by Rabbi Steven Bayar
This week’s portion is Vayishlach: Jacob is returning home after 20 years after fleeing in fear because he “stole” the Covenantal blessing from his elder brother Esau. The beginning of the portion tells of their reunion: Jacob returns with wives children and livestock and Esau meets him with 400 armed men.
There is the story of twin brothers who went into business together. One day, a customer wanted to buy something worth a dollar. Because both brothers were busy in different parts of the store, and the customer knew them as friends, he called out to the brothers, telling them that he was leaving the dollar on the counter, and wished them good day.
When one brother approached the counter, he saw that the dollar bill was gone. As the other approached he asked what happened to the dollar. It soon became clear that neither one admitted taking the dollar – and that they both suspected the other of lying.
To make a long acrimonious story short, they broke up the partnership and each opened their own store, in competition with the other. They stopped speaking to each other and forbade their families to have any interaction.
Years later, a stranger came into one of the stores, with a dollar bill in hand. He explained to the manager, one brother’s son, that he had stolen a dollar from the counter many years ago. He was hungry and the dollar was there. He came back to make good the debt. The son asked the stranger to walk across the street and tell his story to the other brother. You can guess the rest.
Is this story true? It might as well be. I have seen families self-destruct over much less.
Jacob had “stolen” Esau’s blessing. After twenty years Jacob is returning to Canaan. Esau comes to meet him, with 400 men. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to fathom what Esau had in mind.
Jacob sent Esau many gifts. Then, when Esau approaches him,
Jacob saw Esau coming
accompanied by 400 men.
He (Jacob) divided the children
among Leah Rachel and the two maids…
He himself went on ahead
and bowed low to the ground seven times
until he was near his brother…
“What do you mean by all this company which I have met?”
He (Jacob) answered,
“to gain my lord’s favor…
Please accept my present which has been brought to you,
for God has favored me and I have plenty”
…and when he (Jacob) urged him, he (Esau) accepted.
33:1 – 11
Jacob has the blessing of God. He had twenty very successful years behind him. He had many possessions. God had just intervened for Jacob against Laban, when Laban came to kill him. The night before Jacob had wrestled with an angel and prevailed. Why did Jacob prostrate himself on the ground in front of his brother? He could not lose! Why does Jacob speak in “please” and “gaining my lord’s favor?”
Perhaps Jacob knew that Esau could not really harm him. However, Jacob also knew that appeasing Esau would cost him nothing and avoid harm to many people. For this reason, Jacob decided to keep the Mitzvah of Shalom Bayit – and saved Esau’s life in the bargain.