Vayishlach – Careful What You Say

At the end of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach we find the lineage of Esav. The Torah says: “And these are the kings who reigned in the Land of Edom before any king reigned over the Children of Israel” (Breishis 36:31). The Baal HaTurim explains why there were kings in Esav’s kingdom of Edom, before Yaakov’s Kingdom of Israel: “It is because Yaakov called Esav “my master” 8 times, therefore 8 kings reigned in his land before the Jews. Parallel to those 8 kings the Jews had 8 kings until Yehoram and in his day Edom sinned greatly.” (Click here and here for Hebrew text.)

The Medrish Rabba elaborates on the parallels in leadership between Esav’s nation of Edom and Yaakov’s nation of Israel: “Rebbe Yossi bar Chanina said that when Edom had kings Israel had judges and when Esav had alufim (princes) Israel had nesiim (princes). Rebbe Yehoshua ben Levi said Edom had 8 and Israel had 8, Edom had Bella, Yovav, Chusham, Hadad, Samla, Shaul, Baal Chanan, and Hadar. Israel also had 8, Shaul, Ish Boshet, Dovid, Shlomo, Rechavam, Aviah, Asa, and Yehoshafat. Nevuchadnetzar came and mixed all the nations together and got rid of all the kings… Evil Murdach came and gave Yehoyachin the leadership in Israel, then came Achashverosh and gave leadership to Haman [who is a descendant of Amalek from the lineage of Esav” (Breishis Rabba 83:2). (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Why would Yaakov calling Esav “my master” eight times cause Esav to have eight kings before Yaakov? The Daas Zekeinim says in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion: “That because Yaakov called Esav ‘master’ he was punished. Hashem said to Yaakov, ‘I said that the older one will serve the younger one and you call him ‘master’ 8 times, as we find in this perek, I swear that 8 kings will rule from Esav before any kings rule over Israel.’ This is what’s written at the end of the Torah portion, ‘And these are the kings who reigned in the Land of Edom before any king reigned over the Children of Israel.’” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

What did Yaakov do wrong? In the 9th category of flattery in The Gate of Flattery of Orchos Tzadikim it says: “It is permitted to honor the wicked only on the grounds of fear, fear that they will cause injury or loss at a time that they have the upper hand. It was thus permitted to honor them as men honor the powerful, out of fear and fright by standing, deferring, and the like, but it was not permitted to praise them, or to speak well of them to others.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)

Esav obviously had the upper hand, bringing with him 400 of his mightiest warriors against Yaakov, his wives and little children. The Torah mentioned that Yosef had some level of fear and trepidation upon meeting Esav; what then did Yaakov do wrong? Wasn’t he permitted to show respect to Esav under these circumstances?

It would seem that it was within reasonable hishtadlus (personal effort; i.e., versus reliance on the divine) for Yaakov to flatter Esav. But if one looks closely at the Daas Zekeinim, it was the manner in which Yaakov provided the flattery which was the problem. That is why he was punished. If Hashem said the older son will be serving the younger son (which Yaakov must have known about), then it was unbecoming to speak in a manner which would go against Hashem’s proclamation. Yaakov, despite all the stress and intimidation, still should have figured out a way to, while strategizing a plan of defense against Esav, somehow flatter him in a more appropriate manner.

For this reason, due to Yaakov calling Esav “my master” 8 times, which was contrary to Hashem’s proclamation of the brothers’ destiny, measure for measure, Esav’s descendants merited to have 8 kings before Yaakov’s descendants had any.