Rabbi Bernie Fox


Yaakov’s Gift to Esav

And he gave each individual flock into the hands of his servants.  And he said to his servants, “Pass before me.  And place a distance between the flock.”  (Beresheit 32:17)

Yaakov travels back to his father’s home.  He anticipates an encounter with Esav.  He had fled his home many years earlier to escape Esav.  He knows that he must appease his brother’s anger.  He prepares an elaborate and impressive gift for Esav.  The gift is composed of flocks of various animals.  Each flock includes both males and females.  The proportions are determined by the breeding requirements for each species.  For example, the flock of goats included two hundred males and twenty females.  For the forty cows, Yaakov provided ten males.  The number of males was designed to maximize the growth of the herd.[1]


Yaakov provides his servants with detailed instructions for the delivery of the gift.  He tells the servants to place a distance between the flocks of the various species.  In order to make sure that this instruction is carefully followed, Yaakov actually requires the shepherds, guiding the various flocks, to pass before him.  This allows him to personally monitor the distance between the flocks.[2]


Why was Yaakov concerned with the distance between the flocks?  The commentaries offer various explanations.  However, their comments share a common theme.  Yaakov designed his gift to impress Esav.  He needed to placate Esav’s anger.  He did not want to neglect any aspect of the gift’s design or presentation.


Rashi maintains that Yaakov separated the flocks to increase the perception of size.[3]  How did the separation create this impression?   An impression of size can be created in two ways.  The first is to design a large gift.  This approach has a disadvantage.  The recipient of the gift may evaluate the size differently than the person giving the gift.  The second approach is to design a gift that is too large for the recipient to see and evaluate.  This approach does not depend upon the recipient’s evaluation of the size.  The recipient cannot begin to evaluate the gift.  Yaakov adopted this second approach. Yaakov did not want Esav to be able to observe the entire gift in one glance.  In other words, the procession extended beyond the limit of Esav’s vision.


Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno offers another explanation.  Yaakov was careful to provide a specific ratio of males to females for each species.  This was done to maximize the breeding and growth of the flock.  This attention to detail would only be of value if it was recognized by Esav.  Yaakov did not want the flocks to intermingle.  He wanted Esav to be able to observe the detailed planning of the gift.[4]


Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra notes another element of the presentation that Yaakov carefully planned.  He explains that Yaakov was concerned with the impression made by his servants.  He knew that Esav was jealous of Yaakov and felt threatened.  The servants could inadvertently heighten these insecurities.  These servants were loyal to Yaakov.  They might be reluctant to pay homage to a stranger hostile to their master.  Therefore, Yaakov carefully communicated to his servants that he himself regarded Esav as his master.  He hoped that the servants would duplicate the attitude of their own master.[5]


There is an additional issue that should be considered.  Yaakov told his servants to refer to the gift as a minchah.  This term is also used for the grain offerings sacrificed in the Temple.  Sefer HaChinuch explains that the term minchah means a small gift.  Most offerings in the Bait HaMikdash consisted of animals.  Compared to these sacrifices, the grain offering is a modest gift.  Therefore, it is called a minchah.[6]  Why would Yaakov tell his servants to describe his gift as a minchah?  His gift was large and elaborate.  It seems that Yaakov was communicating a message to Esav.  True, the gift was large and elaborate.  Nonetheless, the gift was a modest present.  Yaakov was telling Esav that he held him in great esteem.  Relative to his high regard for Esav, the offering was only a modest token.


These elaborate precautions and directions indicate an aspect of Yaakov’s greatness.  In order to succeed in his plan he could not be deterred by personal pride.  He needed to appeal to Esav’s ego.  He could not do anything that might awaken Esav’s insecurities and jealousy.


Most people could not carry out such a plan.  Personal pride and ego would not allow us to act subservient.  Only a person who is very secure can succeed in such circumstances.  A secure person knows that self-worth is not determined by the perceptions of others.  It is a consequence of our real substance.  Yaakov had this security.  This quality allowed him to develop and carry out a successful strategy.





The Meaning of Yaakov’s Struggle with the Angel

And Yaakov asked and said, “Tell me your name.”  And he said, “Why do you ask my name?”  And he blessed him there.  (Beresheit 32:30)

Yaakov awaits his encounter with Esav.  During the night he battles with a man.  Our Sages explain that this man is an angel representing Esav.  The angel cannot overcome Yaakov.  He strikes Yaakov and dislodges his hip.  The man asks Yaakov to release him.  Yaakov insists that the angel first bless him.  Yaakov then asks the angel to reveal his name.  The angel responds that Yaakov has no need for this information.  The man blesses Yaakov and is released.


Sefer HaChinuch explains that this encounter communicated a prophetic message.  Yaakov’s descendants will experience exile.  They will be persecuted by the descendants of Esav.  Esav’s descendants will at times hurt the Jewish people.  This is represented by the dislocating of Yaakov’s hip.  However, they will not overcome Bnai Yisrael.  Ultimately, Yaakov’s descendants will triumph, just as Yaakov overcame Esav’s angel.[7]


Nachmanides agrees with Sefer HaChunuch’s interpretation of this encounter and explains additional elements of the incident.  One issue Nachmanides discusses is the dialogue in our passage.  What was Yaakov’s objective is seeking the angel’s name?  Why did the angel withhold this information?


He explains that the angel told Yaakov that he had no use for this knowledge.  He cannot use this knowledge to call upon this angel for help.  Only Hashem can provide salvation to Yaakov and his children.  If they call to this angel, he will not respond.[8]


Nachmanides comments are enigmatic.  What help did Yaakov hope to secure from the angel?  Did Yaakov actually believe that there is a refuge other than with Hashem?


Based on Sefer HaChinuch and Nachmanides’ interpretation of this encounter, we can understand these comments.  Yaakov received a prophecy describing the future suffering of his descendants at the hand of Esav.  He asked this angel to reveal his name.  What is the meaning of this request?  What does the name of the angel represent?  In the Torah names are sometimes more than mere appellations.  In some instances, an entity’s name describes its nature.[9]   In this case, the name denotes the nature of the angel. Yaakov was asking the angel to reveal its nature.  On other words, Yaakov wanted to understand the reasons and causes for Esav’s persecution of the Jewish people.  What are the reasons for this hatred?  How can Bnai Yisrael manipulate events to protect itself?  Yaakov sought answers to the questions raised by his prophecy.


The angel understood Yaakov’s intention.  He realized that Yaakov hoped to rescue his descendants from suffering.  The angel responded that Yaakov’s plan cannot succeed.  The fate of Bnai Yisrael solely rests in the hands of Hashem.  Esav is merely Hashem’s tool.  Yaakov’s descendants can only turn to Hashem for salvation.  They will not succeed in saving themselves through diplomacy or other manipulations.


Of course, as Nachmanides himself notes, this does not suggest that we should not make every effort to assure our own welfare and safety.[10]  However, we must also recognize that these efforts cannot – in themselves – secure our future.  Instead, our wellbeing ultimately rests with Hashem.





Yaakov’s Sons’ Justification in Their Destruction of Shechem

And they said to them: We are unable to do this thing, to give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for it is a disgrace to us. But in this manner we can agree to you – if you will be like us, to circumcise every male among you. Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters unto us. And we will dwell with you and be one nation. (Beresheit 34:14-15)

Dina, Yaakov's daughter, is abducted and violated by Shechem, who is a prince among his people. Shechem falls in love with Dina, and, accompanied by his father Chamor, he requests of Yaakov and his sons’ permission to marry her. The brothers respond that they will not allow Dina to marry an uncircumcised person. If Shechem, his father, and all of the males of the city will circumcise themselves, then the children of Yaakov will agree to the marriage. Furthermore, they will join with the citizens of the city as one nation.


Shechem, Chamor, and the inhabitants of the city agree, and they perform the circumcisions. Three days later, while the men of the city were recovering, Shimon and Leyve, two of Yaakov's sons, enter the city and kill all of the males.


Why did Shimon and Leyve kill the males of the city? Shechem, his father and the citizens had honored their portion of the bargain. Yaakov's sons seemed to be disregarding their part of the agreement.


Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Zt”l explains that a careful review of the pesukim indicates that in fact Shechem, Chamor, and the city's citizens never fulfilled in good faith their portion of the agreement. The children of Yaakov were not offering to permit a marriage between Dina and a circumcised idolater; rather, they required circumcision as a part of the overall adoption of the religion of the Jewish nation. If the citizens would agree to a total conversion, then Yaakov's children would merge with them as a single nation.


When Shechem and Chamor related the agreement to the citizens, they drastically altered it. They explained that if the citizens were circumcised, they would be able to arrange marriages with the children of Yaakov and his sons. They also described the economic advantages of merging their two peoples.  The children of Yaakov would develop trade, and eventually Shechem's people would absorb the children of Yaakov, and their vast wealth. In order to secure these benefits, they merely needed to submit to circumcision. Shechem and Chamor stressed the material advantages to be gained through circumcision. They did not mention the necessity of renouncing idolatry or abandoning their pagan religion.


Yaakov's sons became aware of this deception, and recognized that the agreement had not been fulfilled. With the failure of the agreement, Shimon and Leyve rescued their sister through killing the males of the city.[11]





Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Burial Site) and Burial Monuments

And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrat – this is Betlehem. And Yaakov set up a pillar upon her grave; the same is the pillar of Rachel's grave to this day. (Beresheit 35:19:20)

These passages describe the passing of Rachel.  Yaakov returns to Canaan.  During the journey, Rachel gives birth to Binyamin.  Rachel dies in the process of childbirth and is buried in Betlehem.  Yaakov erects a monument on her grave.  This is the first and only instance in the Torah in which a monument is erected on the burial-site of a person. 


This incident – the erecting of a monument on the site of Rachel’s grave – seems to contradict a teaching of the Talmud.  The Talmud teaches that it is not appropriate to erect a monument on the gravesite of a righteous person.  The Talmud explains the reason for this prohibition.  It comments that a righteous person should be remembered by his or her actions.[12]  In his discussion of the laws of mourning, Maimonides rules that this teaching is the law and that it is not appropriate to erect a monument on the gravesite of the righteous.[13]


Obviously, this teaching seems to be contradicted by Yaakov’s actions.  Rachel was a righteous person.  Yet, Yaakov erected a monument at her gravesite.  It is also difficult to reconcile the Talmud’s teaching with normative practice.  Throughout the generations, it has been the practice of the Jewish people to erect monuments on the gravesites of our departed.  How can we reconcile Yaakov’s actions and normative practice with the teaching of the Talmud?


Before attempting to answer these questions, it is important to carefully consider the prohibition outlined in the Talmud.  This seems to be a strange prohibition.  The explanation offered by the Talmud does not seem very helpful.  We would imagine that the tzadik – the righteous person – more than anyone deserves the honor of a monument.  Yet, the Talmud seems to indicate that the very deeds that distinguish the tzadik are the reason for not erecting a monument in the person’s honor.  Should we not acknowledge these deeds through the creation of a monument?


Etz Yosef explains that the purpose of a monument is not to glorify the departed.  Instead, it is designed to assure that the memory of the departed will not be forgotten.[14]  This is a fundamental distinction.  If monuments were intended by the Torah as a glorification of the departed, then the Talmud’s prohibition would be difficult to understand.  More than anyone, the tzadik deserves to be glorified.  However, as Etz Yosef explains, the purpose of the monument is to assure that the departed will not be forgotten.  Specifically, because the righteous are to be remembered for their deeds and the guidance that they provided, they should require no other monument.  The creation of a monument for the tzadik is a dishonor!  The monument implicitly communicates that the deeds and the guidance provided by the tzadik are inadequate to assure that this person will be remembered.  This means that either we are questioning the actual righteousness of the departed or that we are implying that we are incapable of recognizing the significance of true righteousness.  In short, the erection of a monument at the gravesite of a righteous person implies a depreciatory assessment of either the righteousness of the departed or of our own values.


Etz Yosef’s comments also answer another troublesome problem.  As noted, in his laws of mourning, Maimonides rules according to the teaching of the Talmud.  However, in his discussion of the laws regarding spiritual purity and defilement, Maimonides seems to contradict this ruling.  There, he rules that all gravesites must be marked.[15]  In this ruling, Maimonides makes no distinction between the gravesite of a tzadik or another person.  All must be marked.


However, Etz Yosef’s comments resolve this apparent contradiction.  Maimonides is identifying two different considerations that dictate that a gravesite should be marked.  In his discussion of the laws of purity, Maimonides is concerned with protecting people from unintentionally associating with a source of impurity and becoming defiled.  The body of a departed person is a potential source of impurity.  In regards to the transmission of impurity, it makes no difference whether the departed was righteous or not.  In any case, once departed, the body will potentially impart defilement.  Therefore, in this context, Maimonides rules that every grave – even the grave of a righteous person – must be marked and identified.  This is a precaution against the inadvertent transmission of impurity. 


In his discussion of the laws of mourning, Maimonides is dealing with a different consideration.  Maimonides begins the chapter by explaining that he will discuss the practices of the Jewish people in their preparation for the burial of the departed.[16]  These practices reflect our obligation to treat the departed with respect.  In this context, the erection of a monument is an expression of respect.  As Etz Yosef suggests, our objective is to assure that the memory of the departed is not lost.  It is in this context that Maimonides rules that it is not appropriate to erect a monument at the gravesite of the righteous.  Such a monument would not be an indication of respect.  It would be a depreciation of the significance of the tzadik’s deeds and counsel. 


Gesher HaChayim explains that these two concerns require different responses.  In order to assure that defilement is not transmitted, it is only necessary to mark the gravesite.  Concern over preventing inadvertent defilement does not require the erection of a monument.  Any effective marker is adequate.  However, the requirement to demonstrate respect for the departed demands the erection of a more substantial monument. [17]  It follows that according to Maimonides, the gravesite of a tzadik must be marked.  However, a substantial monument is not appropriate.


Although Etz Yosef’s comments are useful in understanding the Talmud’s ruling and resolving the apparent contradiction in Maimonides’ rulings, they do not provide much assistance in resolving the original questions.  Why did Yaakov erect a monument over the gravesite of Rachel?  How can we reconcile the normative practice creating monuments at the gravesites of the righteous with the ruling of the Talmud and Maimonides?


In order to answer these questions, it is helpful to consider another comment of our Sages.  Moshe sent spies from the wilderness to survey the Land of Israel.  These spies decided to alert Bnai Yisrael to the difficulties the nation would face in the conquest of the land.  They were even willing to portray the land in a negative manner in order to discourage the nation from embarking on the dangerous task of conquest.  Kalev was among these spies.  He disagreed with the assessment of the other spies and did not wish to participate in their conspiracy.  However, he was not sure that he had the determination to stand against them.  Kalev traveled to Chevron – to the burial site of the forefathers.  There he prayed for Hashem’s help in facing this challenge.[18]  It is not surprising that Kalev – faced with this challenge – made a pilgrimage to the burial site of the forefathers.  Kalev was confronted with the challenge of opposing his peers and standing alone against their overwhelming influence.  Whose lives could provide greater inspiration than those of the forefathers?  The forefathers introduced a radically new concept of G-d to humanity.  They stood alone against the religious doctrines of their times.  Their examples were a compelling inspiration to Kalev.


Kalev’s behavior indicates an additional reason for marking the graves of the righteous.  The lives of the righteous are a source of inspiration.  In times of personal trouble, we can draw from this inspiration, and this inspiration hopefully will infuse our prayers for Hashem’s assistance in dealing with our own challenges.  Based on this consideration, there is a reason to mark the gravesites of the righteous.


This explains our practice of placing monuments on the gravesites of the righteous.  We do not do this as an expression of respect.  As the Talmud and Maimonides rule, such monuments would not communicate respect.  However, we erect monuments at the burial-sites of the righteous for our own benefit.  We make these graves so that we can visit them and draw inspiration from these unique individuals.


Gesher HaChayim confirms this thesis.  He explains that there are three considerations that dictate the marking of graves or the erection of monuments.  In addition to the two noted above – prevention of inadvertent defilement and as an expression of respect – he identifies a third consideration.  We also mark the grave so that we can return to the site and pray there.  He further suggests that the Talmud and Maimonides only intend to prohibit the creation of an imposing monument at the burial site of a tzadik.  However, a basic monument designed to mark the location as the burial site of a tzadik is completely appropriate.  This basic marker makes it possible for us to return to the site and inspire our prayers.[19]


The midrash seems to indicate that this was the consideration that motivated Yaakov to erect a monument at the burial site of Rachel.  The midrash discusses our question.  Why did Yaakov erect a monument at the gravesite of Rachel?  Rachel was a righteous person.  A monument would not seem appropriate.  Among the responses is one which indicates that Yaakov intended to provide a source of future inspiration.  The midrash explains that Yaakov foresaw, through prophecy, that his descendants were destined to be exiled from the Land of Israel.  He foresaw that, as they left their land, they would pass the monument he had erected at Rachel’s grave.  The midrash describes Rachel praying to Hashem.  She implores Hashem to act with mercy towards her children – Bnai Yisrael.  This midrash requires careful study.  But the comments of Etz Yosef provide an important insight.  He explains that Yaakov’s intention was to mark Rachel’s gravesite as a place of prayer.  He hoped that his exiled descendants would be able to return to this site at the border of the Land of Israel and prayer there for Hashem’s mercy.[20]

[1]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:15.

[2]   Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 202.

[3]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:17.

[4]   Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 32:17.

[5]   Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 32:5.

[6]  Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 116.

[7]  Rav Ahron HaLeyve, Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 3.

[8]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 32:30.

[9]   See Sefer Shemot 3:13 and 6:3.

[10] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, Introduction to Parshat VaYishlach.

[11] Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik, Chidushai MaRan RIZ HaLeyve on the Torah, Parshat VaYishlach.

[12] Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Shekalim 2:5.

[13] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 4:4.

[14] Etz Chaim, Commentary on Midrash Rabba 82:10.

[15] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Tumat Met 8:9.

[16] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 4:1.

[17] Rav Yeschiel Michal Toktsinski, Gesher HaChayim, 28:1.

[18] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:22.

[19] Rav Yeschiel Michal Toktsinski, Gesher HaChayim, 28:1.

[20] Etz Chaim, Commentary on Midrash Rabba 82:10.