Vayishlach – Unhinged Vs. Leaders and Police

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Yaakov engages with his brother Esav in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach. The Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer (chapter 37) depicts the unhinged personality of Esav: “When Yaakov went to enter the land of Canaan, Esav came to meet him from Har Seir, fuming with great rage, to kill him as it says, “The wicked man plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him” (Tehillim 37:12). Esav said, I will not kill my brother with bow and arrow, rather I will kill him with my mouth and suck out his blood, as it says “Esav ran to meet him and he hugged him and fell on his neck, and kissed him, and cried” (Breishis 33:4). Don’t read the word as וישקהו, and he kissed him, but rather וישכהו, and he bit him. However [miraculously], Yaakov’s neck turned hard as bone and blunted Esav’s teeth.

The beginning of this chapter in Pirkei diRebbe Eliezer quotes a pasuk in Amos (5:19) to explain Yaakov’s escape from Lavan but into the clutches of Esav: “As if a man flees from the lion and the bear meets him…” The lion is Lavan who ran after Yaakov to take his life. The bear is Esav who was standing on the road like an agitated bear coming to kill a mother with her children. The lion has feelings of shame, but a bear feels no shame. Yaakov got up and prayed before Hashem saying, ‘Master of the World didn’t you tell me to go back to the land of your forefathers, and where you were born, and I will be with you? But my brother Esav now comes to kill me and he is not afraid of You, and I am afraid of him.’ From here they say don’t be afraid of police or a ruler, rather from a person who does not fear Hashem and stands up against you on the road like an agitated bear to kill a mother with her children. The Beur Maspik explains that Lavan had shame before Hashem, for he said to Yaakov ‘And the G-d of your father…you shall watch yourself from talking with Yaakov good or bad’ (Breishis perek 31). Lavan was frightened from what Hashem told him in a dream. Accordingly, Chaza”l says that one who feels shame won’t be quick to sin but Esav did not have any fear of G-D before his eyes at all. (Click here for Hebrew text.)
In the Pesach Hagada we read “Come and learn what Lavan the Arami tried to do to our father Yaakov. While Pharoah decreed only against the males, Lavan desired to uproot all. For so it is written, ‘An Arami sought to destroy my father; and he went down to Egypt and dwelled there, a handful, few in number. There he became a nation, great, mighty, and numerous.” We see from here that Lavan was worse that Pharaoh in a sense because he wanted to wipe out the entire family and there would never have been a Jewish nation. But Pharaoh, despite all the terrible and torturous decrees he made, would at most only have wiped out the Jewish males. Furthermore, Lavan is referred in the Torah as a fraudster; he is unpredictable, constantly devising plots to undermine his fellow, in this case Yaakov. So wasn’t Yaakov concerned at least as much, if not more, about Lavan than about Esav? As with Esav, it can be seen pretty blatantly his wrath and intent, but Lavan could double cross him and he might not even realize it?

It would seem, though, that because Lavan had this shame, some level of moral decency, that it put him in check and was easier to deal with. But Esav, having a lack of care and decency for anything, was a totally unhinged character, unpredictable, and that is why Yaakov was afraid of him, and needed to reinforce his proper faith and trust in Hashem, which he eventually did, by praying to Hashem to save him from his brother and then setting up a strategic plan of splitting his family up into two camps and giving gifts to Esav in order to appease him.

This isn’t just about people who are G-D fearing or not G-D fearing, although that happened to have been the major difference between Lavan and Esav. Though one wouldn’t exactly call Lavan G-D fearing, he at least recognized that one doesn’t mess with Hashem if He comes to you in a dream. However, from the fact that the Ralbag extends this to any ruler or policeman, not just a Jew, it must mean that there is a fundamental difference between someone who has shame and one who is not shameful at all.  From the fact that the medrish compares a ruler or policeman to one who does not fear Hashem would seem to mean that just having a sense of law and order, living by the rule of law as a policeman or a ruler does, gives them at least the potential ability to be more attuned to fear of G-D, even if they don’t outwardly express any connection to religion but when faced with the opportunity as Lavan was, they would more relate to subjugating themselves to the will of G-D. They have the moral decency and more of a chance to feel ashamed if they break the rules they live by and enforce. Whereas a person who is lawless and doesn’t care about the law at all, has no shame and is crazily unhinged, He won’t ever be ashamed and fear Hashem with his current attitude, no matter how blatant and obvious the messages are being sent his way.  That is a reason to be worried and afraid of that type of person, versus the police or a ruler.

Lavan was a chieftain, a ruler of Aram, and even though he was a scam artist he at least had some moral decency and on some level even a fear of Hashem that kept him in check. So Yaakov felt he was able to deal with Lavan, whereas Esav was a totally unhinged person with no shame, and certainly no fear of Hashem, so he was totally unpredictable and that is why Yaakov was rightfully afraid of him.

Vayishlach – Never Give Up on Your Child

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According to calculations based on the Seder HaOlam, by the Tanna Rebbe Yossi ben Chalafta, Reuvain was 15 years old when he switched Yaakov’s bed from Bilhah’s tent to his mother’s, Leah’s, tent. This act was a very immodest gesture and demonstrated a lack of respect to his father as seen from how the pasuk treats its severity, “And it came to pass when Israel sojourned in that land, that Reuven went and lay with Bilhah, his father’s concubine, and Israel heard [of it], and so, the sons of Jacob were twelve” (Breishis 35:22). Rashi explains Reuvain’s defense, “וישכב AND HE LAY — Because he switched his couch, Scripture accounts it to him as though he had actually sinned in this manner. But why did he switch his couch? When Rachel died Yaakov removed the couch to Bilhah’s tent and Reuvain came and protested against the slight thus inflicted on his mother (Leah). He said: “If my mother’s sister was her rival, is that any reason why the handmaid of my mother’s sister should become a rival to her!” On this account he disturbed the couch (Shabbat 55b).”
Though Reuvain had good intentions, they were still misguided; however the Ralbag learns a lesson from Yaakov’s reaction or lack thereof, “which is that it is appropriate for a person to not blow up at his eldest son over the despicable acts he committed, for maybe he might push himself away from him and totally lose him. Rather it is befitting for this person at this juncture to bring his son closer to him in order to guide him onto the right path. For this reason, the Torah related that Yaakov had heard about the terrible act Reuvain had done, and it makes no mention of Yaakov getting angry at him. However, when Yaakov gave orders and blessings at the end of his life, he punished Reuvain for this horrible act by snatching away his birthright and giving it to Yosef.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
It is fascinating that the proper thing to do is to still punish your child after he has learned how to act appropriately and has done teshuva (repentance), which chaza”l say Reuvain did. Indeed, he even led the way for Yehuda to do teshuva for his wrongdoing of not saving Yosef and bringing him back to Yaakov, when he was thrown into the pit, though he had the chance. Yet Reuvain still deserved punishment and because he understood the wrong he did, because of the proper guidance from Yaakov, there was no worry about him being angry and leaving the family when he lost his birthright to Yosef.

However why does the Ralbag point out this lesson of not being quick to anger and throwing one’s child out of his house for a severe sin he has done, specifically pertaining to the eldest child; wouldn’t it pertain to any child? Imagine if G-D forbid, any child became a drug addict, stole thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry from his parents and beat up his brother. Would it make a difference whether he was the oldest, youngest or middle child, either way, the parents’ reaction would be either to get angry and throw him out of the house or more appropriately take him in, bring him closer, care for him and help him fix his problem; so why does the Ralbag emphasize him being the eldest child?

It would seem to the Ralbag, that of course the most appropriate thing would be to show patience, love, and compassion for your own child, and to direct him on the right path. But when it comes to the eldest child a parent might have higher expectations for him or her and be quicker to anger, irrationally throwing the child out of the house if he or she does not live up to those expectations. That’s basic human nature or psychology of a parent towards their eldest, therefore the Ralbag goes out of his way to inform parents to not act on human nature and be quick to get angry just because one’s eldest is majorly failing at what his expectations are and rather be patient and show proper love and guidance for this wayward child of theirs.

Vayishlach – In the Worst-Case Scenario

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Yaakov, preparing to meet his brother Esav, on his way back to Canaan, prepares himself for the worst possible scenario, as reported in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach. “The angels returned to Yaakov, saying, ‘We came to your brother, to Esav, and he is also coming toward you, and four hundred men are with him.’ Yaakov became very frightened and was distressed; so he divided the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels into two camps” (Breishis 32:7,8).

The Lesson the Ralbag learns from here is that it is fitting for a person to always be afraid and to judge things through the lens of the worst possible scenario, in order to focus on how to escape them. We see this from the fact that when Yaakov  heard about his brother Esav coming towards him with 400 men, he was afraid that Esav was coming to hurt him, despite having been guaranteed by Hashem that He would protect him and be with him. Indeed, Yaakov could have assumed that Esav was coming out with all of his men in order to show honor to Yaakov and to protect him. But still Yaakov used all of his brainpower to strategize how to save his family as best as possible. (Click here for Hebrew text.)

This is quite astonishing?! What happened to judging others favorably? Why must we always be afraid and imagine the worst possible scenarios that might befall us? Won’t that lead to anxiety and depression? What happened to serving Hashem out of Joy? Above all, what happened to the concept of bitachon, trust in Hashem? Especially in this case, where Hashem had assured Yaakov that no harm would be done to him and that Hashem would be with him? Even if you say Yaakov wasn’t sure whether he deserved being protected then his response should be to try to act more appropriately and gain assurance to be protected by Hashem, but not to take matters into your own hands?

We see an incredibly new insight into hishtadlus, our own efforts in life. We must say that part of serving Hashem is to put every effort into taking care of ourselves, within our natural boundaries. Even though having emuna and bitachon, belief and trust in Hashem, are very important mitzvos yet there is also a mitzvah for us to take care of ourselves within the boundaries of the world around us. Therefore we have a mitzvah to think of all possible scenarios, even the “worst-case scenario,” and take measures to ensure that it does not come to pass. This is part of our service of Hashem, even if Hashem tells us nothing wrong will happen to us. However, the feeling of fear one should always have is only healthy if it is being channeled into figuring out how to help yourself. But if you start feeling helpless and stressed out, that is a sign that you are not doing the right thing and one should then power up his faith in Hashem.

It is a mitzvah to have a tremendous amount of emuna and bitachon for one’s emotional state of mind but part of that faith in Hashem is the obligation to always be afraid something wrong might happen and one has to put in all his efforts to be sure he physically is able to survive to the best of his ability.

Vayishlach – Loving Your Enemy

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Yaakov prepared for combat with Esav at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach. Fearing the worst, he split up his camp, prayed to Hashem for salvation, and sent a peace envoys ‘with giftsto try to divert the incoming attack of Esav and his 400 mightiest warriors. The Torah portion begins: “Yaakov sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esav, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom. And he commanded them, saying: “So shall you say to my master to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Yaakov, “I have sojourned with Lavan, and I have tarried until now. And I have acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, manservants, and maidservants, and I have sent to tell [this] to my master, to find favor in your eyes’ ” (Breishis 32:4-6).

The Ralbag learns a very fascinating lesson from this initial confrontation. He says: “It is befitting for one who has someone who hates him and he wants to remove the hatred from him, that he should come close to him with all his might and tell him some personal news. In this way he is bringing their hearts closer by not hiding anything. The point being that a person only informs his loved ones of personal news and hides it from his haters. With this, if so, by making a foundation in his heart that he is a loved one, and breaking his heart, you will remove the hatred from him. For this reason Yaakov sent messengers to Esav to inform him about what had happened to him in order to calm his heart that he is a loved one.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
There was an obvious rift between Esav and Yaakov. Esav wanted to kill Yaakov at some point for “stealing” the birthright and blessings. He even sent his son to do the duty many years before, but his son only took all of Yaakov’s possessions which left him penniless and utterly embarrassed because he had no gifts in hand when he met his bride to be, Rochel, at the well. Granted that now he is trying to appease him, but how is it humanly possible to treat your enemy as your loved one by giving him personal information which most people wouldn’t divulge to a random stranger off the street, no less a sworn enemy?

It would seem that Yaakov, though apprehensive and ready to prepare for battle if need be, sincerely felt brotherly love, and sent a delegation to talk with Esav in a manner that only two loving friends or family would engage in.  Real sincerity must have been there, if it was to be successful in removing the hatred from Esav’s heart. It was not an allusion or trick, because people can see right through that. Indeed, it also seems from this Ralbag that, on the contrary, a person who hates another cannot simply tell his enemy personal information. There is something innately blocking him from doing that, and therefore by telling that information it demonstrates sincerity, which can melt the heart of your enemy.

The fact that the Ralbag brings this as a lesson shows us that this can be done by anyone, not just a Yaakov Avinu. As hard as it is to go over to someone with whom you are not on good terms and start engaging in small talk and treating him or her like your friend, if one can muster up the will and power to do so, then inevitably it will remove hatred from his or her heart, because you are sincerely showing love towards that person.