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The Power of... Bribes? - Parshat VaYishlach, 5781

12/02/2020 12:11:07 PM


Jacob hugs Esau cartoon

Our primordial ancestral family's odyssey is rife with conflict and drama....Here's a quick recap.

  • Abraham forms an eternal bond with G-d involving progeny: a great and numerous nation, territory, the Land of Israel and prosperity -- to be a source of blessing for all humanity. The bond is called the Brit/Covenant.
  • Abraham passes the Covenantal bond and its promises to his second son, Isaac.
  • The sons of Isaac: Jacob and Esau, enter into conflict over which is to inherit the Covenant. After spurning the Covenant, Esau seeks to reclaim it but is foiled when his brother Jacob, on their mother Rebecca's directive, disguises himself as Esau and receives the blessing instead of Esau, the older brother.
  • Isaac -- realizing the deception -- rather than trying to rescind his blessing, instead ratifies it, giving his younger son the blessing of Abraham before sending him off to find a bride from the family clan in Haran (modern day Syria).
  • Jacob marries both of the sisters intended for himself and Esau, the rejected brother. Leah and Rachel bear him eight sons and one daughter. Their handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah, as junior wives, bear four more children, bringing the twelve tribes into being.
  • Now, returning from twenty plus years in Haran, laden with an expansive family, flocks and riches, Jacob seeks to make amends with his long-estranged brother.

Jacob seems to be sincere in his desire to make peace. Rather than sneaking back home to Canaan, he goes out of his way to send messengers to Esau, who has taken his household to the strongholds of the hills of Se'ir in the land called Edom (blood-red) across the Jordan.  

The messengers return with ominous news: we came to your brother, Esau, and he is coming to meet you with four hundred warriors.

Jacob, terrified, divides his household into two camps, hoping that if one is attacked the other might survive. He prays to the G-d of Abraham and Isaac and sends a lavish offering to Esau: flocks of sheep, camels, goats, steer and donkeys both male and female, to ensure that the fortune in livestock is self- perpetuating. works! Esau and Jacob, polar opposites in temperament, lifestyle, values and eventually destiny, meet and embrace and are, for that moment at least, reconciled.

Jacob returns in peace to his homeland, bruised, battered by life, but intact, as Rashi says, spiritually, physically and with destiny and Covenant secure.

So, the lesson, children is...remember to be lavish in your bribes! Wait. That can’t be right. Or can it?
What’s strange is that although the theft of the Blessing is the source and cause of the brothers’ conflict, they never name it or discuss it openly. Instead, they have a gentle disagreement over the flocks.
“What is with the flocks I encountered on my way to meet you, brother?” asks Esau. “The shepherds all claimed that they belonged to me!”

“Yes: an offering to obtain your good will, my lord,” says Jacob. “I have much,” protests Esau, “keep what is yours.” But Jacob entreats Esau until he accepts the princely gift.

Some of the medieval Rabbis have no problem with the idea of a bribe. They argue that the paradigm offered by Jacob in dealing with the Esaus of the world -- and by Esau they meant Western Civilization, particularly Rome and Christian Europe -- and its rulers is a combination of payment, obsequiousness and prayer to G-d. As a persecuted and vilified minority living in the barbaric conditions of the Middle Ages and even into modernity, caught always between the hammer and the tongs, whether in conflicts between crown and aristocracy, church and peasantry, landowners and serfs or Catholic and Protestant -- the Jacob plan worked well enough.

Most of the time: the great massacres of the Crusades, the Black Death, peasant revolts of eastern Europe and ghettoization of the Jewish people all imprinted us with a legacy of horror and a reminder of what evil people are capable of.

So is that what the story of Esau and Jacob is all about ultimately? Placating bullies with bribes and humiliating bows?

There is a strange midrash in Genesis Rabbah. When Jacob sends the flocks to warlike Esau, they are shepherded not by skinny little guys but by gigantic, towering fellows who start shoving not the lowing cattle and bleating sheep, but the minions of Esau. Get out of the way! they shout. Who do you think you are!

We are Esau’s, protest the warriors of Edom. Edom is the mighty Esau, son of Isaac.

But the gigantic, supernaturally powerful shepherds don’t care. “Never heard of him!” they yell. “Let’s smash their skulls in!” And they wade in, swinging their shepherd’s staves like Shaolin monks, unstoppable and ruthless.

Esau and his minions are driven back before them. “We are Esau’s soldiers!” they cry. “Esau is the grandson of Abraham, Abraham of the Covenant with G-d!”

But this seems to make the demonic shepherds even more angry. “Crush them all!” they roar, driving the fully-armed and armored warrior clan back to the very edge of the cliffs of Se’ir.

Finally, Esau himself, already one step over the abyss, cries, “I am Esau, the brother of Jacob!”

The shepherds freeze. “If you are the brother of Jacob, then you are our family and these flocks are for you.” They vanish and melt away in the dawn, leaving the startled clan of raiders staring into the gentle eyes of thousands of goats, sheep, donkeys, steer and camels: the peace offering of Jacob.

This midrash has a message: the purpose of the offering is not as a bribe. It is not an attempt to compensate Esau for the stolen blessing, as some commentators have suggested. Instead, it is a reminder to Esau. Esau, you are my brother. We are connected by deep kinship that goes beyond anything we ourselves truly understand. Our resources are meant to be shared. The blessing of Jacob is meant to benefit both of us and more: it is meant to benefit all of humanity. It is not a zero sum game, but a blessing for us all.

That is why Esau embraces Jacob rather than just coldly accepting the offering. He realizes, at least for the moment, that he has not lost anything; instead, he has gained. To be G-d’s witness in the world is no picnic. Jacob’s children go down into Egypt, into the crucible of slavery, while Esau’s descendants rule in peace and prosperity in their land of Edom.

Before they part, Jacob promises to visit his brother in his land of Edom. The Torah records no such visit. That, the Rabbis say, was a prophecy: in time to come, Jacob will indeed come to Edom to complete the repair to the rift in humanity between the spiritual and the physical, the material and the holy. But until that day, it is incumbent on us, on Jacob, to share the riches of our heritage and the blessings. They were given to us for just that purpose.

Shabbat Shalom

Wed, July 28 2021 19 Av 5781