One of my favorite ways to learn Torah is to ask myself, “What if?”
Part of the beauty of learning the Torah in its original Hebrew is that the language is open to multiple interpretations. In fact, some translations clean up and wash over some of the inconsistencies in the original text, from which the magic and the rabbit hole of possibilities of Torah study emerge.
So here is my “What if?” from this week’s Torah portion, Parashat VaYishlach.
Remember that incident a couple weeks ago when Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and blessing and then left home and hit bottom? This week, Jacob reunites with his brother, Esau, after 20 years of estrangement.
When Jacob sends forward messengers to Esau, in order to “gain favor in his brother’s eyes,” Jacob’s messengers bring back the following response:
“We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him” (Genesis 32:7).
Hearing the “four hundred men with him” terrifies Jacob. He forgets the first part – that his brother is coming to greet him! Instead, he quickly springs into action as if his brother is about to wage war on him and completely decimate his family.
But what if the messengers got it wrong? What if they didn’t communicate exactly who was coming with Esau? What if it wasn’t 400 men?
Let’s dive deeper into the nuances of the text…
After being left alone, Jacob has his wrestling match and receives his name change to Israel. The next day and with Jacob’s hip still out of socket – which ensures that he can no longer run from Esau – the brothers finally meet again:
“Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. And he lifted (וישא) his eyes and he saw the women and the children. “Who,” he asked, “are these with you?” He answered, “The children with whom God has favored your servant” (Genesis 33:4-5).
In what is an incredibly emotional and made-for-Hollywood reunion, the Torah builds the suspense and is explicitly vague on who is speaking by only using pronouns.
It’s clear that Esau runs to his brother and they weep. But what is not entirely clear is who lifts his eyes and sees the women and children. Who is the one who asks about the entourage? Who answers they are my children and I am your servant?
For my entire life, I’ve read the text that it is Esau asking Jacob about the women and children. It makes sense because Jacob engaged in a number of people-pleasing gifts and humbles himself to appease Esau.
But what if it was Jacob? What if Jacob has a moment of insight and realizes that those 400 men were actually Esau’s family coming to greet his brother? How would the events have changed if instead of Jacob being terrified that his brother was going to kill him, the messengers revealed that Esau’s intentions were to bring his own family to greet the brother he hasn’t seen in 20 years?!
According to rabbinic thinking, the struggle between Jacob and Esau is a metaphor for the battle between good and evil. Through this lens, the brothers represent diametrically opposed values and lifestyles that can never be reconciled but must always be in conflict. Crystalized in the view: “Esau hates Jacob.”
Or in plain terms, Jews will be hated for all eternity. There is no escaping this. Esau eventually gives birth to Rome, which represents the non-Jewish world that perpetually seeks to destroy Israel.
Could all this Jew hatred have been avoided if the messengers had told Jacob, “Esau is coming with his family” instead of “with four hundred men”?!
Here’s where the Torah throughout Jacob’s journey hints at this interpretation. It rests upon the Hebrew word וישא (And he lifted).
The Torah uses this word to explain Jacob’s actions multiple times in the trajectory of his narrative. For instance:
After Jacob’s ladder dream, “And Jacob lifted (וַיִּשָּׂ֥א) his legs and went to the land of the Easterners” (Genesis 29:1)…
When he first meets Rachel at the well, “And Jacob lifted (וַיִּשָּׂ֥א) his voice and cried…” (Genesis 29:11).
When Jacob tells his wives, Rachel and Leah, that it is time to leave their father’s house, he relays what an angel urges him to do: “Lift up (שא–נא) your eyes and see the he-goats…” (Genesis 31:12)…
When he finally gets his family to leave his father-in-law’s house: “And he got up and he lifted (וַיִּשָּׂ֥א) his children and wives onto the camels” (Genesis 31:17).
Lastly, when he sees Esau approaching: “And Jacob lifted his eyes and saw Esau coming with 400 men” (Genesis 33:1).
Okay, great. Thank you for the analysis Rabbi Joseph, but how does this help me live a life of recovery?
First of all, the elixir of Torah is sweeter in the Hebrew.
More importantly, I believe it teaches us about perception and fear.
Jacob’s amends to his brother is stunted because of his fear of his brother’s revenge. He never apologizes, he just offers Esau gifts and “my blessing.” In fact, Jacob deceives Esau again after Esau offers to caravan together to Seir (see Genesis 33:15).
The “mis-communication” of his messengers confirmed his own bias and fears and kept him stuck as the same individual he was 20 years earlier. He never imagined that Esau could possibly bring his own family to meet his brother’s. Nor, that Esau would say that he is Jacob’s servant!
What I believe is that the Torah has been hinting and imploring Jacob “to lift up,” to elevate himself. To elevate his eyes, his legs, his voice, his family and to elevate even in his dreams. He has moments of insight, he has fleeting “aha” moments, but his teshuvah is short-lived and does not endure.
The truth is that Jacob has always been running from himself; his twin brother is just the reminder. Esau is the mirror that Jacob doesn’t want to look at because it reminds him of the pain he has caused. Even when Esau comes to greet him with his family, Esau reminds Jacob that his actions have a greater impact than he imagined. An impact that still reverberates to this day.