Parshat Vayishlach: Esav’s Lack of Brotherly Love

“Save me now from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav. For I fear him. Lest he come and strike me ­ even mother and children.” (Beresheit 32:12)

Yaakov travels back to his father’s home. He must pass near the land of Edom and encounter Esav. Yaakov fears this encounter. He prays to Hashem to deliver him from the hands of Esav, his brother. In our passage, there is a superfluous phrase. Yaakov beseeches Hashem to save him “from the hand of my bother, from the hand of Esav.” It would have been sufficient for Yaakov to refer to his adversary with one of these descriptions. He could have simply referred to him as Esav or as his brother. Why does Yaakov use both descriptions? Although this is a minor problem, it provides an important insight into Yaakov’s concerns. Rashi comments that Yaakov is noting that Esav is his brother. But he does not treat him as a brother. Instead, be behaves towards Yaakov as Esav the wicked. These comments are helpful. However, they do not provide a complete explanation of Yaakov’s intentions.

Yaakov is praying to Hashem for rescue. Why does he stress Esav’s lack of brotherly love? Ohr HaChayim offers a number of explanations of Rashi’s comments. A simple explanation is that Yaakov is appealing to the Almighty on two grounds. First, Yaakov is praying that Hashem consider the assurances He had given him. Hashem had told Yaakov that He would bless him. Second, he is appealing to the Almighty to not allow the wicked to succeed. In our pasuk, Yaakov is appealing to Hashem on this second basis. This appeal requires Yaakov stress the evil of Esav. In our pasuk, Yaakov outlines two aspects of Esav’s wickedness. He asks to be saved from Esav. Esav is a name associated with evil. Through this name, Yaakov refers to Esav’s various immoral behaviors. Furthermore, he asks to be saved from his brother. This phrase makes reference to an additional aspect of Esav’s corruption. Even an evil individual identifies with and has compassion for family members. But Esav seeks to commit fratricide. Yaakov is describing Esav’s wickedness. He beseeches Hashem not to allow such evil to triumph.

Bais HaLeyve ­ Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Ztl ­ offers another explanation of our passage. He begins by noting that actually the passage contains two superfluous phrases. The passage describes Yaakov’s adversary as his brother and as Esav. The pasuk also uses the phrase “from the hand of” twice. This is a second redundancy in the passage. Bais HaLeyve explains our pasuk through analyzing the entire encounter between Yaakov and Esav. Yaakov succeeds in appeasing Esav. Esav is overcome with brotherly compassion. He abandons any desire to destroy his brother. Instead, Esav offers to accompany Yaakov to their father’s home. Yaakov resists this suggestion. Eventually, he convinces Esav to allow him to proceed alone. Why did Yaakov resist Esav’s offer of assistance? One explanation is that Yaakov was afraid Esav might experience a change of heart. He was not certain that Esav’s brotherly behavior would last. He felt it was best to distance himself from Esav. His brother might reconsider his kindness. Rashi suggests this explanation. Bais HaLeyve suggests an alternative explanation for Yaakov’s resistance. He explains that Yaakov had two fears regarding Esav. The first was that Esav would treat him as an enemy and try to destroy him. The second was that Esav would treat him as a brother and try to develop a relationship between their families. Esav’s camaraderie was as threatening as his anger. Yaakov recognized Esav’s corruption. He knew that this immorality could influence his own family. He wanted to insulate his family from this influence. Therefore, he was eager to avoid any unnecessary contact with Esav. This explains our passage. The use of the phrase, “from the hand of” twice in the pasuk indicates that Yaakov was praying for salvation from two evils. One evil is expressed in the name Esav. Esav hated Yaakov and was eager to destroy him. Yaakov asked to be saved from Esav’s aggression. Second, Yaakov prayed to be saved from his brother. This description refers to a second threat. Esav may act towards Yaakov as a brother. This also presents a danger. Yaakov asked Hashem to be saved from both perils.

“And he gave each individual flock into the hands of his servants. And he said to his servants, ‘Pass before me. And place a distance between the flock.” (Beresheit 32:17)

Yaakov travels back to his father’s home. He approaches an encounter with Esav. He had fled his home many years earlier to escape Esav. He knows that he must appease his brother’s anger. He prepares an elaborate and impressive gift for Esav. The gift is composed of flocks of various animals. Each flock includes both males and females. The proportions are determined by the breading requirements for each species. For example, the flock of goats included two hundred males and twenty females. For the forty cows, Yaakov provided ten males. The number of males was designed to maximize the growth of the herd. Yaakov provided his servants with detailed instructions for the delivery of the gift. He told the servants to place a distance between the flocks of the various species. Yaakov was very concerned with this instruction. He actually required the shepherds, guiding the various flocks, to pass before him. This allowed him to personally monitor the distance between the flocks. Why was Yaakov concerned with the distance between the flocks? The commentaries offer various explanations. However, their comments share a common theme.

Yaakov designed his gift to impress Esav. He needed to placate Esav’s anger. He did not want to neglect any aspect of the gift’s design or presentation. Rashi maintains that Yaakov separated the flocks to increase the perception of size. How did the separation create this impression? An impression of size can be created in two ways. The first is to design a large gift. This approach has a disadvantage. The recipient of the gift may evaluate the size differently than the person giving the gift. The second approach is to design a gift that is too large for the recipient to see and evaluate. This approach does not depend upon the recipient’s evaluation of the size. The recipient cannot begin to evaluate the gift. Yaakov adopted this second approach. Yaakov did not want Esav to be able to observe the entire gift in one glance. In other words, the procession extended beyond the limit of Esav’s vision. Sforno offers another explanation. Yaakov had been careful to provide a specific ratio of males to females for each species. This was done to assure maximum breeding and growth of the flock. This attention to detail would only be of value if recognized by Esav. Yaakov did not want the flocks to intermingle. He wanted Esav to be able to observe the detailed planning of the gift. Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra notes another element of the presentation that Yaakov carefully planned. He explains that Yaakov was concerned with the impression made by his servants. He knew that Esav was jealous of Yaakov and felt threatened. The servants could inadvertently heighten these insecurities. These servants were loyal to Yaakov. They might be reluctant to pay homage to a stranger hostile to their master. Therefore, Yaakov carefully communicated to his servants that he, himself, regarded Esav as his master. He hoped that the servants would duplicate the attitude of their master.

There is an additional issue that should be considered. Yaakov told his servants to refer to the gift as a mincha. This term is also used for the grain offerings sacrificed in the Temple. Sefer HaChinuch explains that the term mincha means a small gift. Most offerings in the Bait HaMikdash consisted of animals. Compared to these sacrifices, the grain offering is a modest gift. Therefore, it is called a mincha. Why would Yaakov tell his servants to describe his gift as a mincha? His gift was large and elaborate. It seems that Yaakov was communicating a message to Esav. True, the gift was large and elaborate. Nonetheless, the gift was a modest present. Yaakov was telling Esav that he held him in great esteem. Relative to his high regard for Esav, the offering was only a modest token. We can see from all of these precautions and directions an aspect of Yaakov’s greatness. In order to succeed in his plan, he could not be deterred by personal pride. He needed to appeal to Esav’s ego. He could not do anything that might awaken Esav’s insecurities and jealousy. Most people could not carry out such a plan. Our personal pride and ego would not allow us to act subservient. Only a person who is very secure can succeed in such circumstances. A secure person knows that one’s self-worth is not determined by the perceptions of others. It is a consequence of our real substance. Yaakov had this security. This quality allowed him to develop and carry out a successful strategy.

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Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:12.

Rabbaynu Chaim ibn Atar, Commentary Ohr HaChayim on Sefer Beresheit 32:12.

Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 33:14.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Bais HaLeyve ­ Commentary on the Torah, Parshat VaYishlach.

Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:15.

Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 202.

Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:17.

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 32:17.

Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 32:5.

Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 116.