Then he himself went on ahead of them and bowed earthward seven times until he reached his brother.
When Yaakov bowed seven times as he approached Esav, he is described as attempting to reach not Esav, but “his brother.” Yaakov believed that the aspect of brotherhood between them – that they were both born into the kedushah of a family of Yitzchok and Rivka – was redeemable. True, the “Esav” aspect in himoften predominated, as he was deeply mired in actions that were the antithesis of kedushah. Nonetheless, in the moach, in the kernel sechel of his brother –there resideded the source of great Torah luminaries of the future, and many converts. In fact, in the world of kabbalah, it is accepted that Esav was the progenitor of R. Meir, one of the most important all-time links in the mesorah of Torah.
Yaakov succeeded, at least for the moment. Esav left behind his camp of warriors, and ran towards Yaakov. According to R. Shimon, he was sincerely moved, and embraced his brother with a full heart.
The change of attitude was ephemeral. Esav soon returned to his men, who are taken to be representative of four hundred worlds of shame, whose dark nature will be revealed in the future. The rapprochement with Yaakov was brief, but not without consequence. Coming close and then quickly moving apart accomplished two things. It created a necessary division between the two of them, which would be crucial for Jewish survival in galus. It also ignited in the holy neshamos harbored in Esav a longing for return. In effect, it enabled those souls to find their way to the Jewish people many generations later.
We will understand Yaakov’s modus operandi by first considering the difference between Shabbos and the preceding six days. The act of Creation was a reflection of a Divine will to reveal Himself. That revelation was, of necessity, limited and bounded. In a sense, all of the work of the first six days was one of fixing boundaries in different ways, and having the Divine ohr fill them.
On Shabbos, all that boundary-creation, all that limitation ceased. The Divine ohr shone without restriction. It shone upon a world that was, in fact, limited and bounded, but it was an unrestricted, unbound ohr that was permitted to be seen.
More simply put, during the six days of Creation, Hashem’s ohr reached the world according to the particulars of every item’s boundaries and limitations. By contrast, on Shabbos, within the boundaries of the dimension-restricted, limited world, an ohr reached it as if there were no such thing as limitations.
Similarly, Yaakov’s avodah, in part, was to call attention to the limitless within the limited. This is what gave him hope regarding his brother. He hoped that by exposing his brother to this limitless ohr, Esav would be inspired to forego the ways of his baser desires. Yaakov understood that there would be enormous resistance from the darker forces that cannot tolerate light – especially the intensity of limitless ohr – and would fight to retain Esav. It was to protect himself against their power that Yaakov saw fit to send real malachim (as opposed to human messengers) in anticipation of the meeting with Esav.
Yaakov also sent word to his brother that “I have acquired oxen and donkeys, flocks, servants and maidservants.” Chazal see various allusions in this, including identifying the ox with Yosef, and the donkey with Moshiach. The point may be that one of the ways that we sometimes triumph over the yetzer hora and the sitra achra is by demonstrating the fleeting nature of the pleasures associated with tum’ah. Yaakov wished to give Esav another argument to enable him to get past his desires: Yosef (who is considered to be, among the twelve tribes, the appropriate adversary of Esav) had already been born; Moshiach, entering on his simple donkey, is waiting in the wings, ready to subjugate all coarse pleasure-seeking to a higher purpose.
The stakes were high, and went beyond Yaakov’s affinity for his brother. The revelation of those lights mentioned above ultimately attract more converts to Hashem’s people. Esav, as mentioned before, has a role in the creation of those geirim. Yaakov also knew that his descendants were destined to spend many years in exile, as his grandfather Avraham had been told. Yaakov wished that the years of galus would be spent under the dominion of Edom, rather than anywhere else! That way, he, Esav, would continue to have a relationship with Yaakov, while allowing “his” geirim to be attracted to the faith of the avos. (Yitzchok as well wanted this. That is why the berachah he gave when he believed that Esav was standing in front of him was, “Peoples shall serve you…and your mother’s sons will prostrate themselves to you.” He meant that when it would become necessary for your brother to go into exile, it is to you that he will submit!) Because it was Yaakov himself who received the berachah when he impersonated Esav, the upshot was that even when the Bnei Yisrael would find themselves in galus Edom, they would remain the ones who would be determining the fate of their masters!
Esav won a partial reprieve from this sentence through the berachah the Yitzchok gave him when he became aware that he had taken the Esav-berachah and given it to Yaakov. “By your sword you will live…it shall be that when you become aggrieved, you will break off his yoke from your neck.” The time will come that Edom will realize that Klal Yisrael has dominion over them even when they live in exile among them. That realization will lead to terrible darkness and intensifying of the subjugation of galus.
The switching of the berachah to Yaakov, including the place-of-exile clause, meant that the first two galus destinations would not be in the lands of Edom. The final galus, however, would remain under the rulership of Esav. Here, too, Yaakov had a role in ameliorating the effects of that exile. “So said Yaakov your servant.” He was saying that he would agree to become Esav’s underling, so long as he could remain alive as Yaakov! To keep him as a servant would only be achievable if he, Esav, would put that sword back in its sheath.
Hashem accepted this as a prayer by Yaakov. It was effective in assuring the viability of another part of Yaakov’s words surrounding the meeting with Esav. “If Esav comes to the one camp to strike it down, then the remaining camp will survive.”
- Based on Mei Marom, Bereishis ma’amar 63 ↑
- Bereishis 33:3 ↑
- See Zohar 1:123:2 in the Tosefta ↑
- Bereishis Rabbah 75:4 ↑
- Bereishis 32:6 ↑
- Bereishis Rabbah 75:12 ↑
- Bereishis Rabbah 75:6 ↑
- Bereishis 27:29 ↑
- Bereishis 27:40 ↑
- Bereishis 32:5 ↑
- Bereishis 32:9 ↑