This week’s parasha, Vayishlach (“and he sent”) is about sending messages.
Jacob and his large family and household of servants, together with his many flocks and herds of animals, are on the journey from the home of his father-in-law, Laban, back to Canaan. Jacob knows he will encounter his brother, Esau. Esau still feels anger toward Jacob because Jacob took the family birthright – to be the spiritual leader – from a hungry Esau in exchange for a bowl of stew, and also because Jacob tricked their father into giving Jacob his best blessing. Esau said, after our father dies, I will kill Jacob.
So Jacob sends messages to his brother. Because of his righteousness, Jacob is able to send malachim(spiritual beings, usually called angels) to Esau, to say that Jacob has been living with his father-in-law and has acquired oxen, donkeys, flocks and servants and is sending messengers to find favor in Esau’s eyes. Themalachim return to Jacob saying that Esau is coming to him, with 400 men.
Jacob also sends his servants as messengers, accompanied by gifts of sheep, camels, donkeys, cows and bulls. He sends three sets of servants and presents, each with a message that Esau’s “servant” Jacob is coming. As Esau and his men get closer, Jacob divides his family into two groups, and sends each group to Esau.
Finally, after 20 years, Jacob and Esau meet. Esau runs to Jacob, hugs him, and kisses him. Esau asks about the large family, many servants and plentiful flocks. Jacob explains he has done well during the 20 years he was away, and wants to give Esau presents. The two brothers go back and forth, Esau saying he does not want presents, and Jacob urging that Esau take the presents to smooth over any hurt feelings. Jacob, who has the birthright as spiritual leader and the greatest blessing from their father lessens his own importance and calls Esau “my lord” eight times.
As we learned in Parasha Toldot, the idol-worshipping Esau was not fit to be the spiritual leader of the Jewish people nor to have the blessings that went along with that role. Jacob did nothing wrong in seeing that he followed in Isaac’s footsteps by taking leadership. We can understand why Jacob would want to appease Esau to avoid being killed, but why would Jacob try to make Esau feel important?
Jacob was wise enough to know that showing you are sorry you hurt someone is not an admission that you did anything wrong, but is a statement that you care about the other person’s feelings. He knew that peace, especially among family members, is a treasure to be pursued. He also understood that someone of limited spiritual insight, like Esau, would not understand why it was important for Jacob to take spiritual leadership of the family.
The famous German rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explained Jacob’s actions toward Esau this way: “Better to endure corruption and injustice for 20 years (as did Jacob at the hands of Laban) than stand one moment before an individual who we know has been injured by our hands and who is incapable of understanding the circumstances which … might mitigate our guilt.” (Translation and Commentary on the Pentateuch, Bereishit 32:8, quoted by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin in Unlocking the Torah Text: Bereishit, p. 181).