One of the ways we are told to prepare for a momentous and stressful event is to envision it in our imagination, seeing the event unfold, feeling the emotions we expect in real time, preparing how to respond to expected and unexpected developments. It works for some people, not for others. Until now, Yaacov has gone from one stressful event to another, and this week we feel the climax is coming, a meeting with brother Esau after 20 years. His preparations read like a manual for surviving big events.
Yaacov’s main objective is to defuse the hatred that he provoked twenty years earlier. He really was a conniving gonef. So what is the linchpin of his strategy? How can he neutralize a hatred that has had 20 years to smolder and grow in force?
What incited Esau’s hatred was Yaacov’s receiving their father’s blessing as firstborn. He was given material possessions and dominance. If Yaacov can return these blessings to Esau and say – you’ve got the power, you’ve got the wealth, you’ve got the dominance, perhaps Esau’s hatred will be assuaged.
With this in mind we can look at the parsha and follow Yaacov’s plan. First he sends out scouts who report that Esau is coming with 400 men. Not a good sign. He has to neutralize the material wealth factor and pander to Esau’s desire for dominance. He does this by sending wave after wave of gifts, all of them from “your servant Yaacov” to “my lord Esau.” Possessions and power. A good start.
But Yaacov is not sure that the gifts will soften Esau, who has had 20 years to imagine how he will bash in Yaacov’s head. Yes, God has promised him safety, but you don’t depend on miracles, and he hasn’t necessarily done anything to keep his side of the bargain, so precautionary steps are needed. So he divides his camp.
Perhaps the weakest link in Yaacov’s preparations is his own psyche. He’s walking the walk and talking the talk but he doesn’t believe it himself. Alone at night, waiting for the fateful day of meeting, the man who has had a vision of God atop a ladder, and who sees angels wherever he goes, has a night-long struggle with a man, an angel, an apparition, his own psyche, his fears, his persona. Take your choice.
At the end of the night and of the struggle he has been injured but he has been successful. He has even extracted a blessing from his adversary – a new name, Israel, one who has struggled with God and has succeeded. What does all this mean?
The names in the Torah very often tell us something about the traits of the person, at least as the parents perceive them at birth. Yaacov was called Yaacov because he was born holding onto the heel (akev) of his brother. Last week we read about Yaacov’s 11 children named in this way.
As Rabbi Sachs interprets it, Yaacov was always trying to be someone else. He wanted to be Esau, to be strong, to be a hunter, he wanted wanted wanted. The Irish poet and mystic William Butler Yeats said that we all wear masks of what we aspire to be, and we struggle our whole lives to become that other.
So Yaacov’s struggle that night is probably with his own demons. Before he can stand up to Esau, he has to know who he is. And when he fights against whatever forces this man/angel represents, he must either become that other person or accept himself. He accepts. He doesn’t have to be, doesn’t want to be Esau any more. He’s been injured. The struggle to realize the truth may free a person, but it can also damage one’s perception of his whole life until that point.
Once he has conquered himself, he can face Esau. He lines up his wives and children, to show what’s important to him. He bows countless times to Esau. He calls him “my lord, my master” at every opportunity. He fawns. He flatters. He almost grovels. These are outward manifestations that Esau can understand. Now that Yaacov has come to terms with himself he can hand back the mantle of the firstborn, and the blessing, with no regrets. What he has – family, possessions, security – are enough. He doesn’t need what belongs to another. Esau perceives that Yaacov is not pretending anymore and is appeased.
An obvious question arises. Yaacov is given the name Israel – twice in our parsha – yet he continues to be called Yaacov, even by God. In our prayers we say our fathers Avraham and Yitzhak and Yaacov. Perhaps, even when we take on a new name and personality, the old one is still there. Sometimes we are Yaacov, we see this in this parsha, and sometimes we are Yisrael. Depends on the circumstances.
All of us play different roles which vary, depending on circumstances. But somewhere down inside us we should know – and at some time in our lives we have to investigate and decide – who we really are. The sooner we do it, the sooner we can live the life that will make us happiest.