Shema Yisrael Home

              Fish&Soup.jpg - 12464 Bytes Subscribe

   by Jacob Solomon

This Week's Parsha | Previous issues | Welcome - Please Read!


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:

· A thief will work even at night

· If he does not finish what he has set out to do in one night, he devotes the next night to it. He never gives up.

· He will work under the most difficult conditions, enduring cold, rain, and physical hardships.

· He is devoted to his trade and he would not give it up for any other.

On a more positive note, the Maggid added that one may also learn priceless lessons form the smallest, most simple of children:

· They are often happy for no particular reason.

· They are never idle - even for a moment.

· If they want something, they demand it vigorously until they get it.

Several ideas for the above came from Ben David, A., Around the Shabbat table (2000), pp.60-63.


What connection have the following items with the events recorded in the Parasha?

Beware! Some items are trickier than others...

(a) a stick

(b) camels

(c) a rump steak

(d) an obvious excuse (33:13-14)

(e) cash (33:19)

(f) enough space for everyone (34:21)

(g) the sword (34:26)

(h) earings (35:4)

(i) oil (35:14)

(j) a well know site for prayer near Jerusalem (35:20)


(a) The stick was included in Jacob's prayer to G-d in order to save him from any attack from Esau. Jacob recalls G-d's kindness to him - although he traveled virtually penniless to Haran ('with [only] my stick I crossed this Jordan') (32:11), G-d had physically enriched him to such a degree that he could divide his household and possessions 'into two camps' (32:11).

(b) Camels (32:16) were part of the advance present that Jacob sent to Esau to appease his wrath against Jacob for taking the birthright and the blessing.

(c) Following Jacob's being wounded only in the thigh bone following his struggle with 'the man' (identified by the Rabbis as Esau's guardian angel), the Israelites do not eat the corresponding sinews in the animal. (32:33) For that reason rump steaks may not be eaten unless the sinew inside have been expertly removed - in the porging process.

(d) Jacob refused Esau's invitation to travel together after their meeting, stating that his own small children and cattle would make the journey go too slowly for Esau's liking (33:13-14).

(e) Jacob made a cash payment for some land when temporarily settling in Shechem on his journey home (33:19).

(f) Shechem was promoting his own interests in appeasing his people to accept Jacob's sons' terms for a treaty. He stated that there was 'ample room in the land for them' (34:21).

(g) The sword was the weapon used by Simeon and Levi to massacre the male population of Shechem (34:26).

(h) These were part of the items looted by the members of Jacob's entourage from the pagan population of Shechem, which Jacob ordered to be given up and buried (35:4).

(i) Oil was used by Jacob to dedicate the altar at Beth El - as he promised some twenty years later on his outward journey (35:14).

(j) Rachel's Tomb (35:20).

From where, in Rashi's commentary, may the following Torah values be learnt?


(a) G-d helps those who help themselves.

(b) The value of a gift may be enormously enhanced by the way it is presented.

(c) A very emotional occasion may cause someone to act entirely out of character.

(d) Righteous people do not boast about how wealthy they are, but inferior people do.

(e) It is proper to name a new structure after something good that took place.

(f) Certain types of people attract trouble for themselves.

(g) The Torah does not sanction unilateral zealous action - however well-meant.

(h) If you don't know, say you don't know! Don't try to bluff!

(i) The physical relationship between a husband and wife is absolutely private.

(j) Yehudit (Judith) is rightly a commonly used Jewish name, despite her being stated to have been one of Esau's Canaanite wives who brought great distress to Isaac and Rebecca (26:34-5).

(k) Nations feuding with each other for generations may sink their differences and unite to attack Israel.


(a) Rashi (32:9) highlights verses which describe the three ways in which Jacob prepared himself for the dangerous possibilities involved in meeting Esau. He prayed to G-d for success, but he also sought to appease Esau by sending him a large slice of his wealth as a gift. In addition, he divided his camp into two sections, so that if one should be attacked, the other could escape. That the actual meeting with Esau passed harmlessly illustrates the power of prayer, and that one should add one's own efforts as well.

(b) Jacob's huge gift of camels, cattle, and flocks was timed to reach Esau unit by unit, rather than in one go. Rashi states that the present looks larger and more satisfying when savoured piece by piece. (32:17)

(c) The text records that when Esau met Jacob 'vayishakehu' (33:4) - he kissed him. Rashi, in noting that dots traditionally appear above that word, quotes the Rabbis that hold that although normally 'Esau hates Jacob', nevertheless Esau was so overcome by emotion at the moment of meeting Jacob thqt the kiss that he gave him was completely sincere.

(d) Esau initially refused Jacob's gift, boasting that he had 'rav' - many - (33:11) 'loads' of cattle, flocks and camels. Jacob, in pressing Esau to take the animals stated that he had 'kol' - (33:11) everything - understood by Rashi that he was satisfied that G-d was taking care of all his needs.

(e) When Jacob arrived safely and settled temporarily in Shechem, be built an altar in service to G-d. He name it 'Kel Elo-kei Yisrael'. (33:20) Rashi understands this expression as celebrating the numerous occasions that G-d had personally intervened, as it were, in promoting Jacob's life and well-being.

(f) Rashi understands that Jacob's daughter, Dinah's 'going out (in Shechem) to see the daughters of the land' (34:1) - instead of staying at home - was the decisive factor that brought her to Shechem's attention. Rashi relates Dinah's conduct to her mother Leah, who also tended to 'go out'. (30:18)

(g) Rashi (to 34:25) understands Shimon's and Levi's zeal in killing the men of Shechem as unilateral as they did not ask their father Jacob's advice. Jacob's expressed his deep distress for their action in 34:30 and later, at the the end of his life he recalled their conduct, cursing 'their anger, for it is intense, and their wrath, for it is harsh'. (49:7)

(h) After G-d appeared to Jacob in Beth El, He is stated to have departed from him 'in the place that He spoke to him'. (35:13) As it the location of the place is quite clear, Rashi himself states that he does not know what the verse is meant to teach.

(i) Rashi brings the Rabbinic tradition to explain the text's stating that 'Reuben slept with Bilha the concubine of his father...' (35:22) Reuben did not actually sleep with Bilha, but because he did an action that disprupted his father Jacob's personal relationships, the Torah regards it as though he actually slept with her. The issue was as follows. After Rachel died, Jacob moved his main 'residence' with Rachel's handmaid, in preference to Leah, his own mother and Jacob's legal wife. Reuben regarded this oversight as a slight to Leah, his own mother, and in contrast to Bilha, his father's legal wife. He therefore 'intervened'... and was censured by his father Jacob even on his death bed (49:5).

(j) Rashi identifies Oholibama (36:3), one of Esau's wives, as Yehudit (Judith). She is mentioned as being one of Esau's Canaanite wives who brought great distress to his parents, Isaac and Rebecca (26:34-5). He explains that Esau changed Oholibama's name to Yehudit to create the false impression that she rejected idolatry, so to please his father Isaac.

(k) Rashi quotes the Midrash (Tanhuma: Balak 3) which recalls the general enmity between Midian and Moab. This is recalled in this Parasha where Hadad, an Edomite king, came to Moab's aid and defeated Midian. That is understand to hint at Moab and Midian generally being enemies, but in the time of Balaam they sank their differences in working together to attack Israel.


1. Why did 'a man wrestle with Jacob'? (32:25) according to (a) the Sforno and (b) Hirsch?

2. When Esau and Jacob met, 'they wept'. (33:4) According to Hirsch, were Esau's tears genuine or not?

3. The text states that Jacob 'made shelters for his livestock (sukkot), therefore he called the... place Sukkot'. (33:17) What, according to the Ohr Hachayim, may be learnt from Jacob's naming that settlement after specifically animal shelters?

4. What was the justification for Shimon and Levi murdering the male population of Shechem, according to (a) the Ramban (b) Gur Aryeh?

5. Why, acccording to the Sforno, does the Torah emphasize 'Esau - he is Edom'? (36:1)


1. Sforno sees the 'man' - understood by tradition as the guardian angel of Esau - as a symbol of the future: namely the ultimate salvation of Jacob and his descendants. Jacob, the narrative relates, suffered temporary injuries in the struggle, but he prevailed and went on to still greater accomplishments. Similarly, the Israelites many generations henceforth would endure losses, but they would ultimately emerge as a greater and blessed nation. Hirsch takes this line further, in dicussing the events of his lifetime over a hundred years ago. He understood that the struggle with Esau would only continue as long as there was 'night' on this earth - with human understanding 'overcast'. During that struggle in the darkness, Jacob's opponents would try to wrest the ground from under his feet and threaten his very survival - as they had indeed done even within his own day. Eventually dawn would break through as in the narrative - that dqwn would be the time Mankind reaches a greater understanding: acknowledging the truth of Torah teachings, realizing that its people do not deserve persecution and war, but respect and blessing.

2. According to Hirsch, Esau's tears were genuine, for the following reason. Tears, by their very nature, flow from the innermost human feelings. At that moment Esau showed that he could put aside his base instincts and show deep, humane, emotions towards his brother Jacob.

3. The Ohr Hachayin derives Jacob's compassion for all living creatures from this incident. Until then, shepherds related to their livestock as mere units, for food and profit. Jacob's building shelters for his animals showed he recognized that animals, at their own levels, had their own needs for well being and Jacob took care of them at entirely his own expense - without regard for profit.

4. The Ramban maintains that even though the people of Shechem had not all been involved in the rape of Dinah, they nevertheless had transgressed the Noachite Laws in other matters suffiently grievously to deserve to be put to death. The Gur ?ryeh disagrees, claiming that the massacres at Shechem did not relate to the Noachite Laws, but to the notion that the victim of aggression have the right to retaliate against their attackers. As the city-state of Shechem had behaved aggressively against the embryonic Israelite nation, Simeon and Levi had the right to counterattack.

However, whatever the justification, the other nine brothers did not get involved, and Jacob severely censured the attack.

5. The use of 'Edom' as Esau's name is, according to the Sforno, to emphasize the base nature of Esau's character. That name was first given to him as a reference to his coarse appetite when he exchanged his birthright for a portion of red ('Edom') lentils. (25:30). That greed and living entirely in the present at the expense of eternal values characterized Esau's way of life throughout.


1. Why was Shechem's behavior treated more severely than the Torah demands? Shechem raped Dinah. The Torah does not rank the rape of an unmarried woman as a capital offence. It requires the rapist to pay damages, and marry his victim (Deut. 22:29) - something, in fact, that Shechem begged to be allowed to do (34:12).

2. Esau's sins seem to be largely in the future - those of his offspring, rather than his own. As Obadiah states: 'for the outrage to your brother Jacob, disgrace will engulf you, and you will perish for ever' (Obad. 1:10). The 'outrage' - from the context of the prophecy in the Book of Obediah - is more than a millennium after his death. Why does Esau appear to be held to blame for the sins of his of progeny?

My attempts to answer #1 may be found on the Shema Yisrael website under Vayishlach 5761.

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.



This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Permission is granted to redistribute electronically or on paper,
provided that this notice is included intact.

For information on subscriptions, archives, and
other Shema Yisrael
Classes, send mail to

Jerusalem, Israel