> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Between the Lines

By Force and By Friend

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's parsha, Jacob journeys homeward after a 22-year absence, and meets his brother, Esau, on the way. Jacob prepares himself for the potentially dangerous encounter in three ways: he prays to God; he divides his family into two camps (a protective measure in case of battle); and he sends gifts ahead to his brother.

Our mystical tradition teaches that Esau is the personification of the yetzer hara (inclination toward negativity) in this world. Therefore, on a deeper level, Jacob is not only preparing himself to meet Esau, but is readying himself to battle the yetzer hara.

Jacob pleads to God, "Please save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau" (Genesis 32:12). Why does Jacob use this repetitive language? He has only one brother, and there is only one Esau. Either description would have been sufficient on its own!

The Kedushat Levi and the Ben Ish Chai both understand this seeming redundancy as a hint to two different approaches of the yetzer hara.

One approach of the yetzer hara is to attack us outright, and to try to actively prevent us from following God's will. This approach is called "Esau" - the overt use of force to keep us from practicing Judaism.

But the yetzer hara can also make inroads by causing us to let down our guard. This more subtle approach is what Jacob calls "my brother." At times, nations will not attack us overtly, but will instead try to befriend us. Historically, this approach has the same effect as the use of force. When we become relaxed and comfortable within a non-Jewish environment, the clarity of what God wants from us begins to fade, and we are susceptible to giving up our beliefs.

Through this idea, we can see that the verse is not redundant at all. When Jacob asks to be saved "from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau," he is asking for two different types of protection. He requests the strength to resist the temptations of false brotherhood and camaraderie ("my brother") as well as the ability to protect himself from overt physical attack ("Esau").

May we all be blessed with clarity and awareness, so that we will not be taken advantage of or swayed - either by force or by false friendship - to compromise our Judaism.

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