This week we will read a most dramatic parasha, one filled with struggles and dilemmas that unfold at a very rapid pace. First, we read of the meeting between Yaakov and Esav after Yaakov’s twenty years outside Eretz Yisrael, a meeting that Yaakov dreads its outcome. On the eve of this encounter, he is attacked by a mysterious man, who comes upon him suddenly, without warning or provocation. This parasha also describes the abduction, rape, and ultimate release of Yaakov’s daughter, Dina.
We, however, will focus on the first dilemma – the meeting between Yaakov and Esav. Dreading the results of this reunion, Yaakov dispatches to Esav messengers bringing him enormous gifts of appeasement: “He took from what he had with him as a gift to his brother Esav.” (Bereishit 32:14). He also prays to God that He will protect him from Esav’s sword: “Save me, please, from my brother, from Esav, for I am afraid of him.” (Bereishit 32:12). The Midrash tells that Yaakov also prepared for the possibility of military conflict with Esav. Finally, the two brothers meet, and something very surprising occurs: “Esav ran to greet him, and he embraced him; he fell on his shoulder and kissed him, and they cried.” (Bereishit 33:4). Did this embrace and kiss in fact signify the collapse of the barriers of animosity, and a declaration of “No more war,” or was this merely a sly, tactical move meant to numb Yaakov’s fears so as to reduce his caution and alertness? Both possibilities find expression in the comments of Chazal. “Some interpret this to mean that he did not kiss him with all his heart. Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai said: it is a well-known rule that Esav despises Yaakov. However, his compassion was aroused as that moment, and he kissed him with all his heart” (Bereishit Rabba). This debate among the Sages explains for us Esav’s attitude towards Yaakov, which shifted from a desire to destroy and kill out of ingrained hatred, to recognition of the younger brother’s spiritual and moral superiority, which had what to contribute even to Esav. The pasuk leaves us in a cloud of ambiguity with regard to this point, for in truth, everything is concealed within this encounter: deceit and an attempt to numb, as well as a moment of genuine love and appeasement. This is, in all its glory, the ambivalence that has always characterized the relationship between Yaakov and Esav, to this very day.
Life is complex. This is the simple fact – that this world is filled with complexities. The pressing issue is how we deal with these complexities. Three possibilities exist as to how one can address the complexities of life:
1) Nothing is bad; everything is good, and the bad is but a misleading illusion. This approach can lead one to the conclusion that no effort is needed to fix and improve, we have no need for schools or hospitals, for even without them, everything is good.
2) The second approach acknowledges the existence of complexities in the world, but claims that we must surrender to them with the attitude of, “What can we do? This is how it is.” A person is dragged by the problems in his life to situations of helplessness, passivity and despair; the complexities have thus taken control of him.
3) The third response is to overcome. We know that there are and will be serious troubles. But we confront them and overcome them. There is evil in the world, and we will struggle against it; slowly but surely, we fix and redeem the world from the evil within it.
Throughout the Torah’s narrative of Avraham, we find him above all complexities.
Even when he fights against the four kings, he is in absolute control of the situation; he is above the situation. Yitzchak, by contrast, never gets entangled in complexities, nor can he be dragged into them. When disputes break out concerning the ownership over his wells, he never participates in the disputes; it is rather his shepherds who
get entangled in this battle. A wife is chosen for him without any involvement on his part, for he never has anything to do with complexities. Yaakov, however, is situated within the complexities, rather than above them. He does not surrender. He becomes entangled, but fights. He fights and builds himself even in the midst of these difficulties. Life has complexities. We cannot escape this reality; we must rather overcome them and build ourselves in so doing.
Returning to the most critical message of our parasha – that these events are relevant to this very day, Yaakov’s experiences contain an allusion for future generations, as well. Everything that happened to our patriarch concerning his relationship with Esav will always happen to us, in our relationship with the descendants of Esav (Ramban, beginning of Parashat Vayishlach). This parasha not only revolves around the personal meeting between Yaakov and Esav, but serves as a model for each of the thousands of encounters between “Yaakov” and “Esav” throughout history. (In Chazal’s outlook, the European nations represent the descendants of Esav.) These encounters have always been marked by ambivalence and mutual suspicion; at times they were accompanied by moments of love, embraces and kisses, whereas in other instances they yielded disastrous results.
Today, therefore, when we come upon complex situations, let us act like Yaakov. We must prepare ourselves in the three ways in which Yaakov prepared, and we will overcome the obstacles just as he did, and improve the world such that it will no longer contain any evil.