"The Meeting of Esau and Jacob" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"The Meeting of Esau and Jacob" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Are you like Jacob, willing to humble yourself to avoid conflict?

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Genesis 32:4-36:43

This week’s Torah portion opens with a dramatic encounter between Jacob and his brother, Esau. Last we left Esau, he was plotting to kill his brother. Jacob was sent away by his mother for his own protection and was now returning back to his home after spending 37 years away.

The narrative gives no real indication as to what exactly is in Esau’s head, but it does describe him as heading towards Jacob with 400 men. Jacob expects a confrontation and prepares accordingly.

Jacob first divides the people that are with him into two camps (Genesis 32:8). The strategy was a military one. “If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it, the second camp will survive” (32:9). It seems clear that Jacob is anticipating a real threat. In fact, his pragmatism is evident from the fact that he does not just assume that they will all survive.

This is all despite the fact that Jacob has already been spoken to directly by God and promised that He will protect him and provide for him (28:15). Reliance on God does not award someone the luxury of assuming that everything will work out in the end. It certainly did not allow Jacob to sit back and simply let God take care of the impending threat.

After the division of the camp, Jacob then appeals to God directly for help. “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau …” What about the promise that he received directly from God, that He would guard him? Could it be that he forgot?

Clearly not, for Jacob then says, “And You had said, ‘I will do good for you and make your children like the sand of the sea which is too great to count.’” It seems that Jacob prays to God because he knows that the promise could be fulfilled by allowing even just a few survivors. He turns to God to beseech the welfare of his entire camp.

The dual nature of Jacob’s response, the pragmatic strategy along with prayer, seem to cover all his bases. In fact, Jewish tradition is always a proponent of cojoining our human effort with a direct appeal to God. Yet, as we look further, we see that Jacob has a third prong in his approach to the threat of Esau.

“For he said, ‘I will appease him with the tribute that precedes me, and afterwards I will face him, perhaps he will forgive me’” (32:21). Jacob sets aside hundreds of his own animals as a gift and sends them ahead to his brother with very clear directives.

Each drove is to refer to Esau as “my master” and reference Jacob as “your servant”. He instructs them to leave space in between each drove and to repeat the same message: “It is a tribute sent to my lord, to Esau, and he is also behind us” (32:19).
It is not sufficient for Jacob to just pray to God for protection and to be pragmatic about saving his camp. He wants to appease his brother and avoid any conflict whatsoever.

In fact, he understands that by repeating the message multiple times, it has a much greater chance of sinking in and appealing to Esau’s heart. In addition to the animals that he sent, he himself bows down to Esau seven times before he reaches his brother. He is not afraid to humble himself to avoid conflict.

The story continues with the meeting of the two brothers. “Esau ran towards him, hugged him, fell upon his neck and kissed him” (33:4).

Rashi, the great Torah commentator of the 11th century, remarks that Esau’s mercy was stirred when he saw all the bowing that was done. Rashi then comments that there is a textual anomaly that appears in every properly written Torah scroll. There are dots that hover above the word “and he kissed him.” The Midrash tells us that it is well known that Esau hates Jacob, but his feelings of mercy were stirred at that moment and kissed him with all of his heart.

It seems that the attempt to pacify Esau worked. For Jacob, it was critical to extend himself and his resources for the sake of peace. He did not hesitate to subjugate himself to the brother from whom he had bought the birthright. It is also interesting to note that the Sages understand that the hatred of Esau for Jacob is real. This particular encounter was extremely positive, but Jacob declines Esau’s invitation to travel together from that point forward. He is not unrealistically optimistic about his status in the eyes of his brother.

Throughout history, the Jewish people have used this particular encounter as a model of how to deal with others.

The pragmatic, the spiritual (as represented by prayer) and the overtures for peace have all been exhibited by the leaders of the Jewish community.

As antisemitism continues to mar history, it is important not to forget that it might be that Esau hates Jacob, but that does not mean that we cannot successfully invoke mercy. The harder we work toward harmony with all around us, the greater the chance of success.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto.