Vayishlach 5779

The double entendre[1]

ויצו אתם לאמר כה תאמרון לאדוני לעשו כה אמר עבדך יעקב עם לבן גרתי ואחר עד עתה ויהי-לי שור וחמור וגו’‏
[Yaakov] commanded [his messengers], saying: “Thus you shall say to my master Eisav: Thus says Yaakov your servant. I dwelled with Lavan, and was delayed until now. I have oxen and donkeys…”[2]

Yaakov feared for his life, and was worried that his brother Eisav was still vengeful. As an appeasement to his potential fury, Yaakov sent Eisav a massive tribute. He sent him dozens of animals to show his submissive attitude towards his journey home. Part of the tribute included sending messengers, who were to send Eisav a message. The thrust of the message was to downplay the blessings which Yaakov “stole” from Eisav. Instead of becoming someone prominent and powerful, Yaakov was a shepherd for his uncle Lavan for twenty-two years. Eisav had no reason to be jealous, as the blessings hadn’t come true.

Our Sages teach us that hidden within Yaakov’s message to Eisav lay various allusions. Yaakov said עם לבן גרתי, I dwelled with Lavan. The word גרתי has the same letters as תרי”ג, which is the numeral value of the 613 mitzvos[3]. Yaakov was saying that despite living with the wicked Lavan, he wasn’t negatively influenced by his behavior, and managed to fulfill the 613 mitzvos[4]. As well, by Yaakov mentioning he has oxen and donkeys, he was alluding to his sons Yosef and Yissachar[5]. Later on, when the twelve tribes were blessed[6], the Torah describes their unique attributes. Yosef is said to have the majesty of an ox[7], and Yissachar is considered a strong-boned donkey[8]. While these allusions are apparent once they’re revealed, what do they have to do with Eisav? How was he supposed to realize that Yaakov was alluding to the 613 mitzvos, or that his sons Yosef and Yissachar are comparable to an ox or a donkey? Did Yaakov really think that Eisav had prophetic insights into what future blessings they would be given[9]?

Perhaps the explanation is based on a fundamental principle in how the righteous conduct themselves in this world. Queen Esther, when she was revealing to King Achashverosh who was the culprit attempting to massacre her people, said: “A wicked adversary – this evil Haman!”[10] The gemarra says[11] that initially she was going to say that Achashverosh was the actual culprit. She started pointing to him, but an Angel knocked her finger towards Haman. She therefore changed her sentence to focus on Haman. If she was begging Achashverosh to spare her people, how could she have thought that accusing him of genocide would help? It would only infuriate him! The explanation is[12] that she wasn’t talking to Achashverosh. When she was speaking to the King, her intent was to the King of Kings, G-d. To everyone else it looked like she was talking to Achashverosh, but in her mind he wasn’t her savior. Hashem was the true savior of the Jews, and she was pleading with Him to spare her people. This is not just how Esther behaved. This is the way of the righteous[13], to simultaneously plead before Hashem while speaking to earthly people.

We also see this with Yaakov. The Torah tells us that Yaakov bowed seven times when he greeted Eisav. In reality, he was bowing to Hashem[14]. We can also say that this is the explanation behind his allusions in his message to Eisav. The simple explanation of Yaakov’s message was words of appeasement, trying to belittle himself in order to aggrandize his older brother. The blessings were not fulfilled while he was away. There’s no reason for Eisav to be jealous. However, his deeper intention was to allude to his mitzvah performance while in a difficult situation.  This deeper meaning was a message for Hashem. He was pleading with Hashem to have mercy on him and spare him from his wicked brother’s wrath. As well, he mentioned his oxen and donkeys. They were meant to further show Eisav that the blessings weren’t fulfilled[15]. However, he was also alluding to his two sons Yosef and Yissachar. Our Sages teach us[16] that they were incredibly wise Torah scholars. In the merits of their studies[17], Yaakov was asking Hashem to save his life[18].

We can learn a lot from our righteous ancestors. Despite being fully involved in this world, they took advantage of every chance they had to connect to their Creator. Even when they were in mortal danger, and were mid-conversation with their enemy, they didn’t waste the opportunity. They prayed to Hashem in a way that wasn’t obvious. For sure in a situation of relative calm, where they could focus their minds, they wouldn’t get too involved in physicality. There are so many opportunities for spiritual growth in this world. What made these people special is they simply didn’t waste a moment.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Genesis 32:5-6

[2] Genesis loc. cit.

[3] See Makkos 23b for the source of this number, and Ramban’s Hasagos to Sefer HaMitzvos Shoresh 1 for a discussion about their consensus

[4] Rashi ad. loc; Lekach Tov (who quotes a Bereishis Rabbah we are lacking), Midrash HaGadol, and Midrash Aggadah ad. loc. See also Torah Sheleimah ad. loc. § 31

[5] Bereishis Rabbah 75:12

[6] They were blessed by Yaakov in Genesis Chapter 49, and Moshe in Deuteronomy Chapter 33. The Midrash combines Moshe’s blessing for Yosef with Yaakov’s blessing for Yissachar. The explanation to this curiosity is alluded to by the Be’er Yosef. See note 9

[7] Deuteronomy 33:17

[8] Genesis 49:14

[9] This implies that Yaakov himself knew what Yosef and Yissachar would be referred to in the future blessings, due to his own prophetic powers

[10] Esther 7:6

[11] Megillah 16a

[12] Vilna Gaon ad. loc.

[13] The Be’er Yosef demonstrates that we see this is true for Daniel (see Daniel 4:16 and Shevuos 35b), Nechemiah (see Nechemiah 2:4), and David (see next note). Rabbi Frand also posits that this is true for Yehudah. When Yehudah approached Yosef, asking to allow Binyomin to go free (see Genesis 44:18), he was really speaking to Hashem (see He uses this idea to explain the Sefer Rokeach § 322, brought by Aruch HaShulchan Orach Chaim 95:3, who says that Yehudah “approached” in prayer, which is one of the reasons we take three steps forward before prayer

[14] Zohar I p. 171a. As well, according to this Zohar, David was speaking to Hashem in I Samuel 25:6 and not Naval

[15] Rashi ad. loc. Cf. Ramban ad. loc.

[16] Regarding Yosef, see Genesis 37:3 with Targum Onkelos and Ramban. Regarding Yissachar, see I Chronicles 12:33 and Bereishis Rabbah 98:12

[17] The Be’er Yosef brings Bereishis Rabbah 65:20 and Eicha Rabbah Pesichta § 2 to show that the Jews are saved from their enemy Eisav specifically in the merit of their Torah studies

[18] The Be’er Yosef’s son points out that when he was finishing the publishing of the book, someone pointed out to him that the Noam Elimelech gives the same explanation for Yaakov’s allusions