Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 5 December 2020 / 19 Kislev 5781

Parashat Vayishlach

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
Library Library Library

Humanity Prevails

Already in the womb, Yaakov and Esav had drawn out their battle lines. Their vigorous movements in utero, which propelled Rivka to seek answers from G-d, gave expression to a struggle that would endure for the rest of time. Rivka is told there are two nations in your womb, and two states; they will be different from each other, starting from your innards one state will become mightier than the other, and the mighty one will serve the lesser.

Rivka is informed that she carries two nations who represent two different social systems. One state will be built on spirit and morality, on man’s human soul. The other will be built on cunning and power. Spirit and strength, morality and power will oppose each other. From the day of their birth, the two will go their separate ways. When one state will strengthen, the other will weaken, the scales constantly rising and falling between these two states. All of history is but one struggle to determine who will gain the upper hand: the book or the sword.

In this week’s Torah portion, the fateful encounter between the now adult brothers — each with a tribe of wives and children — teaches us more about this struggle. Yaakov has spent the last twenty years raising his children. He is the hard-working family man. Esav has spent this time becoming a political force, the leader of an army, a chief of his tribe. Yaakov represents family life, serving others, and seeing to their welfare and happiness. Esav represents the glitter of political power and might. The struggle between them and the outcome of this struggle foreshadow a raging battle that has haunted humanity for thousands of years. In the words of Rav Hirsch:

Is it sufficient just to be a human being, and are political power and social creativity of no significance unless they lead to the loftiest of all human aspirations, or, on the contrary, does everything that is human in man, in home, and in family life exist only to serve the purposes of political triumph?

The night before this fateful encounter, Yaakov experiences an even more fateful encounter — with his brother’s angel. This adversary wrestles with Yaakov the entire night, as Yaakov attempts to protect himself. The angel realizes that he cannot prevail against Yaakov, and he is able only to injure his thigh. The angel then asks to be released, for the dawn is breaking, but Yaakov refuses let him go until the angel blesses him: “You will no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have become the commanding power before G-d and men, since you have prevailed.”

The goal of history — realized at daybreak — is the recognition that happiness and progress depend on those principles which Yaakov has lived by throughout the ages. No longer shall he be known as “Yaakov” — he who holds on to the heel — but rather, “Yisrael”— he who shows the world that G-d towers above all.

There is one highlight of the brothers’ encounter which hints to Yaakov’s ultimate triumph. After sending several delegations with gifts, Yaakov himself sees Esav from the distance, approaching with 400 men. Yaakov arranges his wives and children and goes ahead of his camp to greet his brother and bows to him. Esav ran to meet Yaakov, embraced him, fell upon his neck, and kissed him; and they [both] wept. Here we see that Esav was overcome by genuine human emotion. A kiss can be an affected gesture; not so tears that flow at such moments. The kiss and the tears show that Esav too is a grandson of Avraham.

These tears foretell that Esav too will gradually and eventually lay down his sword. Brute force will give way to humaneness. Yaakov will be the one to provide him with the opportunity of showing to what extent the principle of humanness has prevailed in his heart. When the strong respects the rights of the strong, this is merely discretion, but when the strong, as Esav here, throws himself on the shoulders of the weak and casts away the sword of aggression, it is clear that justice and humanness have prevailed in his heart. The mightier will serve the lesser, as Rivka was told.

  • Sources: Commentary, Ber. 25:23; 32:8; 32:27-32; 33:4

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