Commentary for Vayishlach

27 Nov

In this week’s parshah, Jacob reconciles with his brother Esau. Fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacobs sends messengers ahead of his camp as they return to Canaan with an extremely extravagant gift of no less than 550 cattle and beasts of burden, hoping that such a tribute might quell Esau’s anger that has surely built up over the last twenty years. As it turns out, Jacobs has nothing to fear, as when he meets Esau the next day, Esau embraces him.

The two brothers then have a very interesting exchange. Esau tells Jacob that he does not have to appease him monetarily because “I have plenty (Gen. 33:9).” After buttering Esau up a bit in 33:10, in 33:11 Jacob responds, “Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have everything,” at which point we are told that after this statement, Esau accepts the gift.

Jacob fears that Esau’s refusal of this gift is a sign that Esau still intends to kill him, as accepting the gift would be accepting an apology and ending the dispute, so he changes the terminology he uses. The tribute, which had previously been referred to as a “gift” is now called a “blessing,” using the same word used to describe the birthright that Esau claimed Jacob had stolen from him. Esau is swayed by this change in terminology, and despite previously turning down the offer because he did not need it as he already had “plenty,” he now accepts it, feeling that the birthright that he thought should have been his was being returned to him.

This once again displays the fundamental misunderstanding of what the birthright truly is that Esau has shown since the very beginning of this saga. The important part of the birthright was not the monetary wealth of their father’s estate, but rather the mantle of spiritual leadership of the Jewish religion. Whereas Esau originally declined the offer because he had “plenty,” Jacob is perfectly willing to give up all of this wealth because he already has “everything”- not in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense. He has a family and enough money to provide for them, and he has an important role to fulfill in his service to God. What more could he need?

After the two brothers part ways, Jacob and his family head for the city of Shechem, and the Torah makes the point of telling us that Jacob arrived feeling “shaleim (Gen. 33:18).” This word, from the same route as “shalom,” literally means “full” or “complete,” but when it is used to describe a person, it conveys a sense of inner peace.   He has his family and can be sure they will not go hungry, and that they will not be threatened by Esau. He has his studies, and his important spiritual role and relationship with God. The enormous loss of wealth he has just suffered does not seem to bother him at all. This is because while Esau might be the one with more money, it is Jacob who is truly rich. As Ben Zoma said, “Who is rich?   One who is content with his portion (Pirkei Avot 4:1).”

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