OU Torah Insights ProjectParshat Vayishlach
More than any other Patriarch, Yaakov Avinu is blessed with detailed coverage of his life in the Torah. From his prenatal condition through his adolescence and into young manhood he is forced to struggle with his contentious brother Eisav. He survives by his wit.
Heeding his mothers counsel, Yaakov contends for Yitzchaks blessing, an act that brings forth the savage rage of his brother Eisav. Yaakov flees for his life. He seeks refuge and finds a bride in the home of his uncle, Lavan, in Syria.
Some twenty years later, after working for many years as an indentured servant to Lavan, Yaakov concludes a "final agreement" on boundaries and a "peace process" with his uncle. Yaakov, perhaps flushed with success, begins his inevitable journey home to his father, Yitzchak. He sends a diplomatically couched message to his brother: "Im coming home." Traditional gifts are sent in the age-old Middle Eastern tradition but to no avail- Eisav and his army of four hundred are approaching.
Yaakovs game plan, as described in the Midrash, comprises three steps: gifts to Eisav, prayer to G-d, and, preparation for war. Yaakov is still reluctant warrior. Reviewing his strategy, Yaakovs mind-set is defensive. He divides his camp in half to allow at least some of his family to escape in the event of a tragedy.
As for his prayer, Yaakovs moving plea seems not to receive an immediate response from the Almighty. Yet an amazing providential event follows. Yaakovs family fords the Yabok river and in the dark night, Yaakov remains alone on the other bank. He faces a mighty struggle through the night with physical, spiritual and psychological ramifications.
The Rambam describes the encounter with Eisavs angel as a pre-confrontation prophecy. This was the moment of truth that Yaakov avoided for over twenty years. It resulted in the emergence of a new personality - that of a willing contender, rather than that of a committed dodger. The angels blessing of Yaakovs new name, Yisrael, represents a spiritual metamorphosis; a new emergence of his personality, a realignment of his psycho-genetic essence.
When he ultimately does confront his older brother, Eisav embraces him. What brought about this gesture? Obviously, Eisavs four hundred men were not meant to be an honor guard. For a committed anti-Semite to embrace a Jew requires a psychological investigation. Permit me then to suggest the following: psychological aggressive transference may occur when the subject is confronted with trauma.
Over the passage of twenty years, Eisav obviously harbored an image of his brother that fueled his hatred and nurtured the emerging ideology of prejudice which became a foundation stone in his personality. Yaakov became bigger than life itself. Eisav viewed him as the villain, the robber of his birthright, the conniving socio-religious climber who would manipulate a blind father into bestowing upon him blessings. Eisav felt cheated and his hatred festered. But as Divine providence guided this encounter, Yaakov emerged from the angelic combat maimed, and he limped as a result of the damage to his thigh.
This was not the Yaakov that Eisav remembered or that he perceived in his minds eye. Yaakovs presence did not match the caricature of evil, the shylock, the fagin. The new image confronting Eisav was Yaakov the refugee from Lavan. His appearance evoked pity and remorse. Eisav was in shock! one can almost imagine Eisavs comment; "My poor brother Yaakov, a cripple, look what my miserable uncle inflicted on him. If Lavan was here, I would tear him limb from limb." Liberated from his hatred, Eisav runs to embrace Yaakov; his anger by trauma has been transferred to Lavan.
Lesson: The world of Eisav is ready to accept the Jew as a refugee, as a victim of the Holocaust, but G-d prefers Israel as the emerging Jew, for even his limp is cured as he reenters the land of Israel. "Vayavo Yaakov Shaleim - and Yaakov arrived complete" - complete in his health, complete in his wealth, and complete in his knowledge of Torah.
Rabbi Dr. S. Zevulun Lieberman
Rabbi Lieberman is rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah in Brooklyn, New York.