belong Here
This concept is very relevant to our lives. While we patiently await imminent coming of Mashiach, one of the concepts that must be in the forefront of our minds is that we are in a foreign country. We don’t belong in chutz l’aaretz. It isn’t our home. While the United States is one of the most benevolent lands that has ever offered us residence, a Jew doesn’t belong in Brooklyn. When we build up this land, whether with palaces or impressive businesses, we are building other people’s land.