Can Hate Be Conquered?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha, Vayishlach, depicts the long-awaited confrontation between Yaakov and Eisav. Their relationship had been seriously jeopardized by Yaakov’s actions concerning the blessings Yitzchak had intended to give Eisav.

Eisav could not absorb the wound inflicted on his ego and silently vowed to exact revenge on his younger brother once their father was gone. In response, Yaakov had escaped to the house of his uncle Lavan. It was now 20 years later, and he needed to escape from this relative who had also become his enemy.

Hashem intervened to thwart Lavan’s intentions, but Yaakov was now on a collision course with his brother, and he could not relax and await a miracle. In keeping with the example of his grandfather Avraham, he seized the initiative and divided his camp, designed a diplomatic initiative, and, of course, prayed.

Yaakov was prepared to offer a substantial tribute to his brother. However, the monetary value of the gift alone would not save the day, as Eisav was very wealthy and, as he would soon attest, had no need for his brother’s largesse. Rather, the offering was intended as a display of kavod (honor) to express Yaakov’s desire to find favor with and to display honor to his older brother.

There is an important lesson here. Human dignity is of crucial importance. Violation of a person’s self-esteem can trigger terrible consequences. When a person is insulted, he can spiral into uncontrollable rage and turn violent.

Need we look any further than Lavan? Rachel had taken his terafim (religious icons) in the hope that he could wean himself away from idolatrous practices. This insult to his religious sensibilities almost produced catastrophic results. He chased after Yaakov and, were it not for divine intervention, would have wreaked fearsome retaliation. Indeed, the Passover Haggadah, in the section called “Go and Learn,” makes this incredible assertion: “Go and learn what Lavan the Aramite sought to do to our father Yaakov. For Pharaoh only decreed against the firstborn, but Lavan sought to uproot everything...” in his rage he might have destroyed his own daughters and grandchildren.

Yaakov approached Eisav with careful deliberation. He prepared a very substantial gift of choice animals and divided them into separate groupings. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch explains the importance of not presenting the gift all at once. A powerful emotion must be undone gradually, one piece at a time. Every time Eisav encountered a new gift, his anger would dissipate more, until his soul was appeased. [This is in line with the Rabbinic teaching that if one wants to overcome a  stingy  disposition he must tilt to the extreme of generous giving. The Rambam teaches that in this endeavor he should perform many charitable acts with lesser amounts rather than one massive donation.]

In addition, Yaakov marched in front of his family, and at seven intervals, stopped and bowed to his brother. This display of kavod (honor) expressed through the carefully arranged gift and Yaakov’s genuflections had a powerful impact. “Eisav ran toward him, embraced him, fell upon his neck, and kissed him; then they wept.”

The Rabbis disagree among themselves whether Eisav’s tears were genuine. Some hold that they were not, but Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that “although it is an immutable rule that Eisav hates Yaakov, at that moment his mercy was aroused, and he kissed Yaakov with all his heart” (Rashi). How can we understand the nature of this rabbinic disagreement?

It seems to me that Eisav’s display of emotion was not faked. He was genuinely moved and wanted to embrace his brother. But that response was rooted in his self-love. Yaakov had catered to his elevated opinion of himself, and his need for approval and Eisav felt gratitude for that. But is that a basis for a permanent rapprochement? 

For that to happen, Eisav would have to look into his soul and recognize that his evaluation of Yaakov had been wrong. It is not clear that Eisav was capable of reorienting the attitudes and values that would enable him to become a true brother to Yaakov. One Rabbi holds that Eisav’s tears were essentially an emotional and momentary knee-jerk reaction to the honor being offered him, a feeling that would soon dissipate.

But Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai held that it was more than that and contained a feeling of genuine affection for Yaakov. It was therefore a true basis for developing and cultivating a lasting friendship based on genuine mutual understanding. Indeed, after accepting Yaakov’s gifts, Eisav said, “Travel on and let us go; I will proceed alongside of you.” He did not want to part from Yaakov.

At that point in history, however, Yaakov had to be exclusively involved with developing his own family and could not be diverted by accompanying Eisav to Seir. Notwithstanding, the Rabbis assert (in accordance with the prophecy of Obadiah 1:21) that in the messianic era, Yaakov’s children will come to Mount Seir to render judgment against Eisav’s descendants. 

May the day soon come when Eisav’s blatant and irrational hatred of Yaakov will be eliminated from the world.

Shabbat shalom.

Dear Friends,

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