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Jacob sent messengers to Esau his brother… and he commanded them saying, “Thus you shall say to my master Esau, ‘This is what your servant Jacob wants to tell you – I have sojourned with Laban… and I have donkeys, oxen, and sheep, male and female servants; and I have sent to relate this to my master, so that I might find grace in your eyes’”(32:4-6).
Considering the conduct of Esau in the whole narrative, and the fact that later on the Prophet Malachi testified that G-d ‘loved Jacob and hated Esau’ (Malachi 1:2), Jacob appears to be have been treating Esau with excessive deference. Here he addresses Esau as ‘my master’. When they meet later on, he bows down several times to him and stresses that the objective of all his acquisitions is to ‘find grace in his sight’.
It would appear at first glance that Jacob was using chanifut – flattery – by conveying insincere and obsequious words to manipulate him. As the Talmud (Sotah 41b) puts it: “anyone who flatters is cursed even by babies in the womb”. And elsewhere (Pesachim 113b) it states that, ‘G-d abhors the one who speaks words with his mouth whilst thinking other thoughts in his heart’.
Moreover intelligent people are usually able to distinguish between sincere praise offering positive encouragement, and false compliments used to obtain favors. Uncle Shloymie comes for a weekend visit. Two hours before Shabbat he knocks at the door and Chaim, aged 11, answers it. “Chaim, you are such a nice strong boy and you love to do mitzvot. Will you please bring in the two cases from the car into the house?” Chaim does so, but at the same time he feels patronized and resentment at having been used…
Now imagine that Uncle Shloymie said, “Chaim, can you do me a favor? I have two heavy cases in the car. Would you please help me to bring them in?” Chaim obliges. Then he smiles and says to him. “You helped me very much, and I am most grateful to you.” Chaim will not feel manipulated, but needed, wanted, and respected.
Obviously, as the Midrash (Tanhuma Yashan 6) relates, Jacob used all means to protect himself and his family from a fatal attack by Esau and his entourage. Yet had Esau really intended to murder Esau, he would have been unlikely to succumb to flattery – even in the form of presents. He was not short of worldly goods – as he said to Easu – “I have plenty” (33:9). Indeed, Jacob’s attempts to appease him would have been counterproductive. His anger over Jacob’s having deprived him of the birthright and the blessings would have been compounded by Jacob’s insulting his intelligence in this way – in the same spirit as Chaim felt patronized by Uncle Shloymie.
This difficulty may be resolved as follows. Jacob’s behavior was not flattery, but genuine. For Esau did have positive qualities. The Torah he relates that while Jacob was a ‘simple man who lived in tents’, Esau was ‘a hunter, a man of the field’ (25:27) – a person who took care that there would be good food in the household, and he used his skills to provide for his father Isaac in his old age. Indeed the Talmud in Hullin brings the tradition that Esau could use a bow and arrow with such accuracy that he could slaughter birds in flight. In this way, Esau was Jacob’s master.
So Jacob was not flattering Esau – he did not condone any of his previous behavior. He spoke in the same sprit of Uncle Shloymie when he thanked Chaim for doing him a favor – he gracefully acknowledged his thanks to him. By calling him ‘my master’, Jacob was giving credit to Esau for having used some of his talents for good in a positive way that he himself had not. As Ben Franklin put it: “Every man is my master and in some way I can learn from him”. And thus Esau respected Jacob’s honesty and genuine respect and thus became more kindly disposed to him…
As a footnote, Aryeh Ben David (source below) quotes the Mezericher Maggid’s saying that even from a thief we can learn many valuable principles for life:
On a more positive note, the Maggid added that one may also learn priceless lessons from the smallest, most simple of children:
Several ideas for the above came from Ben David, A., Around the Shabbat table (2000), pp.60-63.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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