WHY SHOULD ESAU CARE?
Rashi turned a Biblical verse into a rhyme when he quoted Gen. 32:5, “Im Lavan gar’ti” (Jacob’s statement, “I dwelt with Laban”) into “Im Lavan gar’ti v’taryag mitzvot shamar’ti” (“I dwelt with Laban and observed the 613 commandments”).
Who was Jacob talking to? His brother Esau. But since Esau was far from orthodox observance, why should he care whether Jacob was froom or not?
It all depends on how un-froom Esau was. If later historical experience is an indicator, Esau was not totally devoid of mitzvah-observance. He probably was what in our generation might be called “occasional orthodox”, not consistently or constantly observant of mitzvot, but once in a while finding himself keeping a mitzvah or two.
We find this phenomenon amongst countless people. They don’t daven regularly, but once in a while they say the Sh’ma. They don’t keep kosher all the time, but sometimes they consciously buy and eat kosher food. They don’t observe Shabbat every week, but sometimes (or more often) they light Shabbat candles.
If that’s the sort of person Esau was, he could well be interested in knowing that Jacob wouldn’t let the negative Laban-influences prevent him from maintaining his Judaism. One mitzvah in particular would impress Esau – the mitzvah of not hating your brother (Lev. 19:17).
Gen. 32:7 tells us that Esau was supported by an army of four hundred men when he encountered Jacob. The story is supposed to be about the reconciliation of the two brothers, so why did Esau need to bring an army with him?
No wonder Rashbam remarks that Jacob distrusted Esau, more or less in line with the rabbinic advice, “kab’dehu v’chash’dehu” – “Respect him but suspect him” (a well-known saying that does not seem to have a specific source in the Talmud).
Why the four hundred men? Did Esau have them because he planned to attack and annihilate his brother?
That’s the approach that Sforno takes to the story, but more likely the army was part of a bargaining ploy. It’s not that Esau was definitely bent on wiping out Jacob, but he wanted to intimidate Jacob and show him how what strength he could utilise if he wished. The army represented a threat and not a promise.
What did Jacob have to counter them? Go back to the end of last week’s sidra and you find what he had – an army of angels. A host which – according to the description of angels in the Friday night hymn, Shalom Aleichem – represented peace and joy.
Jacob had no intention of attacking Esau. All he wanted was peace and brotherhood. Rashi says that Jacob would only contemplate armed combat as a last resort: he relied on peace offerings and prayer before thinking of war.
TRUTH TO JACOB
The prophet Micah ends his prophecy with a reference to Jacob: “You will show truth to Jacob and loving kindness to Abraham” (Micah 7:20). The verse is part of the final section of the haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon and also figures in the siddur in “U-va L’Tziyyon”.
It is possible that it is to be read as poetry and simply means that God will not abandon His children. In this sense “Jacob” and “Abraham” are metaphors for “The people of Israel”. But if this is the case, why is Isaac left out? And why is Jacob linked with truth and Abraham with loving kindness?
An answer to the first question: Jacob is the father of the community of Israel, since the tribes are named after his children, and Abraham is the founder of the faith who discovered God and taught belief in Him wherever he went.
The second question is answered by Samson Raphael Hirsch with a reminder that both patriarchs feared the future (re Abraham: Gen. 15:1; Jacob: Gen. 28) and both needed Divine assurance that God would fulfill His promise to grant them a future (this is why Micah says, “…as You promised our ancestors in days of old” (Micah 6:20)).
Another possibility is that Abraham needed a special lesson in loving kindness because there were times when he did not plead hard enough for others (he did not press God to save Sodom and Gomorrah even for the sake of one righteous person), and Jacob needed a lesson in truth because there were times when he allowed himself to deceive others, in particular his father Isaac.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles.
He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com