How do we reconcile Yaakov's behavior, tricking his brother and lying to his father, with our vision of Yaakov as an ish emet, a man of truth? Through an analysis of several seemingly unimportant details, we will connect two stories in which Yaakov is a central character and understand what it means to develop into a person of character.
This is Rabbi David Fohrman, welcome to Parshat Vayishlach.
Last week I talked with you about a statement that the sages make concerning Yaakov’s curious tears when he first meets Rachel: “vayisa kolo vayevch,” he raised his voice and cried. Our sages connect this to the last time we had ‘vayisa kolo vayevch,’ in the Torah and that person was Esav. Esav cried when Yaakov tricked him and managed to get his father Yitzhak to bless him instead of Esav and Chazal seem to tell a story that connect these two events.
They tell us in effect that one set of tears created another set of tears, that, at some level, Yaakov understood when he first saw Rachel, somehow he will never completely have her. They wouldn’t be buried together, according to one interpretation. He didn’t have enough money to marry her outright according to another interpretation, and therefore was subject to his father-in-law tricking him, subsituting Leah under the Chuppah, instead of her.
Esav’s ‘vayisa kolo vayevch,’ raising his voice and crying, somehow is the cause. Later on Yaakov is raising his voice and crying. In any case one of the challenges I mentioned is, if you accept this analysis of the Midrash, how do we reconcile that with our viewing Yaakov as a role model? He is one of our forefathers, he is an Ish Emet, according to Chazal. How do we make sense of all that?
I want to suggest a theory to you, based upon a fascinating textual pattern and, I think, hinted to in Chazal and Midrash as well. Let’s go back to that event that I just referenced. And then I want to play this little game with you: Where else do we hear all this? So I am going to lay out this setting for you, various different features of what occurs here, and as I am doing that, I want you to ask yourself, where else in the Torah do all these features reappear in another story?
Okay, here we go. Genesis 29, right before Yaakov encounters Rachel for the first time, he is running away from Esav, he comes to Haran and comes upon a well. “Vahinei sham shalosha adrei-tzon rovtzim aleiha,” There were three through a three groups of sheep, waiting by the well.
Okay, that’s element number one. In what other story in the bible, do we meet three groups of sheep?
Next element. So Yaakov encounters the shepherds of these three groups of sheep and asked them “achai me’ayin atem?’ ‘My brothers, where are you from?’ He wants to know the identity of all these people and sheep and, strangely, he calls these shepherds who he has never met before, ‘my brothers.’
Next element, “odenu medaber imam v’Rachel ba’a im ha-tzon.” As Yaakov is talking to these shepherds, Rachel comes.
Fourth element: when Yaakov sees Rachel, “vayigash Yaakov,” Yaakov approaches. In what other story, do we then have Yaakov approaching?
Fifth Hebrew word: after Yaakov approaches “vayishak Yaakov l’Rachel va’yisa kolo vayevch.” Yaakov kisses Rachel and lifts up his voice and cries. In what other story, after all of these elements, does Yaakov again kiss someone and does Yaakov again cry?
What other story has all of these elements? The answer of course, is in this week’s Parsha when Yaakov meets once again, his brother Esau. Yaakov leaves Lavan’s house and receives word that his brother Esav is coming to meet him with four hundred hundred men. He fears for his life but decides to confront his brother to attempt to reconcile with him. He sends him gifts, flocks of sheep, three different groups of sheep. Chapter 32, verse 20 “vayisav gam et-ha-sheni, gam et-ha-shlishi.” There are three groups of sheep. And after the sheep, Yaakov places himself. and his family, and last of all, Rachel. Esav encounters the sheep. When Esav finally meets up with his brother Yaakov, he asks, ‘whose is all this? Identify all this,’ and finally he sees Yaakov’s family and then he sees Rachel.
Yaakov approaches Esav: same words as last Parsha—‘lageshet,’ ‘vayigash Yaakov.’ Esav runs to embrace Yaakov. Yaakov embraces him, kisses him, and cries. It’s all happening again. The setting for the encounter is the same. The three flocks of sheep. The question is the same, ‘My brother, identify all of these.’ Rachel is the same, she appears. Yaakov’s approach is the same, Yaakov’s embrace, his kiss, and his tears are the same. The only thing that’s different is who he is embracing. This time he is not embracing Rachel. He is embracing his brother, the brother from whom he’s been alienated these twenty years.
And now, let’s go back to what our sages say about how Yaakov cried when he first saw Rachel. In that moment that he first saw her, he had a premonition that something would get in the way of him completely having her and the sages seem to identify the root of that. As the tears that Yaakov provoked in his brother, which the Torah characterizes using the same language ‘vayisa kolo vayevch,’ when Esav found out that he was deceived…as God’s providence would have it, there would be another time, later in our Parsha, in which Yaakov would fear the imminent loss of Rachel and that fear comes to fruition, when Esav advances to meet him with four hundred men.
The moment he first met Rachel had been haunted by the memories of Esav’s tears and now the moment, at which he might lose her for good, has come upon Yaakov. It’s almost as if the same story is happening. It’s as if this scene is replaying itself, the scene through which he first met her and first feared that he would never have her.
Will that fear come to pass? Will she be taken from him now? He will either know the joy of having Rachel or the unspeakable pain of being deprived of her. It all hangs on this knife edge but the bold choice that faces Yaakov is what he will do with his brother?
In the end, he embraces him, they kiss one another, and they cry. And in that moment of reconciliation, when there’s no deception anymore, Yaakov looks Esav in the eye and says, ‘take these gifts’ “kach-na et birchati,’ take my blessing. Take my blessing that I am giving you. The double entendre is hard to miss. ‘I once took a blessing from you, take a blessing now from me.’ Yaakov insists, Esav accepts, and he leaves in peace. And Rachel and the rest of Yaakov’s family, is safe.
Yaakov in the end is an ‘ish emet,’ is a man of truth, but not, perhaps, because he was born that way. None of us are born ‘people of truth.’ We develop into people of truth. Yaakov develops into a man of truth too. It’s one thing to never lie, to never deceive. It’s another thing after having deceived, a far more difficult thing, to be able to encounter, with integrity, your old nemesis…a nemesis who is a brother, and to be able to truly try to make peace and to be able to succeed in that effort. When you do, that’s integrity.
Just as a short epilogue to that, I want to let you know that these ideas that I have been exploring here, in this Parsha video, is really just a taste of a much, much larger picture. A picture that I am exploring now in a premium course we are offering here at AlephBeta called ‘Yaakov: Man of Truth?’ You can sign up for this course, at our website, that’s really looking at the reverberations of the Yaakov and Esav story throughout the rest of Sefer B’reshit. The thesis that I am suggesting, of course, is that the story of Yaakov and Esav is kind of a flashpoint, almost a lens through the entire, rest of Sefer B’Reshit can be viewed. What’s really exciting about this course is that, it’s really a work in progress. Each week, you folks contribute on discussion boards, I respond to those ideas in the following week’s talk and we really develop the ideas together. It’s an exciting adventure, I encourage you to join. Look forward to seeing you there.