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The Meeting of Esau and Jacob

{Originally posted to Rabbi Weinberg’s website, The Foundation Stone}

I was always taught this week’s portion from Jacob’s perspective, usually stressing the three steps he took to prepare for his first meeting in decades with his brother Esau; prayer, gifts, and battle preparations. I can’t help but wonder about Esau’s response to Jacob’s moves. The bottom line is that the murderous person we were all taught to believe Esau to have been, meets his brother with a hug and a kiss. Esau does not mention anything that Jacob did to him so long ago. He was certainly more forgiving than I would have been in similar circumstances. He does not call Jacob a liar, cheat, or thief. Esau handled the meeting with far more grace than most people manage an argument with a spouse. Not bad behavior for a person we are taught is one of the most evil biblical characters!

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Jacob sent significant messengers, angels, to offer gifts to Esau before their meeting. Jacob sent messengers. What did Esau think when he saw Jacob’s heavenly messengers? Was he impressed? Intimidated? Was Jacob sending a message that he had heaven on his side? Did Esau feel honored that Jacob sent angels to greet him?

I believe that Jacob was sending a message to his family and to us: Esau was of sufficient stature to merit angels to greet him. Jacob’s years in the house of the scoundrel Laban taught him how to view his brother from a different perspective. He began to appreciate Esau’s greatness, something no one else had ever done, not even Isaac! Their father loved Esau “because,” for a reason, for what Esau pretended to be. Jacob is the first to honor Esau for who he was. Jacob gave something to Esau of far more value than the blessings and birthright; he gave him kavod, honor for who he was.
Esau’s anger was assuaged. The meeting was a loving brotherly embrace concluding with eternal blessings from one brother to the other.

Jacob was teaching us to not view Esau as the personification of evil. Such a simplistic approach dilutes the titanic struggle over how to master this world. It leads us to quickly condemn those with whom we disagree. It blinds us from understanding the true nature of our enemies.

While we turn our attention to the clearly wicked terrorists who desire only to kill us, we ignore the sophistication of a long term strategy to test the world’s patience with Israel, to foster antisemitism, to strain the forbearance of Israelis who want to live normal lives. We latch onto simplistic approaches for confronting our enemies without an appreciation of, yes, their brilliance and planning.

“Kabdeihu v’Chashdeihu,” teaches the Talmud, or as President Reagan would say, “Trust, but verify.” Honor your enemies, meaning, respect their greatness. This, not the animals and cash, was the gift Jacob offered Esau; Kavod.

The battle of good and evil is never simplistic. The Internet is filled with non-kosher ideas and images: prohibit the Internet. The streets are filled with people dressed immodestly: prohibit children from walking on the streets. Are we so blind that we cannot see the potential of the Internet or recognize the temptation to be attractive? Banging our fists will not prepare us to battle destructive influences. A little Kavod, beginning with us, will go much further.

Ever wonder why we welcome angels into our homes on Friday night? They are the angels Jacob sent to Esau, angels of honor, angels that remind us to take advantage of our spiritual lives to nurture self-respect. Ever wonder why we mention Shabbat as “v’hachlitzeinu,” a source of empowerment? That is the point of Shabbat and all we do; to be sufficiently fortified and confident to confront our enemies with awareness and appreciation of their power and greatness. We don’t need to turn them into jokes to fight them; we only need to see our own greatness first.

Shabbat Shalom

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Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg, is founder and President of the leading Torah website, The Foundation Stone. Rav Simcha is an internationally known teacher of Torah and has etablished yeshivot on several continents.