Rabbi Yaacov Haber's
drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Shabbat Vayishlach, 5747 (1986),
and transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker.
The entire series has been published in a book
titled "Reachings" and can be ordered by
Comments and questions are always
In this week's parsha we read about the fateful
meeting between Jacob and Esau. Jacob, on learning that Esau is approaching with four
hundred men, "was very afraid and distressed" (Gen. 32:8), fearing that Esau
might want to kill him for his previous behavior over the birthright and their father's
We may ask: What did Jacob have to fear? Where was his faith? Wouldn't G-d protect him
from his brother, he being much more righteous?
An answer is given in the Daas Zekeinim Mibaalei Tosafos (an old commentary on the
Chumash). It says that what Jacob feared was the merit that Esau had gained due to his
observance of the mitzva of honoring his father and mother. Jacob, remember, had
lived for the last twenty years with Laban, away from his parents, and had not had the
opportunity all that time of practicing this mitzva.
But then we may ask: Did Jacob really have to worry about this? Honoring one's parents is,
admittedly, an important mitzva, which Esau observed strongly; but surely Jacob had so
much merit from his observance of all the other mitzvas! In fact it says, a few
verses earlier, that Jacob told his messengers to tell Esau: "I have dwelt with
Laban" (Gen. 32:5), and Rashi notes that the letters of the Hebrew word
"garti" ("I have dwelt") can be rearranged to spell "taryag"
("613"), indicating that Jacob had managed to observe all 613 mitzvos, and doing
this, what is more, while staying with Laban -- not exactly an environment conducive to
What, then (to repeat), did Jacob have to be afraid of?
Many answers can be given to this, but I think the real answer is very simple. It is this:
Objectively speaking, Jacob had nothing to worry about. He was not in any danger: his
merits far outweighed Esau's. But his perspective was such that what he noticed most
clearly was his brother's one merit. His own merits were not in the forefront of his mind,
but that of his brother shone brightly.
In Pirke Avos (2:13), we read that when R' Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his disciples to go
and see which is the best quality to which a man should cling, his disciple R' Eliezer
answered: "A good eye". What he meant here was not, presumably, the ability to
read an optometrist's chart well, but the ability to see the good in a person or
Last week I was involved in finding out about someone from out of town for the purpose of
matchmaking. I telephoned someone who knew this person, and asked him for his opinion. He
gave me a blast of purely negative comments about various aspects of this person's
character. (This being one of the few occasions when lashon hara is permitted, he was
probably enjoying this, getting rid of a lot of frustration.) I then phoned someone else,
and asked him about this same person, and he responded with ten minutes of totally
positive comments! It was hard to believe that they were both talking about the same
individual. And yet there was a single person, who, we may assume, behaved the same way
with both my informants, and yet made such a different impression on each.
Who had the better perspective? People who come up with negative judgments often think
that they are cleverer than other people, and are sharp enough to see through false
impressions to the real truth. In fact, as we can learn from R' Eliezer, it requires just
as much cleverness and insight to arrive at a positive impression of a person or
This was Jacob's greatness: that although he had more reason than anyone else to view Esau
negatively (after all, as far as he knew, Esau was out to kill him), what he noticed most
clearly about Esau was his merit of honoring his parents, so much so that in his mind it
dwarfed all his own merits.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Rabbi Haber is the OU's National Director of Jewish
Education and the spiritual leader of the OU's Pardes
"A tree of life for those who
Send comments to Rabbi Haber at firstname.lastname@example.org
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