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Judaism: Sword, Olive Branch and Good Deeds

What is the real interpretation of Yaakov's emissaries and of the angel?
Published: Sunday, December 02, 2012 10:52 PM



In this week’s Parsha, Yaakov sends emissaries to meet his brother Eisav (Esau).

Midrash, as its wont, supplies differing opinions as to who these emissaries were. In fact, Midrash again, as is usual with its insights, offers contradictory views. One interpretation is that the emissaries were humans, servants and allies of Yaakov. A second view is that they were angels, heavenly messengers employed by Yaakov to safeguard him and his family from the malevolence of Eisav.

So which interpretation is true? In addition, Midrash offers different insights into what occurred when these emissaries of Yaakov, whether angels or humans, actually encountered Eisav and his armed band. One opinion in Midrash is that Yaakov’s emissaries were aggressive and threatening to Eisav, and actually inflicted blows upon his group. Another opinion in Midrash portrayed Yaakov’s emissaries as being conciliatory, friendly and even subservient to Eisav.


So again, which opinion is true and accurate? We see that even within Yaakov his emotions are conflicted. He prepares for war, but at the same time is ready to pay heavy monetary tribute to Eisav.


Later in the Parsha, Yaakov wrestles with an anonymous adversary. Again, Midrash supplies different identities as to who this opponent was. Some say that he was an angel, so to speak, the guardian angel of Eisav. Others say that he was a human being, a highwayman and robber. Still others say that he was an intellectual and scholar. So, once more, we are faced with having to determine what we are to make of all of this.

What is the moral insight that Midrash wants to communicate to us with all of these different opinions?


Abraham Lincoln, in one of his famous inaugural speeches to the American public, states that he prayed that “the better angels” within the individual would prevail, thereby ending slavery and preventing deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in a bitter civil war. Whether one sees angels or humans, Lincoln pointed out, is dependent on perspective.


Yaakov saw angels while Eisav saw only humans. What Yaakov saw as being reasonable, conciliatory and generous, Eisav saw as being threatening and aggressive. Someone may appear to be a scholar and intellectual, or even to be a friend, but may really be only a highwayman and a brigand.


Yaakov, after his years in the house of Lavan, recognizes this dichotomy of perspective. He knows that Eisav does not see the world and life with the same view as he does. He hopes that Eisav will yet come around to viewing matters in the same perspective as does Yaakov. Though he prepares for war, which is Eisav’s perspective, he combines it with cooperation and even tribute in order to achieve harmony and peace, which is his perspective.


This, I believe, is a fitting metaphor for our times and circumstances. The perspective of Yaakov – that of the State of Israel and the Jewish world generally – differs radically from the perspective of our enemies and even from our erstwhile friends.

We hope to be able to change that perspective and align it more closely with our view. But until that happens we must deal with reality and be ready with both the sword and the olive branch, prayer and good deeds.