Parashat Vayishlah

Jacob’s Behavior Towards Esau: Appeasement or Realpolitik?
by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky
This week’s parashah continues the description of Jacob’s attempts at rapprochement with his estranged brother Esau. In his book on Genesis, Rabbi Yehudah Gilad draws our attention to a word that plays an important role in the Jacob-Esau narrative, minha — gift.
“Spending the night there that night, he took a gift from what was at hand, for Esav his brother.” (Gen. 32:14)
“Then say: — to your servant, to Yaakov, it is a gift sent to my lord, to Esav, and here, he himself is also behind us.” (Gen. 32:19)
“You shall say: Also — here, your servant Yaakov is behind us. For he said to himself: I will wipe (the anger from) his face with the gift that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will lift up my face!” (Gen. 32:21)
“The gift crossed over ahead of his face, but he spent the night on that night in the camp.” (Gen. 32:22)
“Yaakov said: No, I pray! Pray, if I have found favor in your eyes, then take this gift from my hand. For I have, after all, seen your face, as one sees the face of God, and you have been gracious to me.” (Gen. 33:10) [trans. Schocken Bible]
The repitition of the word “gift” seems to signify that Jacob chose a specific approach that he hoped would help bring about a reconciliation with his brother. These attempts at a peaceful reconciliation don’t mean that Jacob didn’t also envision a more violent scenario and the Biblical text does describe preparations for such a confrontation with Esau.
“Yaakov became exceedingly afraid and was distressed. He divided the people that were with him and the sheep and the oxen and the camels into two camps, saying to himself: Should Esav come against the one camp and strike it, the camp that is left will escape.” (Gen. 32:8-9)
The sages had mixed feelings about Jacob’s attempt at a peaceful reconciliation with Esau, expressing doubt that Esau could ever accept a peaceful coexistence with Jacob.
“Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.” (Proverbs 26:17) Nahman bar Samuel said: This may be compared to the case of a robber who was sleeping on a path, when a man passed and woke him up, saying, “Get up, for there is danger here.” At that he arose and began beating him, at which he [the victim] cried out, “[God], rebuke this wicked man!” “I was asleep,” he retorted, “and you woke me up.” So too did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to him [Jacob]: He [Esau] was going his own way, yet you did send to him, saying, “Thus says your servant Yaakov.” (Gen. 32:5) [Genesis Rabbah 75:3, trans. modified Soncino]
This midrash seems to be blaming Jacob for any possible negative outcome. If he would never have attempted to reconcile with Esau, the possibility of danger could have been avoided. Rabbi Alex Israel points out that the Ramban (Moses Nachmanides) not only brings this midrash but takes it even further.
“In my opinion this too hints at the fact that we instigated our falling into the hand of Edom [Rome] for the Hasmonean kings during the period of the Second Temple entered into a covenant with the Romans, and some of them even went to Rome to seek an alliance. This was the cause of falling into the hands of the Romans.” (Ramban: Commentary on the Torah, trans. Chavel)
Not all interpretations of Jacob’s actions were negative. Rabbi Gilad cites one midrash that sees in Jacob’s behavior a very good paradigm illustrating how a Jew should learn to deal with potentially tyrannical regimes and rulers.
“Rabbi Yehonatan said: Anybody who wants to placate a king or ruler and doesn’t know their ways and ceremonies should place this parashah in front of them and learn from it ceremonies, behaviors, and placations.” (Midrash Lekah TovVayishlah, 32:5)
There is no one answer to help guide leaders how to confront potentially adversarial leaders or regimes. The Biblical narrative describing the Jacob-Esau episode shows the multiple possible responses to these challenges. Was Jacob an appeaser or just someone who practiced realpolitik? Neither history or the Bible may offer a clear answer, but the question has never ceased to be asked.

Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator at AJR and teaches Talmud, Halakhic Codes, and History.