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The Systems of the Jewish Year

In the Merit of Esav

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

In this week’s parsha we read about the fateful meeting between Jacob and Esau. Jacob, on learning that Esau is approaching with four hundred men, “was very afraid and distressed” (Gen. 32:8), fearing that Esau might want to kill him for his previous behavior over the birthright and their father’s blessing.

We may ask: What did Jacob have to fear? Where was his faith? Wouldn’t G-d protect him from his brother, he being much more righteous?

An answer is given in the Daas Zekeinim Mibaalei Tosafos. It says that what Jacob feared was the merit that Esau had gained due to his observance of the mitzva of honoring his father and mother.  Jacob, remember, had lived for the last twenty years with Laban, away from his parents, and had not had the opportunity all that time of practicing this mitzva.

But then we may ask: Did Jacob really have to worry about this? Honoring one’s parents is, admittedly, an important mitzva, which Esau observed strongly; but surely Jacob had so much merit from his observance of all the other mitzvas!  In fact it says, a few verses earlier, that Jacob told his messengers to tell Esau: “I have dwelt with Laban” (Gen. 32:5), and Rashi notes that the letters of the Hebrew word “garti” ("I have dwelt") can be rearranged to spell “taryag” ("613"), indicating that Jacob had managed to observe all 613 mitzvos, and doing this, what is more, while staying with Laban—not exactly an environment conducive to Torah observance!

What then did Jacob have to be afraid of?

Many answers can be given to this, but I think the real answer is very simple. It is this: Objectively speaking, Jacob had nothing to worry about. He was not in any danger: his merits far outweighed Esau’s. But his perspective was such that what he noticed most clearly was his brother’s one merit. His own merits were not in the forefront of his mind, but that of his brother shone brightly.

In Pirke Avos (2:13), we read that when R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his disciples to go and see which is the best quality to which a man should cling, his disciple R’ Eliezer answered: “A good eye”. What he meant here was not, presumably, the ability to read an optometrist’s chart well, but the ability to see the good in a person or situation.

Last week I was involved in finding out about someone from out of town for the purpose of matchmaking. I telephoned someone who knew this person, and asked him for his opinion. He gave me a blast of purely negative comments about various aspects of this person’s character. (This being one of the few occasions when lashon hara is permitted, he was probably enjoying this, getting rid of a lot of frustration.) I then phoned someone else, and asked him about this same person, and he responded with ten minutes of totally positive comments! It was hard to believe that they were both talking about the same individual. And yet there was a single person, who, we may assume, behaved the same way with both my informants, and yet made such a different impression on each.

Who had the better perspective? People who come up with negative judgments often think that they are cleverer than other people, and are sharp enough to see through false impressions to the real truth. In fact, as we can learn from R’ Eliezer, it requires just as much cleverness and insight to arrive at a positive impression of a person or situation.

This was Jacob’s greatness: that although he had more reason than anyone else to view Esau negatively (after all, as far as he knew, Esau was out to kill him), what he noticed most clearly about Esau was his merit of honoring his parents, so much so that in his mind it dwarfed all his own merits.

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