The beginning of the Parsha is dominated by Yaakov’s famous encounter with Esav. On a simple level, the threat that Esav posed was a physical one – that he would destroy Yaakov’s family with his four hundred soldiers. However, the commentaries point out that there was a second, even more pernicious, threat that Esav posed.
The Beis HaLevi discusses this at length. He begins with a novel explanation of Yaakov’s prayer to HaShem before the encounter. “Please save me from the hand of my brother, the hand of Esav.” Why did Yaakov use a repetitive language to describe Esav. He should have said, “save me from Esav”, or “save me from my brother”, what was the significance of both terms? The Beis HaLevi explains that Yaakov was fearful of two different dangers posed by Esav; one was that Esav would act with enmity towards Yaakov and thereby threaten his physical survival. The other danger was that Esav would now act with brotherliness towards Yaakov. Why would he be fearful of Esav’s friendliness? Yaakov did not want Esav to negatively influence Yaakov’s family by the two having friendly relations. Thus, Yaakov had a two-pronged fear – of the physical risk of meeting an antagonistic Esav, and the spiritual danger of encountering Esav as his ‘”brother”. In this vein, the Beis HaLevi explains another repetitive verse in the Parsha; “Yaakov was afraid and distressed…” What do the two similar expressions of fear refer to? The Beis HaLevi writes that Yaakov was afraid of the possibility that Esav may kill him, and was distressed about the risk that Esav would become close to him.
The Malbim continues this theme in his account of Yaakov’s battle with Esav’s Malach (Angel). He writes that Yaakov’s battle with the Malach (angel) was not primarily a physical one, rather it was fought on a spiritual plane that would have repercussions for the future of all of Yaakov’s descendants. In this battle, Yaakov was striving to free himself completely of physicality, and the taivas (desires) connected with it, so that he could totally connect with HaShem. The Malach was trying to prevent him from doing this, by causing him to be bound up in his physicality. He failed in this task, due to the fact that Yaakov had elevated himself to such a high spiritual level. However, the Malach was able to inflict some damage by striking Yaakov’s gid hanasheh . This, the Malbim explains, is because the gid hanasheh is the point of connection to physicality, and even Yaakov was unable to strip himself of that connection. This damage of the gid was the cause of the spiritual weakness in future generations of Jews who would leave Judaism.
We have seen that Esav’s threat to Yaakov was as much, if not more, on the spiritual level than the physical. However, thus far it would seem that Esav’s threat was that he would completely remove Yaakov and his descendants from any connection to G-d and the Torah. The Beis HaLevi brings a Medrash that shows that Esav’s threat was, in fact much more subtle: When the brothers finally met up, Esav’s heart softened towards Yaakov, and he offered for the two of them to travel together. The Medrash elaborates on Esav’s offer: “Esav said to him [Yaakov] that he should make a partnership with him [Esav] of the two worlds – Olam Hazeh and Olam Haba.” The Beis HaLevi explains that Esav was suggesting that they join together by both of them compromising somewhat on their lifestyles. Esav was prepared to accept upon himself the foundations of Torah, and in return Yaakov should give up a little bit of his pure focus on spirituality, and be more involved in this worldly activities for their own sake. Thus, Esav did not necessarily desire to totally uproot Yaakov from Torah, rather, just to dilute his pure devotion to Avodas HaShem.
We see in Yaakov’s earlier words to Esav that he also recognized the more subtle, spiritual threat posed by Esav. He famously tells Esav, “I lived with Lavan, the evil one, and I kept the 613 Mitzvos, and I did not learn from his evil ways.” Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l points out that the last part of Yaakov’s message, that he did not learn from Lavan’s evil ways, seems superfluous. Once Yaakov has said that he kept the Mitzvos, it should be unnecessary to say that he did not learn from Lavan’s evil ways – if he kept the Mitzvos, surely he didn’t learn from Lavan’s evil ways?! The answer is that it is possible to keep the Mitzvos, and yet be influenced by someone like Lavan; a person can ‘keep’ all the Mitzvos and yet have values that are not based on the Torah, rather on those of the outside world. Accordingly, Yaakov was telling Esav that Lavan was completely unable to dilute Yaakov’s Avodas HaShem. So too, Yaakov alluded to Esav that he would also be unable to influence Yaakov.
We learn from Yaakov’s momentous encounter with Esav that the spiritual threat posed by Esav was not limited to destroying Yaakov physically, or to fully diverting him and his descendants away from the Torah. Rather, Esav offered to merely dilute Yaakov’s pure Avodas HaShem with external values. Yaakov’s firm refusal of this offer teaches us that just as one must strive to observe all the Mitzvos, so too he must strive to espouse values that are totally concurrent with Torah do not derive from external influences. This lesson is extremely pertinent today, when the myriad influences of the Western world threaten to greatly affect the outlook and observance of Jews everywhere. For one person, it may mean that whilst he strongly identifies as a Jew, his observance is greatly compromised by the need s to be involved in the secular world, such as the necessity of working on Shabbos or eating in non-kosher establishments. For another, he may consider himself something of a ‘Shabbos Jew’ – someone who keeps Shabbos and some other Mitzvos, but when he is in the workplace, or striving to make money, Torah values take a poor second place to the desire to succeed in his business. For another, the influences may be even more subtle, and he may strive to keep all the Mitzvos, but his true desires are more in line with those of the Western world than those of the Torah. Whatever level we are on, may we all merit to emulate Yaakov Avinu by not learning from Esav’s evil ways.