Vayishlach: A Dishonest Man, An Impractical Plan, The Correct Result

Posted on December 9, 2022 by Jay Lavroff, Guest Darshan

This week’s parsha is Vayishalach, meaning “and he sent.” As the portion opens, Jacob is sending messengers to his twin brother Esau, who he has not seen since he left Canaan 20 years earlier. The message to be delivered is that Jacob has prospered, and he hopes to please and impress Esau with his material wealth so as to diffuse any anger that Esau still harbors toward him.

The message Jacob receives back is alarming. Esau is marching toward Jacob’s position with an army of 400 men. Jacob’s reaction is predictable; he is terrified. So terrified in fact, that Jacob divides his family, servants and flocks, in order that if Esau attacks one camp, those in the other can escape. An unusual fight and flight strategy.

Jacob then prays to God, asking that he be saved from his brother’s wrath. Jacob also questions God having told him that if he returns to Canaan he will thrive there. To the contrary, it now appears that the return may cost him his life.

The next day Jacob selects gifts for Esau and sends servants ahead to offer them in an attempt at appeasement. Jacob reasons that in this way he will gain Esau’s favor, and Esau will forgive him for having swindled Esau out of his birthright and obtaining Isaac’s blessing by fraud. When his family and servants leave, Jacob is left alone to ponder his fate. That night he wrestles with an angel, who appears in human form. As dawn approaches, the angel wrenches Jacob’s hip. The angel tells Jacob to let him go, and Jacob replies that he will not do so unless the angel blesses him. The angel then re-names Jacob Israel, because he struggled with God and human beings and prevailed.

Later that day Jacob limps on ahead to meet Esau. As they come face to face, Jacob demonstrates respect and deference to his older brother, bowing before Esau,  calling him “my lord” and referring to himself as Esau’s servant. While Jacob rightly expects the worst, the tension is instead broken by Esau hugging and kissing his brother. They embrace and cry together, with Jacob telling Esau that seeing his face is like seeing the face of God. Jacob insists that Esau accept his gifts. Esau in turn offers to accompany Jacob in his travels and to leave some of his soldiers to provide protection. Jacob declines the gracious offer and the brothers go their separate ways.

This is an extraordinary story on many levels. Among the most fascinating aspects is this: while Jacob is obviously one of the most important figures in the Torah, he is, by all accounts, not a good person. He takes advantage of his brother, who was thinking with his stomach and not his head, to obtain the birthright. He conspires with his mother to deceive his blind father and steal his brother’s blessing. He violates rules of basic human decency that will eventually become the precepts we are commanded to live by; you shall not steal; do not do something to another that is hateful to you; do not put a stumbling block before the blind, to name a few. While these were reduced to writing after Jacob’s time, we know instinctively that what Jacob did was wrong. And he knew it too.

So when Jacob meets Esau after so many years, you’d think that he would do more than just offer material gifts and platitudes to achieve reconciliation. Rather, you’d expect that he would provide something much more meaningful; an admission of his wrongdoing, a genuine apology, and a pledge to not engage in such behavior again. But he doesn’t, and the words of the parsha suggest that Jacob is once again thinking only of himself. In an act of self-preservation, he divides his camp so at least some of his family and wealth will survive Esau’s anticipated onslaught. When he prays to God he doesn’t confess his sins. Instead, he questions why God would promise that things will go well if Jacob returns to Canaan, when in fact doing so appears to have put him on a fatal collision course with the brother he wronged.

This all begs the question: is Jacob truly reconciling with Esau, or simply offering a “faux-pology” and feeling grateful that he will escape their encounter with his skin and his wealth intact?

There is further evidence that Jacob has not yet learned his lesson in next week’s parsha. It’s a story we know well. Jacob plays favorites with his son Joseph, producing disastrous results. It stands to reason that if Jacob had truly seen the error of his ways in his relationship with his own brother Esau, he would not act so recklessly with Joseph and his brothers. By giving Joseph “most favored nation” status among his sons, Jacob perpetuates the cycle of dysfunctionality for another generation.

So, what is our takeaway from all of the tsouris wrought by the repeated failure of Jacob to learn his lesson? It seems that the big picture is the important picture. Jacob is a selfish con man, whose behavior ultimately gets Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt. But that results in Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s second in command, which in turn causes Jacob to return to Egypt. And although this results in 400 years of captivity, if there is no enslavement, there is no rise of Moses as prophet and deliverer, no giving of the Torah, and no reaching the promised land. God uses Jacob, this flawed individual, the instrument to achieve the end game: the establishment of God’s chosen people.

Humans may be created in God’s image, but we are obviously far from perfect. As this portion teaches, important messages can be gleaned from both the best and the worst of human behavior. While we should always aspire to do our best, we will undoubtedly not always be able to do so. And when we are not at our best, we must seek to realize the best possible outcome, while at the same time having the fortitude to admit when we are wrong and seek forgiveness. In this way, a positive result is possible even when circumstances conspire against it, and against us.

Shabbat Shalom,