Counting Animals as Therapy

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21 Nov 2007

Holy and Secular – Everybody can imagine for himself how frightened he would be before a meeting with a brother who was a gangland leader, and who also had a serious grudge against him. “He has four hundred men with him. So Yaacov was very scared… He will strike me, mother and children.” [Bereishit 32:7-8,12]. Yaacov is in a very nerve-wracking situation, where he might easily lose control and bring about the very destruction of himself and his camp which he fears.

A state of fright can cause a person to freeze. Eastern culture recognizes a spiritual state called “stopping”. This is a spiritual form of paralysis, leading to a lack of receptiveness and the possibility of a great fall. In the art of fencing, there is a situation where a sword lifted up by one of the combatants captures the attention of his foe and thereby takes complete control of him. When we can free ourselves of our enemy’s threatening sword and no longer think about it, thus no longer having any interest in the contrast between him and us, we can raise up from within our own selves a movement that is completely free, which will lead us to victory.

The Torah tells us that Yaakov arranges for a gift for Esav “from whatever he had at hand” [32:14]. This corresponds to a state of pressure and a loss of control. Yaacov is evidently not free, he has lost control to his fear of Eisav. Yaakov cannot free himself of Esav’s sword, and he loses his own internal ability to decide what to do. He therefore gathers together a random group of animals which might be used to placate his brother, who has evil plans. But in the end the Torah gives us a well ordered list of the cattle which Yaakov sends to Esav: “Two hundred goats, twenty Billy goats, two hundred sheep, and twenty rams” [32:15].

The Torah is telling us that Yaakov started to organize his gift to Esav haphazardly, out of fear, but in the end he regained his composure and was able to free himself from Esav’s upraised sword. He was freed of the hypnotizing fear stemming from the sword, and he was able to concentrate on a well organized list of cattle, which he would send to his brother.

If Yaacov had not managed to free himself from the fear, it would have become a trap in itself. Eisav might have sensed Yaakov’s weakness and taken advantage of it, transforming the meeting with his brother into a great tragedy.

Reprinted with permission from Zomet Institute ( Translated from the Hebrew by Moshe Goldberg. To subscribe to receive the complete version of Shabbat B’Shabbato please write to

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.