Yaakov adopts a subservient attitude towards Esav both prior to and during their fateful reunion. The patriarch initiates communication with his brother, repeatedly refers to Esav as “my lord,” plies his brother with gifts, bows down to him again and again and, in general, diminishes himself before his older brother.
Was Yaakov right or wrong in assuming this subservient posture towards his brother? Should a potential enemy be met with conciliation or strength? Where does diplomacy end and self-debasement begin?
Numerous commentaries are strongly critical of Yaakov’s approach to his brother. One source in the Midrash, for example, contends that Yaakov’s plan was flawed from the very outset: “Rav Huna applied the following verse: ‘One who passes by and meddles in strife that is not his own can be compared to an individual who takes a dog by the ears’…. God said to Yaakov: ‘[Esav] was going on his way and you dispatch a delegation?’”
Rav Huna maintains that Yaakov was unnecessarily asking for trouble simply by initiating communication with Esav. The patriarch should have quietly slipped back into the Land of Israel without alerting his brother.
Building on Rav Huna’s observation, the Ramban claims that the destructive potential of Yaakov’s behavior becomes tragically evident centuries later in Jewish history. During the period of the Second Temple, the Hasmonean kings of Judea repeat the patriarch’s mistakes when they willingly initiate and enter into a covenant with the Roman Empire. This covenant, contends the Ramban, invites the Romans into our lives, opens the door to Roman domination of Judea and directly leads to the subsequent downfall of the Second Jewish Commonwealth and to our nation’s exile from the Land of Israel.
The Ramban’s remarks acquire even greater poignancy in light of the rabbinic tradition which identifies the Roman Empire as the spiritual heir to Esav. The Talmud, Midrash and numerous other sources, including the Ramban himself, often refer to Rome as “Edom,” the biblical nation descended from Esav.
Another Midrashic source goes even further in its condemnation of Yaakov’s behavior. Noting that, during the encounter, Yaakov refers to his brother Esav by the title “my lord” no less than eight times, the rabbis state: “At the moment when Yaakov referred to Esav by the title ‘my lord,’ God proclaimed: ‘You have debased yourself and called Esav “my lord” eight times. By your life! I will establish from his descendants eight kings who will rule over their nation before even one king reigns over your children.’ As the Torah states: ‘And these are the kings who ruled in the land of Edom before a king reigned over the Children of Israel.’”
Finally, the Midrash Hagadol connects Yaakov’s obsequious approach to his brother to a series of disastrous losses eventually experienced by the Jewish nation. “Yaakov bowed to Esav seven times, therefore seven [cherished locations/institutions] were forcibly taken from [his children]: the Sanctuary, Gilgal, Shilo, Nov, Givon, the First Temple and the Second Temple.”
These sources and others not only condemn Yaakov’s behavior but see within that behavior seeds of disaster and tragedy that will affect his children across the ages.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those rabbinic authorities who not only defend Yaakov’s conciliatory approach to Esav but believe that the patriarch sets a skillful example of diplomacy which we are meant to follow.
Looming large in this camp is the major historical figure Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, editor of the Mishna (the first authoritative written compilation of Jewish Oral Law) and leader of the Jewish people in the Holy Land during the second century of the Common Era. Less than two centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple at the hands of the Romans, Rabbi Yehuda developed a friendship with the Roman emperor, Antoninus. The extensive Midrashic and Talmudic record concerning this fascinating relationship includes the following interchange between Rabbi Yehuda and his secretary, Rabbi Aphes:
“Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi said to Rabbi Aphes: ‘Write a letter in my name to his Majesty the Emperor Antoninus.’
“He [Rabbi Aphes] arose and wrote: ‘From Yehuda the Prince to his Majesty the Emperor Antoninus…’
“Rabbi Yehuda took the letter and tore it up. He then instructed [Rabbi Aphes] to write: ‘From your servant, Yehuda, to his Majesty the Emperor Antoninus…’
“He [Rabbi Aphes] objected: ‘Why are you debasing your honor?’
“Rabbi Yehuda responded: ‘Am I any better than my elder, Yaakov? Did not Yaakov say [to Esav]: “Thus says your servant, Yaakov…”?’”
Using Yaakov’s behavior towards Esav as a model, Rabbi Yehuda eschewed his own personal honor in his dealings with the Roman monarch. Through such diplomacy and discretion, Rabbi Yehuda maintained good relations with the Roman authorities and was able to protect the interests of the Jewish population under Roman rule.
For his part, the Sforno underscores approval of Yaakov’s behavior through a brief but telling reference to two Talmudic passages. He first cites the rabbinic observation concerning the curse pronounced by the prophet Ahiya the Shilonite: “The Lord will strike Israel as the reed is shaken in the water.” This curse is preferable, claim the Talmudic Sages, to the blessing of the evil sorcerer Bilam who prophesized that the Jews would be “as the cedars.” A reed survives by bending in the wind while a cedar stands firm and is uprooted. Yaakov’s example teaches us, says the Sforno, that we must be flexible enough to bend – to humble ourselves, in order to escape the sword of Esav’s descendents.
The Sforno goes on to quote the powerful claim of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, the architect of Jewish survival at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple: “Had it not been for what the zealots did (responding to the Romans with resistance rather than negotiation), Jerusalem would not have been destroyed.”
Finally, the Talmud itself frames the concept of diplomacy in halachic terms by simply stating: “It is permissible to offer false flattery to evildoers in this world.” Reish Lakish traces the source of this legal ruling directly to Yaakov’s behavior towards Esav.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch adds new depth to our understanding of Yaakov’s behavior towards Esav by contrasting this behavior with Yaakov’s earlier interactions with his father-in-law, Lavan.
Earlier, when Yaakov confronted Lavan’s deceit, the patriarch responded with strength rather than subservience. The contrasting conciliatory attitude that Yaakov now exhibits towards Esav, says Hirsch, stems from his own sense of guilt over his taking of the birthright and the blessing from his older brother: “Better to endure corruption and injustice for twenty years (as did Yaakov at the hands of Lavan) than stand one moment before an individual who we know has been injured by our hands and who is incapable of understanding the circumstances which…might mitigate our guilt.”
Yaakov can deal with the evil that Lavan represents. He has difficulty, however, confronting his own complex feelings of guilt as the reunion with Esav approaches. Even though he may have been justified in his actions towards Esav, Yaakov knows that his brother will never really understand.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.