We all have encountered Esavs in our lives, whether as a part of ourselves or manifested in various people we encounter. Yakov demonstrates through these parshiot the various ways to overcome Esav and the yetzer hara (evil inclination) he represents. In last week’s parashah, we see Yakov asking only for food and clothing. He’s a picture of the simple tzadik, “ish tam, yoshev ohalim” (a righteous man sitting in tents, learning Torah).
At this stage of his life, he was fearful of Lavan and Esav and would flee and run from his troubles. But in this week’s parashah of Vayishlach, we see a more mature Yakov: he has accumulated material wealth because he knows how to spiritualize it, and he approaches Esav instead of fleeing, because he knows the way in which he and all of us must face adversity. Rashi points out the way in which Yakov faced his challenge head on; he didn’t rely on his righteousness or for Hashem to take care of it. He sent gifts, he prayed, and at the same time, he prepared for battle, and separated his camp into two, sending “emissaries ahead of him to his brother Esav in the Land of Seir, to the fields of Edom.”1 In difficult situations it’s important to go in with a positive attitude that everything will work out, but we can’t always control how the situation will unfold and how the other person will react, and so we have to prepare and protect ourselves at any cost.
Yakov represents Israel (which he is later named) and Esav represents Edom (the opposing nation to Israel). Reb Natan of Breslov explains that the “gift” Yakov sends to Esav represents certain devotions that we give to the sitra achra (the other side), examples being, the goat to Azazel on Yom Kippur, and mayim achronim (ritual hand washing) before birkat hamazon (grace after meals, ברכת המזון). Yakov’s prayer, in this case, represents our asking Hashem to keep us from the sitra achra.
Yakov separated his traveling tribe into two camps, having emunah (faith) that on the strength of his tefillah at least one of the two camps would be spared, as Chazal (Our Sages) remind us, that any tefilot a Jew offers will be answered, at least in part.2 And finally, his “battle” represents our need to be prepared to repel “Esav” (the Evil inclination) and to not fall into despair. As Reb Natan quotes, “Even if I cannot fully win this battle, at least I will salvage some of my devotions, some of my preparedness to serve God.”3 Life is a constant battle between our yetzer tov and yetzer hara. The only way to win is to constantly strengthen ourselves towards good through tefillah (which also strengthens emunah and bitachon) and through action (mitzvot).
Before this parashah, Yakov ran away from the physical in order to focus solely on the spiritual. And it’s certainly tempting to want to escape this world and run away from the trials. But what we saw from that was a lower level of prophecy with Yakov at that time – Hashem appeared to him as visions in the night, a lower level revelation through dreams, which we see with folks like Abimelech,4 Laban,5 and Balaam.6 But once he wrestles the angel, and once he prepares to face Esav, he is renamed Yisrael. We are B’nei Yisrael because we are meant to live in this world, to deal in materialism, but in a way to elevate it. We can enjoy the pleasures of this world, but not like Edom (Esav). Being like Yisrael means we can enjoy food, we can enjoy sex, we can enjoy material things, but only if tapping into the yetzer tov while doing it.
Blessing food and using it to give yourself strength to do good in this world is a powerful thing. We are taking something that is a blessing created from Hashem and using it in a way to bless Hashem. The same can be done with any material substance in this world. We especially see this with sex. It is something that could be used in a damaging way, causing both yourself and another person psychological harm. But it is also the most powerful connector, bringing people together in not only a sensual but a spiritual way. And we know that what can come from it is creation, life itself, a fully formed being. So our task isn’t to avoid it at all costs, but to partner with Hashem through it via a spiritual union with your partner.
Yakov, who fled the physical and conflict, becomes Yisrael, the person who learns how to live in this world, but for the next world, because such a development is a higher level of being. Yakov’s wrestling with an angel elevated him to a new status as an angel himself, as seen in his name change to Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל), as seen in the suffix (El אֵל). As we know, the angel who he wrestled with was the Satan (Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination). The gematria (numerical value) of Yisrael (יִשְׂרָאֵל) is 541, which is the gematria of combining Yakov יַעֲקֹב) 182) and Satan (שָׂטָן) 359, which comes to show the person who conquers their yetzer hara reaches the level of Yisrael (541), a redemptive state. We can also see this in the verse in Hosea when it’s written, “וַיָּשַׂר אֶל-מַלְאָךְ” (So he strove with an angel…)7 If you move the first letter (ו) to the end of the word of angel (מַלְאָךְ), the word switches to mean, “his angel” (מַלְאָכוֹֹ), and what is left are the five letters that spell Israel יִשְׂרָאֵל, further illustrating that the person who wrestles their yetzer and conquers it is elevated to this state of Yisrael.
Rashi explains that the messengers Yakov sent to Esav were angels, and he sent them saying, “This is what you should say: To my Lord Esav, so says your servant Yakov: I stayed with Lavan and delayed my return until now… I have cattle and donkeys” (וַיְצַ֤ו אֹתָם֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֣ה תֹאמְר֔וּן לַֽאדֹנִ֖י לְעֵשָׂ֑ו כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ עַבְדְּךָ֣ יַעֲקֹ֔ב עִם־לָבָ֣ן גַּ֔רְתִּי וָאֵחַ֖ר עַד־עָֽתָּה)8
Rashi explains that when it says stayed (גרתי, GaRTY) with Lavan that he was relating that he kept the 613 (תרי״ג, TaRYaG) mitzvot, the gematria of גרתי is 613. Reb Natan explains that specifically because Yakov stayed with Lavan, who wanted him to fall from his devotions, Yakov was able to strengthen himself and attain the knowledge and ability to keep the 613 mitzvot, using the adversary he faced in Lavan to bring him closer to Torah.9 Yakov was trying to send the message that despite having lived with Evil, he did not fall and will not fall. By sending angels he showed that he was immersed in Godliness. In the verse when it says “until now” and specifying that Yakov has “cattle and donkeys” that he received by cultivating Lavan’s flock, he was trying to send the message that he has turned his Torah studies into prayers and materiality into Godliness to achieve even greater levels, and that he is ready to match and even overcome Esav.10 When they finally did meet, we see that Esav conceded the blessing to Yakov, as he recognized that if Yakov was able to subdue Lavan throughout the twenty years of constant attempts to deceive Yakov and was able to reveal Divine favor and come out on top, then Yakov was the one to truly deserve the blessing.11
We read how Yakov sent his family and possessions across the stream, but went back to retrieve some small jars.12 And as we know, it is then that Yakov “was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Yakov’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him.”13 In his struggle with the angel ‘Satan’ [the Angel of Death], he was injured in the sciatic nerve, which Rashi explains was violently torn from Yakov’s joint by this angel. This nerve is rooted in the lower spine and runs down the thigh to the ankle and is generally associated with sexual drive.
The Zohar teaches that every day in the year as well as every limb in the body has a spiritual counterpart. Reb Natan teaches that the three paragraphs of the Shema prayer contain 248 words, which is the gematria of RaCheM (רחם, compassion). Compassion grows from belief in Hashem and working on that connection. It is then that a person is considered a human being with 248 limbs (which correspond to the 248 “positive” mitzvot that require action to fulfill).14
Compassion is also born of pausing and not reacting at all times. We have 365 sinews which correspond to the 365 “negative” mitzvot that are the things we should not do, corresponding to the 365 days of the year, as it is something we have to be diligent with at all times. Sinews (or nerves) through the brain instruct our limbs to act. Being mindful of Hashem’s instructions of when not to act in situations where we “feel” like acting strengthens each corresponding sinew or nerve, elevating it and causing holiness to dwell upon it. On the flip side is failing to resist the temptation or to perform the mitzvah, and that actually weakens the limb (or nerve), causing a spirit of impurity to dwell on it. And so each nerve and each day has a corresponding angelic force. Otherwise, the person is considered an animal in human form.
Chazal teach that just as there are 248 members (limbs and organs), there are 248 spiritual limbs of the soul that enliven and govern the body. The Arizal teaches that the soul of a righteous individual consists of 248 spiritual members, and each one contains a spark from some of the souls of the other righteous individuals. They are interconnected in that way. And so all the Divine favor that the person receives is in the merit of the souls of the other righteous people who are connected and dependent on him. The Arizal explains that this is why the righteous value their possessions, since they know that they come from above. This is why Yakov went back, even though it was just a couple of small jars. By fulfilling one’s mission, the righteous person is fulfilling the righteous that preceded him and actualizing the potential of previous souls with completion, in ways they might not have realized while in their own physicality. So, realizing that what Hashem gives isn’t only to fulfill one’s own mission, but that of the missions of those that preceded him. And so valuing possessions not only because they allow him to reveal the Light of Infinite in this world, but also because they allow him to further the state of completion of the souls that came before him. And so the Arizal explains that a righteous person can’t disdain the material, because if nothing could be accomplished by giving them to him, Hashem wouldn’t have given them. And this is why Yakov returned to collect the small jars, because otherwise it would appear as though he didn’t value them at all. Everything given to us must be valued, and so he went back to show just that. And in this battle Yakov had with this angel ‘Satan’ [the Angel of Death], just as with our own struggle with the yetzer hara, but not on our own merits alone, but with the merits of the righteous ones that came before us and with that, we are able to overcome and outweigh the Sitra Achra. So, too, with all the good and holiness that we take on, we elevate and hopefully fulfill missions of the ones that came before us.15
Yakov was damaged in the pelvic region because this was where the Satan could claim he had possibly fallen from the Torah’s instructions to not marry two sisters. This argument is, of course, refuted on many grounds, however, it still gave the accusing angel a hold over Yakov. This is the reason the Torah says “the Children of Israel do not eat the sciatic nerve which is in the hollow of the thigh to this day because he [the angel ‘Satan’] damaged Jacob’s pelvis in the sciatic nerve.” 16 When it says, Yakov was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until dawn arose,17 we see that the angel tried to fault him on every one of his sinews, and on every day of the year, only finding a hold on the sciatic nerve. This comes to teach us the importance of both the positive and negative mitzvot at every moment and throughout the year. These are done with the material around us and have an effect on every limb and sinew in us.
In Likkutei Sichot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe has the most epic teaching about the heights of spirituality through materialism and what Yakov was truly communicating with the words, “I have acquired oxen and donkeys.” It was specifically his Divine service in the house of Lavan that involved refining physical and material entities which enabled him to receive the loftiest revelation, and that B’nei Yisrael and the Moshiach will be revealed through him, alluding to one of the two ways the Moshiach will arrive, one from the prophecy of Zechariah being “a poor man riding a donkey,”18 and the other from the prophecy of Daniel “with the clouds of heaven.”19 Chazal reconcile the differences in visions explaining that, “If Jews are worthy, Moshiach will come ‘with the clouds of heaven.’ If they are not worthy, he will come as a ‘poor man riding a donkey.’ Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer teaches that it is the very same donkey that Avraham used to carry the wood and other materials for the Akeidah (sacrifice) as is stated, “He loaded his donkey,” and the very same that Moshe used when bringing his wife and children to Egypt, as it’s written, “He mounted them on the donkey.”2021
The word chamor (חמור),”donkey”, shares the same root letters as chomer (חומר), “material substance,” which is fitting because the Midrash explains that Mashiach’s arrival is dependent on our fulfilling the task of refining the sparks of Godliness clothed in the world’s material substance.22 Revelation comes through each of our efforts to refine our body, our animal soul, and our portion in this world and to use them for holiness. When Yakov said he stayed/sojourned (גרתי) with Lavan and acquired donkeys… he regarded the physical setting as foreign, as the root word is (גר) ”stranger”, as we recall the famous verse, “a stranger in a strange land.” But (גרתי) can also be translated as “I dwelled,” and we see through the message Yakov was sending to Esav was that he transformed the space and experience into a manifestation of Godliness. The Rebbe explains that as a result of Yakov’s refinement of these physical entities, he was prepared to greet Mashiach. Therefore his statement, “I have acquired… donkeys” refers to the King Mashiach.23
Yakov had thought that Esav in the time allotted to him had also refined himself and that he, too, was ready for the coming of the Redemption, but the messengers came back to him saying, “We came to your brother, to Esav.”24 and yes, he is your brother and you are already prepared for the Redemption, but he is still Esav and is yet to be refined, and so the Redemption cannot come now. The lesson for us is that even if the world is full of Esavs, ruled by Edom, we still have to emulate Yakov, perpetually refining ourselves and those around us (“sheep, servants, and maidservants”) for the Ultimate Redemption. As the title of one of the first Dvars that I wrote says, taken from Friday Night Lights, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” This is done by knowing that “I sojourned (גרתי) with Lavan,” knowing we are no more than a stranger in this material world, “I am a stranger in the land,”25 and that this is not our natural setting. Feeling that one is merely sojourning in this life, material existence will not conflict with spiritual and one can enjoy material success like Yakov’s, acquiring “oxen and donkeys, sheep, servants and maidservants.” But this has to be done while preparing oneself and their household and possessions for the Redemption. In this way a person has an effect on the world at large.
As Rambam says, “The world is equally balanced”,26 and so with one good deed, a person can tip the scales of the entire world and bring redemption to it. And he continues: “When the Jewish people turn to Hashem in teshuvah, they will be redeemed immediately.” The Alter Rebbe and the chassidic movement’s redemption occurred in the week following our Shabbat parashah of Vayishlach, Yud Tet Kislev, 5559 (1798). Chassidut teaches us all how to “sojourn with Lavan,” to live in this world and treat physical concerns as transitory, to reach to the revelations of Moshiach. As the Baal Shem Tov famously said, “When your wellsprings spread outward, the master (i.e. Moshiach) will come.” A person uses/rides a donkey to reach a destination that he or his possessions would otherwise be unable to. The same applies to the spiritual parallel of riding on a donkey. The Baal Shem Tov explains that the reason why chamor, “donkey,” and chomer, “material substance,” share a root is seen in the verse, “When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden…”27
When you see the donkey (chamor) – that is, when you carefully inspect your chomer, your body, you will see..
of one who hates you – i.e. it hates the soul that longs for G-dliness and spirituality. Furthermore, you will see that it is…
lying under its burden – G-d intended that the body be refined by studying Torah and observing mitzvot, but it is lax in fulfilling its task..
certainly help him – by refining and purifying your body.
The lesson is that through refining and elevating our physical selves, tendencies and the physical world’s material substance, we reach a level our souls could never reach on its own. Chassidut interprets the verse, “Many harvests come through the strength of an ox,“ 28 in a similar way, to mean that by using our animal souls, our Godly soul attains a more intense love for Hashem and accomplishes more in its mission of refining the world and ourselves than it could have on its own. We need to use the material and our physical selves to uplift our spiritual selves and the souls that came before us and to bring them to a place of the Ultimate Redemption that should come speedily.
Prior to the giving of the Torah, material substance was not able to be elevated. In the time of Avraham there was a Divine decree separating the physical and spiritual, but after the Torah was given came the possibility of physicality itself, even its inner dimension, becoming holy. Physical substance doesn’t exist for its own purpose, but rather exists solely for “Hashem’s honor”.29 And so the physicality of this world is simply a medium for Godliness, where we refine material existence through our physicality to connect our soul on high. The Rebbe teaches that even the higher levels of the soul (i.e. chayah and yechidah) will be raised to a higher level through the Divine service of refining the body.30
In Chassidut, there is this concept of bittul (“self-nullification”), a commitment to Hashem and divine service that transcends self-concern. In a place not fit for holiness, the practice of nothingness (in somethingness) of bittul becomes even more extreme. The Baal Shem Tov once spent some time in the home of a heathen who had idols in his house. Something you would think would be uncomfortable and bring despair to such a righteous giant, but he came out very happy and said to his disciples, “I have good cause for joy, for in one hour I observed the entire Torah. For the law forbids one to meditate on the words of the Torah in any filthy place, and idolatry is considered the same as any other obscene and repulsive thing. The fact that I controlled my mind from considering even a single thought from the Torah may be accounted equal to having observed the whole of the Torah.”
Reb David of Dinov commented on this, pointing out the Rashi that Yakov had observed the 613 mitzvot. But how can that be, if he could not observe the commandments that are only applicable in Israel, while in Lavan’s house. The story of the Baal Shem Tov illustrates how Yakov observed all 613 by being in a house of idols. Yakov was forced to guard his thoughts on dwelling on even a single idea from the Torah, since the prohibition on thinking of holy matters in such places applies to the whole of Torah. And Yakov was vigilant about any and every thought involving Torah, which was strengthened in the 14 years prior when he studied in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever, and so it could be said that Yakov observed all of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.31
In a way, to put so much perpetual focus to not focus on something keeps you just as connected, if not even more. I always loved the line in the movie I Heart Huckabees when Jude Law finally agrees that he won’t tell stories (a crutch that he uses to make people like him), and Lily Tomlin asks, “What do you think will happen if you don’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?” Jude Law replies, “How am I not myself?” And Lily Tomlin looks to Dustin Hoffman then back to Jude Law as they all keep repeating, “How am I not myself?” Bittul is the act of being, of being something, but transcending that something into nothingness in the ultimate way to connect to Hashem. Yakov humbled himself to Esav to further his mission of unifying the material with the spiritual and to bring Israel’s mission to “conquer” Edom.
As we covered in parashat Toldot, Yakov and Esav will never be equally great at the same time: “the ascent of one would result in the descent of the other.”32 The Chatam Sofer teaches that Yakov’s reaching out and humbling himself may have been based on Iyov’s advice that, “He, Hashem, raises the nations and then destroys them.”33 Since Esav (Edom) was destined to reign for a finite period of time and then be destroyed, Yakov wanted to limit the tenure of power and reign by flattering him, thinking that if he could soften him with flattery, gestures, gifts and words, he could curtail the duration of such power. Making Esav feel superior, Yakov hoped to hasten the downfall of Edom and usher in the redemption. Iyov’s observation, “He misleads nations before destroying them” could also be interpreted that Yakov wanted to mislead Esav into believing Yitzchak’s blessing had had no effect and that the recipient of the blessing had to actually plead for mercy from the loser of the struggle.34 Saying, “In my stay with Lavan I did not become a prince or a person of esteem – only a sojourner, a second-class citizen. There you should not hate me because of your father’s blessing to me35): Be a lord to your kinsmen, since it was not fulfilled in me.” Of course Yakov knows that his father’s blessings were fulfilled from his holy perspective, but he knew from Esav’s perspective of wanting the entire world without end, the blessing in Esav’s eyes will never actually be fulfilled. Yakov concluded his message telling Esav, “you shouldn’t be angry with me, because such blessings as our father gave me would never be enough for you, even though they are all I need.”36
We have all had to overcome Esavs in our lives, people that are toxic and try to push your positivity into negativity. Sometimes it’s different people at different times, I’m no exception to that. It’s a struggle to be the better person with such people, but I have continuously tried. It’s only recently that I started to question why I’m trying so hard, and to consider that it might be time to match toxicity and negativity with just that. But then I realized that that would let that person win and change you for the worse, making you into what you don’t like about them. Rebbe Nachman teaches that even with the most evil person one has to find the good point in them, and that could elevate them to a place of merit. Focus on the good, and eventually it will be good. So we have to approach it like Yakov and Esav. Yakov came to Esav and sent gifts and said “My Lord,” humbling himself, so that the ascent of good would result in the descent of bad. Part of bittul is self-transcendence, not in a way that is damaging to yourself, but putting your own self aside and figuring out a way to continue to be righteous and to connect to Hashem despite the obstacles, even if they are manifestations of the Sitra Achra in those moments.
We have to overcome this world, materiality, our physical selves, the difficulties that come from them, but not by avoiding, but by elevating. Death Cab for Cutie have a song called, “Where Soul Meets Body” and I always loved the first verse:
I want to live where soul meets body
And let the sun wrap its arms around me,
And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing
And feel… feel what it’s like to be new.37
It touches on this holy intersection where soul meets body and the revealed light is all encompassing, while bathing in the purifying water, which is associated with a new beginning, and water being Torah and life itself.
The Dubno Magid explains a Midrash in our parashah that the term “from afar” in the verse, “Yakov lifted his eyes and saw Esav from afar, and then lifted his eyes to Heaven” teaches us that we have to do the same in all future generations– lift our own eyes to all future Esavs, deal with yetzer hara head on, but only after lifting our eyes to the Heavens, strengthening our own emunah and bitachon, praying and connecting, knowing all comes from Hashem. It is only with that knowledge that our own plans will be successful. That is why Yisrael chose to face Esav and not leave it in the hands of Hashem. As it’s written, “Hashem your God has blessed you in all the works of your hand.” (ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ בֵּֽרַכְךָ֗ בְּכֹל֙ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֶ֔ךָ אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ עִמָּ֔ךְ לֹ֥א חָסַ֖רְתָּ דָּבָֽר)38
We have to connect our own work in this physical world to the spiritual world to draw blessings down. It’s the connection between the two that brings the blessings, otherwise the physical “blessing,” when it’s missing its spiritual counterpart, can become a curse. And so tapping into the light, renewal and a constant desire to unify the soul and body is our mission in this life, as seen through the journey from Yakov to Yisrael.
I pray that we merit to see the revelation of the concealed and its redemption in this lifetime with the Beit HaMikdash restored in its full glory, speedily and with all the blessings and peace, a time of kulo Shabbat (complete Shabbat). As I always say, Shabbat is my favorite time of the year 😉
– Erez Safar
Audio snippet below:
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Notes & Sources
- Bereishit 32:4
- Vayikra Rabbah 10:5
- Likutey Halachot III, p. 254-128a
- Genesis 20:60
- ibid 31:24
- Numbers 22:9
- Hosea 12:5
- Genesis 32:4-5
- Likutey Halachot III, p. 250-126a
- Ibid VIII, p. 40
- Ibid I, p. 154a
- Chullin 91a
- Genesis 32:25-26
- Likutey Halachot I, p. 314
- Apples from the Orchard, p. 186,187
- Genesis 32:33
- ibid 32:25
- Zechariah 9:9
- Daniel 7:13
- Exodus 4:20
- Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 31
- Tanya, ch. 37
- Bereishit Rabbah 75:6
- Bereishit 32:7
- Tehillim 119:9
- Talmud Kiddushin 40b; Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah
- Exodus 23:5
- Mishlei 14:4
- Talmud Avot 6:11
- Likkutei Sichos: Bereishis by the Lubavitcher Rebbe p. 407-417
- A Treasury of Chassidic Tales on the Torah p. 122
- Iyov 12:23
- Chatam Sofer 164 ד״ה והנה
- Genesis 27:29
- Darash Moshe, p. 62
- “Where Soul Meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie
- Devarim 2:7