After being away from home 34 years (twenty years dwelling with Laban, and fourteen years studying in the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber), Jacob begins his journey back to the Land of Israel. As Jacob advanced toward Israel with his family and entourage, Esav advanced toward him and there were ‘four hundred men with him.’ Jacob prays, sends messengers with gifts for Esav, and then prepares also for war He was hoping that Esav may have forgiven him after all this time. But his messengers inform him that Esav is approaching with ‘400 men.’ The verse then says: ‘That Jacob was both frightened and distressed.’ Why the repetition? Rashi says that he was ‘frightened’ that he may be killed, but also ‘distressed’ that he may have to kill Esav.
Our Sages teach that the proper way to approach a potential war (enemy) is first to pray for peace and the wisdom to negotiate a successful outcome, then to send gifts to the aggressor to hopefully avoid war, and then to arm for battle. Jacob divides his people, and possessions into two camps, so if one is attacked the other may survive. Peace is always our fondest hope. And he acknowledges that entering war not only creates the fear of defeat and death, but also poignantly the distress of having to kill another. This is very painful to a spiritual soul.
At night he takes his wives and his eleven children and crosses the ford (river) of Yabbok. He has them cross over the river with their possessions and he remains alone on the other side of Yabbok. Perhaps to protect them from Esav. Some commentators suggest the word Yabbok is very similar to the word Yaakov (Jacob) and that it intimates that he was ‘crossing over into himself.’ He had reached a stage where his soul was ready for transformation (A night Journey of the soul). The time was ripe for him to overthrow his fear and adaptive trickster personality to evolve into his higher destiny of Israel. At that point, the Torah tells us that he meets a man/angel, and they wrestle till the break of dawn. This wrestling is generally viewed as a symbolic struggle or a Prophetic vision. Is Jacob still filled with fear and the impulse to run away or is he now finally ready to face his fears, leave his ‘trickster’ defense, and grow into a higher being with nobler ideals, on the eve of his dramatic confrontation with brother Esav. As he struggles with changing his behavior pattern from trickster and one who runs away, his name is changed from Jacob (Trickster) to Yisrael ( the one who strives with G-d). The angel wounds him in his thigh so that he cannot run away again, but must now face his new destiny, as the one who struggles with G-d, or the one who sings to G-d, or the one whose soul is now oriented toward the one who engages in righteous and just behavior. It is a numinous moment, a progression to becoming ‘the very one he was meant to be,’ recognizing, and choosing his destiny; a new name symbolizing a new path.
He must now face Esav as the morning dawn has come. When they finally meet, Esav runs up to Jacob, falls on his neck and kisses him, and they both weep. And here we have two divergent views in the Rabbinic traditions attitude toward Esav. One attitude leads to peace and reconciliation between enemies, and one remains eternally distrustful of Esav and does not imagine that he has the capacity to change. (‘Esav will always hate Jacob’).
The latter Rabbinical view says that Esav was trying to bite (‘nashko’) Jacob on his neck, and that Jacob’s neck turned to marble, so Esav cried because he hurt his teeth while Jacob cried out in fear. These Rabbis see the old Esav. But other Rabbis took the view that after all these years there had been a true change in Esav’s character and the kiss was sincere, and the weeping was a show of true reconciliation on the part of both brothers.
The Rabbis that feel that Esav cannot change continue their point of view as they observe the text. We read that Esav offers to accompany Jacob , but Jacob declines saying that he’ll be too slow with the children and flocks. Esav then offers to leave a company of his men to escort Jacob , which Jacob also refuses.
These Rabbis say that these offers were only for Esav’s own purposes, and the escort would have stolen from Jacob . The Rabbis also indicate that Jacob declined the offer because he did not want his family exposed to Esav’s bad influence. This negative view continues throughout history with the dictum that ‘Esav will always hate Jacob.’ (‘Eisav Soneh et Yisrael’). It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, expecting the worst and never being open to the possibility of change, creating negative energy on both sides. This Rabbinic opinion transformed the complex character of Esav into the archetype of the villain who appears throughout history whose intent is to destroy the Jews.
Of course, there is an alternate understanding of this Rabbinic Esav which I believe is crucial to take hold of for us to create a more peaceful world. True, the young Esav was no saint impetuously selling his birthright for fast food (Gen. 25:33). And the seed of revenge does enter his mind when Jacob deceives his father to receive the firstborn blessings from Isaac (Gen. 27:41).
But then 20 years later, when Esav can exact revenge on his brother what does he do? He runs to embrace his brother; he kisses him, and he cries (Gen. 33:4). It is simply inconceivable to a second group of Rabbinical commentators that Jacob is the same old manipulator. They imagine and proclaim that after 20 years of soul-searching, Esav has matured into a respectable human being. They acknowledge the capacity for change, and that even Esav is capable of Teshuva and new understanding; they proclaim that brothers CAN reconcile; that forgiveness can be achieved, for anger and hatred poisons one’s soul.
One consequence of following the Rabbis who claim that Esav never changes is that we have internalized Jacob’s fears and continue uncharitable judgments towards ‘the other.’ When Jacob’s messengers tell Jacob that Esav is coming toward him with 400 men, he panics and assumes that Esav is coming to destroy him (Gen. 32:7-8). Thus, the cautious Rabbinic commentators align with Jacob’s mentality before his numinous night journey /encounter with the angel of G-d. They see him as one still filled with a fear/trickster mentality and conclude that the prudent response to all adversaries who contain even fragments of hostility is to be on guard and not trust them.
An alternate reading of our Torah text by other rabbinic commentators recognizes that the text does not say that Esav’s men were armed; it just says that he was accompanied by 400 men. Surely, the messengers would have conveyed that vital piece of information if they were indeed armed. This group of commentators including Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, who looked at the literal passages in the Torah, rather than reading in their own historical contexts, and the gentiles that surrounded them. They say that Jacob had sent messengers to seek Esav’s favor Gen. 32:6 and Esav responded favorably by coming with a large greeting party to show Jacob his happiness, respect, and love. Moreover, a further indication of their reconciliation is that both Jacob and Esav attend their father Isaac’s funeral and bury him together. (Gen.,35:29).
May we all find the courage and discernment to allow for growth and forgiveness so that we can forge peace with previous enemies and make a world worthy of the Messiah. May Jacob and Esav find the capacity for peace and love in our time, so that our energies are free to reach the highest potential that we are each capable of, to discover the G-d within and the
G-d’s Grace in abundance in all the beauty of our creation.
Have a blessed, uplifting Shabbat, and may Jacob’s angel meet you and guide you to the beauty that you are meant to share in this world! Amen!