From deception to repentance

sriskin 521 (photo credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan;
sriskin 521
(photo credit: Painting by Yoram Raanan;
‘… for he said, “I shall find forgiveness from him with the gift which precedes my coming”’ (Genesis 32:21) In this week’s portion of Vayishlah, the very sensitive and complex meeting between twin brothers Jacob and Esau takes place after 22 years of enmity.
The dialogue between them is more verbose than the usual biblical style, and it is sometimes difficult to understand. Most difficult of all, however, is the nocturnal struggle between Jacob and his anonymous assailant. This struggle serves as both a prelude and a conclusion to the fraternal rapprochement between the feuding twins.
In previous commentaries, I have endeavored to explain the significance for Jacob as well as for subsequent generations that Jacob utilized the “hands of Esau” to receive his legacy as the rightful heir to the Abrahamic mission (see commentaries of Malbim and Rav S.R. Hirsch).
Indeed, as a result of the deception, God’s prophecy to Rebekah that the elder Esau would serve the younger Jacob was realized. Mother Rebekah set the stage for the Yeshivat Hesder movement in modern-day Israel, for the combination of sefer and seifa, the book and the sword, the Torah and the tanks.
Twenty-two years later, however, Jacob seems to go to great lengths to assert his elder brother Esau’s mastery and lordship. He instructs his servant, “so shall you say to my master Esau” and “so says your servant Jacob” (Genesis 32:5).
Jacob is seemingly giving many gifts to Esau in return for the material gifts that he had received through deception of their father: “And Jacob said, ‘Take my gift from my hand…; take now my blessing which has been brought to me…’” (Gen. 33:10-11). In other words, Jacob is returning the gift that he has stolen and asking his brother’s forgiveness for his deception.
At this point in the narrative, we are told that Jacob crossed the Jabbok River, where he was left completely alone. He wrestled with a man until the rise of the morning star. Who is this anonymous assailant? The assailant does not succeed in vanquishing Jacob, but he does succeed in dislocating Jacob’s thighbone. He blesses Jacob with the name Israel: “You have struggled with the Divine and the human and you have overcome.” Jacob calls the name of the place of the struggle Peniel (the face of God), “For I have seen the Divine face to face and my life was spared…” It seems quite apparent that somehow Jacob’s opponent/ assailant was none other than the Divine.
You will remember that father Isaac, when confronted by Jacob disguised as Esau, became suspicious because he heard the voice of Jacob even though he felt the hands of Esau. “Your hands are the hands of Esau but your voice is the voice of Jacob” (Gen. 27:22). At that difficult and fateful moment, Jacob managed to allay his father’s suspicions.
However, just prior to this meeting of the brothers two decades later, Jacob prays: “Save me now from the hand of my brother, the hand of Esau.”
Yes, Rebekah had correctly argued that Jacob, the wholehearted, studious and more spiritual son, required the hands of the more aggressive and materialistic Esau to successfully enable our Torah of love and peace to vanquish its enemies of Jihad and terror.
Indeed, Jacob needed the hands of Esau and proved to his father that he could utilize them for the sake of the birthright. However, those hands of Esau became much more than an external, necessary means to secure a justified end. The devious and destructive hands of Esau had engulfed – and almost completely smothered – the Godliness within the voice of Jacob, the internal image of God which had defined his wholehearted and studious personality.
During his years with Laban, Jacob became the deceiver of the deceiver, whose dream of uniting heaven and earth turned into the crass, materialistic dream of striped, spotted, and speckled sheep. The angel in that dream tells him, “I have seen that which Laban has done to you… return to the land of your birthplace (Gen. 31:13).
Tragically, the first deception – which certainly could have been justified on the basis of with whom young Jacob was contrasted, who young Esau was, as well as the fact that Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage – led to further deceptions, and was about to remove God entirely from Jacob’s soul. The truth is that the deception was necessary, that in an imperfect world, the end may very well necessitate unethical means.
But, even if the end necessitates devious means, it never justifies them. And it is in the nature of things that deception breeds further deception.
Hence, Jacob must suffer for the deception he perpetrated against his father. During that nocturnal struggle, he saw the God within himself disintegrating, and he correctly fights the necessary fight to disgorge the Esau who had inveigled his soul, hence: “I saw God face to face and my soul was saved.”
Fortunately, Jacob caught himself in time and did teshuva, repentance. He confronted his brother honestly, he admitted his sin, he returned the material gifts he had received through devious means, and he recognized the fact that his brother was indeed the elder. It will only be by virtue of his future deeds that he will or will not be worthy of the birthright.
His repentance enabled him to come to terms with his brother and to find God once again. And his repentance enables him to cease being a devious “heel sneak” even when faced with the terrorist-rapist family of Shehem, who are still holding Dinah captive when negotiating with Jacob’s family for integration.
Simon and Levi cannot allow their sister to be treated as a harlot by the people of Shehem. But Jacob criticizes his two sons for not facing Shehem and family frontally, as an enemy should be faced. Hence the name “Yisrael,” God will triumph (at the end), or perhaps even more to the point, God is yashar, honorably upright and forthright.
Shabbat shalom The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.