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Who is the bigger man-Ya'akov or Esav? It's an interesting question. I have argued on occasion, even recently, that Esav deserves credit for not pursuing his brother to kill him, and for attempting to please his parents by taking additional wives from among his own kinsfolk.
And now, here in Vayishlakh, we see Esav being quite reasonable, courteous, even loving to his brother, Ya'akov-that same brother who had stolen his birthright and his blessing in a dishonorable manner.
Yet, I believe there is a notable distinction between Esav's form of t'shuva and Ya'akov's form of t'shuva.
Ya'akov has had two recent encounters with G"d, one in his dream of a sulam (ladder) and his late-night wrestling match. Ya'akov now has a rather keen awareness of G"d. Ya'akov is not the same man who once said to G"d "if you protect and see my safely on my journey, then you will be my G"d." He is now the man Israel/Ya'akov, who has had intimate interactions with G"d.
He's still a little afraid and worried about what Esav might do to him, so Ya'akov's faith in G"d is by no mean's perfect. Yet G"d is surely part of Ya'akov's life now. Even so, Ya'akov does his better to butter up Esav with gifts and a show of force.
In classic fashion, Esav at first politely refuses Ya'akov's gifts. "Yesh li rav akhi," he says. "I have much, my brother." "Y'hi lekha asher-lakh." "Let what is yours be yours."
Now let's examine the exchange a few verses earlier. Esav asks Ya'akov who the women and children accompanying him are. Ya'akov answers "hayeladim asher-khanan Elokim et-avdekha." "The children with whom G"d has graced your servant."
After their encounter, Ya'akov goes on to erect an altar to G"d in Shechem. Yet, strangely absent from any of Esav's comments are any reference to G"d. Esav seems content that he has gotten wealthy and a good life. Yet Esav does not seem to recognize the source of this.
Esav has come to terms with the realities of his life, has grown fat and prosperous, yet seems to not include G"d in the equation. So, in a secular humanistic sort of way, we can praise Esav for being a big man, for not taking revenge on his brother, and welcoming him back with some warmth. Not really all that much of a transformation then, is it? Esav just seems to have acted reasonably, and not out of any deep convictions or faith. Not much different from how Esav acted in his youth. He was, after all, the eldest son of a man blessed by G"d, part of a lineage that G"d had promised to make successful and long-lived. Yet Esav seems to have done little to even try to play that part.
Now, in his youth, Ya'akov wasn't much better. He was deceitful. He played "you scratch my back I'll scratch yours" with G"d. Now, however, G"d seems to be a part of Ya'akov's life. And Ya'akov is acknowledging G"d, the G"d he recognized as being in the place where he dreamed of the ladder. The G"d he recognizes as being part of who he is and his successes.
Ya'akov isn't perfect. And his relationship with G"d, his faith in G"d is not perfect either. We can surely infer this from the way in which his two names Ya'akov and Yisrael continue to both be used in the text. And from his wrist-slapping of his sons for what they do to the good people of Shechem in defending the "honor" of their sister Dinah-for his concern more with his own public image than with the deed they had done. (Not so surprising from the man who followed his mother's instructions to cheat his brother.)
Yet, for the rest of his life, we clearly see that G"d is part of that life. Surely then, it must have been richer (and yet, perhaps, more puzzling and disconcerting) than the life of Esav.
Work hard, live good, let bygones be bygones seems to be Esav's philosophy. Not a bad way to live, and probably some improvement on his younger days (he did, after all, threaten to kill Ya'akov. He didn't carry out the threat, but just making it wasn't such a great thing to do.)
Make mistakes, try to do better, and always remember G"d is in your life seems to be Ya'akov's philosophy. I'll vote for the latter.
Adrian ©2002, 2010 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on this parasha
Vayishlakh 5769 - A Fish
Vayishlakh 5768 - No One's in the Kitchen With Dinah
Vayishlakh 5766-Like Deity, Like Deity's Child
Vayishlakh 5765-B'li Mirmah
Vayishlakh 5762-Don't Get Mad--Get Even!
Vayishlakh 5761-No Doubt? No Wonder!
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