Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Point of interest to me, I hope to you: Last year, we were finishing the sixth sha’ar of Akedat Yitzchak on 2 Tevet, so we did just about exactly 20 she’arim this year. Given the 104 she’arim in the book, I think with only four more years we will have studied a small percentage of R. Yitzhak Arama’s jam-packed book. A little humbling, also a reminder of how much we can and are learning from him.

R. Arama spent the first part of the 26th sha’ar harping on the necessity of human effort, especially in order to earn the Divine Providence needed for optimal outcomes. The idea justifies Yaakov’s significant efforts to avoid Esav’s wrath; they might look like a lack of faith or trust in Hashem, where those efforts were in reality Yaakov doing his obligatory part.

Now, R. Arama turns to the parsha itself, his first step a fuller explanation of Yaakov’s efforts to be saved from Esav. [Twice in these paragraphs he uses a verse cleverly, which I always admire. First, when he wants to say/show Hashem gives us reason to see that Yaakov behaved properly, he says hinei Hashem nitzav alav, behold, God was standing over him, the way Hashem was described in the dream at the beginning of Parshat Vayetzei. Then he says va-ani etnahalah le-iti, I will go at my pace, to explain the issues in the parsha, a phrase Yaakov used to tell Esav to go on ahead without him.]


Proactive Effort

Bereishit Rabbah has two views about whom Yaakov sent to Esav, messengers or angels (the word malachim can mean either). Those who say he sent people view his decision as an error, a lack of faith that needlessly alerted Esav to Yaakov’s presence (the Midrash calls it holding a dog by the ears).

The view he sent angels assumes Hashem agreed to the effort and to the idea of seeking peace proactively. Adding to the support, the Midrash attributes the idea to Rabbanan, to R. Arama a signal it was the more widespread view.

Yaakov also worked to hide his fear from his family. He referred to his brother as adoni, my master, with the messengers, to give the impression that this was an ordinary family relationship, the younger brother sending greetings to his (naturally respected) older brother. R. Arama adds there was no need for the family to know his real worries. [It’s a throwaway line so I won’t spend space on it, but a reminder of the different views there can be about the propriety of secrets in families. I’ve been taught the value of transparency where possible, the problems secrets can bring; R. Arama came from a different worldview].

He has them tell Esav he was living with Lavan—a place where Esav was as welcome as Yaakov, a way to say he had not been hiding, to take away one reason Esav might think of pursuing an old grudge (the original irritant might have died down, but he wouldn’t want Yaakov to get away with having run away). Yaakov mentions his wealth to spark Esav’s interest in restoring a brotherly relationship.

[I think R. Arama is trying to explain why Yaakov boasts of his riches, usually an unattractive trait; he implies Yaakov did it to open a door to more than avoiding war. Why else would he go beyond the minimal information necessary to quiet Esav’s wrath? Of course, it’s possible Yaakov wasn’t sure telling him he had been living in the open where Esav could have found him would do the trick, so he was trying everything at once. Even if he did want more, he did not want great closeness, as we see in the encounter itself.]

The messengers’ news of Esav’s apparently violent intent spurs Yaakov to try more, the best way he knew to secure Hashem’s assistance. He split the camp in two, hoping killing half the family would sate Esav’s wrath [R. Arama assumes Yaakov saw no possibility they could defeat or survive Esav, interesting in light of the fact that 10 or 11 of his sons would soon wipe out the city of Shechem. Perhaps they all knew they were pretty good warriors, but Esav and his people were at another level.]

Yaakov had a personal guarantee of protection and blessings from Hashem; he feared for his family, who were not similarly covered.  

Yaakov Prays and Sends a Gift

Yaakov also prays, opening with an acknowledgement of the growth of his family to include two camps. R. Arama sees a dual purpose, to draw attention to his having done his part to avoid/minimize the damage Esav could cause and to plead for his family’s safety. He knows they are not covered by the promises Hashem had made to him, knows Hashem’s blessings could come true in full despite losing many of his current living descendants. He does not want to, he wants to move forward into history with this whole family, and is praying to Hashem for help in making that happen. Moshe has a similar reaction to Hashem’s suggestion in Shemot 32:10, after the sin of the Golden Calf, to wipe out the Jewish people and start over with Moshe.

[I think R. Arama means it would still fulfill the promises to the Avot, as Moshe was their descendant, too, yet Moshe properly saw it as a lesser outcome. R. Arama is reminding us as well, guaranteed outcomes can come in better and less-good ways. Yaakov does not want to lose loved ones regardless of how good life can be after; Moshe did not want the people destroyed for similar reasons. Today as well, as we move slowly or quickly toward the times of Mashiach, redemption can reach more or fewer of the Jewish people, depending on how many of us find our way to meriting being a part of it.]

Yaakov expected some kind of immediate answer; he slept there to allow a dream or vision to come. It didn’t, in R. Arama’s view, because he had not yet done all he could, had not yet spent money on his salvation. The gift he sent Esav would also (R. Arama says) constitute a more proper payment for the first-born rights Yaakov had purchased, would lead Esav to concede those rights more full-heartedly.

[Both points surprise me, the second slightly less. Despite earlier being sure Yaakov and Rivka were right to engineer the blessings to Yaakov, R. Arama also values securing Esav’s after-the-fact concession. I struggle more with the first point, though, the idea Yaakov made a lot of efforts but not enough, and that unless our efforts involve money, we haven’t yet done all we could.]

Yaakov awoke, and followed his intellect/instinct as to what he could do to calm Esav’s hatred. (He took the absence of a vision as a sign, and drew the correct conclusions.) He sent enough animals to be able to procreate on their own, so Esav could keep them as a separate flock, to always remember their brotherly connection. [Like when libraries receive large donations of books, and keep them in a separate section; I confess I am unconvinced Esav would do such a thing, because why would he?]

He spreads the gift out for Esav to have a chance to see what he had done, but also to build up Esav’s appreciation. When Esav sees the first set of messengers, with the gifts, he would think that was the whole gift, only to be surprised with a second set and then a third.

The Battle With the Angel

I’m skipping some lesser points, all the way to the battle with the angel, whom R. Arama agrees was saro shel Esav, the heavenly representative of Esav; he could not defeat Yaakov because of Yaakov’s great merits. The wound he gives Yaakov symbolized later Jews who would be vulnerable to the powers of Esav, those who sinned (as with Amalek, the destructions of the Temples, and all other times of trouble for the Jewish people, R. Arama says).

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and nonfiction, most recently “We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong With the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It.” He lives in Bronx, New York, with his wife and three children.

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