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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

וַיִּשְׁלַח What Message Shall We Send

Posted by rabbiart on December 1, 2009

As the last parshah concludes, Yakov is going on his way –  הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ   – or “proceeding on the path”.

Yakov sends messengers.  What kind of messengers?  What message does he send? Who is he sending it to?  Why did Yakov send messengers at all?  There is  yet nothing in the text to suggest the Esav was still interested in Yakov, or in fulfilling the vow to a kill  made twenty years earlier.  According to Midrash Rabbah of Breshit (Section 65:3) the Kadosh Baruch Hu pointed out to Yakov that Esav was going his own way, “but you sent messengers to him”.  The comment immediately follows this parable.

R. Huna quoted this verse “He that passes by, and meddles with strife not his own, is like one that takes a dog by the ears.” Nahman b. Samuel said: “This may be compared to the case of a robber who was sleeping on a path.  A man passed by and woke up the robber, saying “Get up, for there is danger here.” At that the robber arose and began beating him.  The man cried out “Hashem rebuke this wicked man!”.  The robber retorted “I was asleep and you woke me up.”

There are several nice little points packed into this parable.

  1. Rabbinic tradition is not fond of Esav, so here R. Huna manages to compare Esav to a dog. The modern reader might focus on the double-dealing nature of Yakov, and feel that Esav is a more laudable character. Rabbinic tradition has no such qualms.
  2. Nahman b. Samuel is perhaps constructing an analogy where Esav is the robber, and Yakov is the good samaritan who receives a beating for his trouble.
  3. Yakov would have been better off to let sleeping dogs lie. Just as there is nothing to fear from a sleeping dog, Yakov had nothing to fear from his brother.

Yakov good, Esav bad, end of story.

Who does Yakov send? Are they men or angels?  Are they peaceful emissaries or a scouting party getting ready for combat?

Some translations render the word מַלְאָכִים (malachim) as “angels” rather than “messengers”. Again, the modern reader may wonder why the word is not translated as “messengers” when clearly that is the sense of the verse – or so it would seem. Rabbinic tradition is not uncomfortable with mixing the natural and (we might call it) the supernatural.  If the text says “angels” appeared, then it must be literally so. Even in cases where the text says “man”, some midrashim interpret the text to mean “angel.”In this case we have a textual basis for identifying Yakov’s delegates as angels.  In the last three verses of the prior parshah Lavan departs to return home, and Yakov proceeds on his way.  מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים (malachei elohim) – Elohim’s angels – meet him. He declares that the place is Elohim’s encampment.  So in the next verse when Yakov sends malachim it is natural to think that he is sending angels rather than human messengers.

In a story that mixes pshat and drash, Yakov is a bundle of conflicting emotions,.  In the text, Esav is “his brother.” Yakov wants to believe that he can reconcile; that he and Esav can still be brothers.

According to one midrash on the word malachim, Elohim’s encampment is populated by four thousand angels disguised as armored troops. So when Yakov sends messengers he is telling Esav that he is not the weak mama’s boy of twenty years earlier, but rather has grown into a powerful man with a powerful force at his disposal.  Part of him wants to deal with Esav from a position of strength.  They may still have a sibling relationship, but Yakov wants to be clear that he is the stronger brother.

The messengers return with the news that Esav is coming with four hundred men. A different midrash interprets “four hundred men with him” as each man is like him.  Just as Esav commands four hundred men, each of the four hundred men commands four hundred men.  So in this midrash, Esav has a force of 160,000 men!  fear takes over. Yakov is afraid, very very afraid.  And distressed.

If you were Yakov, what would you do?

Yakov wants to be loving and strong, yet he is afraid.   Yakov prepares for battle even while he hopes for reconciliation and peace.  Just as Yakov fights his fight and establishes his identity, each of us has to decide who we shall be in the world, and what our name shall be; warrior or peacemaker.  We can prepare to be the one, and hope to be the other, but ultimately,  it is not possible to be both.  Conducting war does not increase peace in the world; it is a delusion to think otherwise.

Ultimately, Yakov and Esav establish a cold peace. They meet, embrace, and one brother kisses the other. But soon they part, and the story continues without Esav.

In our time, can we do better?

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