“Jacob Lines Up His Family for the Encounter With Esau”

By Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayishlach, after his epic struggle with the angel, Jacob prepares for his encounter with his brother, Esau. The Torah tells us that Jacob raises his eyes and sees (Genesis 33:1), “V’hee’nay Eisav bah, v’ee’moh arbah may’oht eesh,” Behold, Esau was coming, and with him were four hundred men.

In preparation for the encounter, Jacob strategically divides his family. He places the handmaidens, Bilhah and Zilpah and their children first, Leah and her children follow next, and Rachel and Joseph are last. Scripture tells us that Jacob himself goes ahead of the retinue, bowing down seven times before reaching his brother Esau.

Esau runs toward Jacob, embraces him, falls on Jacob’s neck and kisses him, and they both weep. Jacob explains to Esau that all the people with him are his wives and children, and that the entire assemblage that had preceded his family was intended as his gift to Esau. After first declining, Esau accepts the gift. In their newfound brotherly love, Esau offers to escort Jacob. Eventually, Esau goes his way toward Seir, and Jacob resumes his journey to the land of Canaan.

The May’am Lo’ez (an extensive 17-18th century Ladino commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible) explains that, originally, Jacob intended to take his entire family together with him to meet Esau, because he felt confident that they would be protected by his fervent prayers. If, however, his brother Esau chose to do battle, Jacob was secure that he would defeat Esau. However, when Jacob raised his eyes and saw the four hundred powerful men with Esau, he was stricken with overwhelming fear, and was no longer certain that his prayers would help. So he divided his family into the three groups.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) as well as many other commentators, notes that Jacob lined up his family based on his feelings of “Acharon acharon chaviv,” the more precious and beloved members were placed further back for protection. The Radak (R’ David Kimchi, 1160-1235) says that Jacob assumed that, at worst, Esau’s anger would be assuaged with the massacre of those in front, sparing those in the rear.

Commenting on the order of the lineup, the May’am Lo’ez argues that Jacob did not, G-d forbid, intend to send Bilhah and Zilpah and their children into the lion’s den. After all, all members of his family were beloved by Jacob, and were destined to be essential members of the twelve tribes. But Jacob knew that the Divine Presence dwelt in the tents of Rachel and Leah, and was therefore not as concerned about their families’ safety. He consequently compensated for putting the handmaidens and their children first, by praying passionately on behalf of Bilhah and Zilpah and their children that G-d should save them. Only later, did Jacob pray for Rachel and Leah and their children.

Clearly, Jacob was acting pragmatically. He did not want to rely on miracles, so he devised a strategy. The strategy was predicated on the assumption that Esau would be less interested in the handmaidens and their children and, by the time that Esau reached Rachel and Leah and their children, he would undoubtedly be assuaged.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) explains that, at first blush, one might think that because of Jacob’s greater feelings of affection for Rachel and Leah and their children, he placed them last, so they would be more protected. Rabbi Hirsch however argues that this was not the case at all. When looking at the full situation more precisely, we discover that there was another reason for Jacob’s actions.

Surely, Jacob must have impressed upon his wives and children that they must behave with an outward appearance of due humility before their dreaded uncle. When the Torah describes the encounter with Esau, we are told that the handmaidens step forth with their children and promptly bow low. When Leah, “the real mother and keeper of the household,” steps forth, this noble, proud and confident woman, does not bow down before Esau, but her children do. When Rachel and Joseph step forth, Joseph, protectively stands in front of Rachel to shield her from Esau. Afraid that Esau would take offense, Rachel quickly bows down to disarm him. Upon seeing his mother bow, Joseph bows as well. Says Rabbi Hirsch, “Jacob let the maidservants [go] first, because he could quietly reckon on their behaving with due humility. Rachel and Joseph [went] last, because he expected the least from them.”

The Etz Chaim Torah and Commentary finds clues in Jacob’s behavior that would greatly impact on the future history of Israel. The commentary notes that the favoritism displayed by Jacob toward Rachel and Leah would eventually lead to serious consequences when Jacob favors one wife over the other and prefers his son Joseph over all the other children. After all, children do not really want to be treated equally. They want to be treated according to their own unique needs. That is why it is important for parents to recognize their children’s individual strengths and talents. There is certainly no reason for a parent to be embarrassed and try to hide the fact that they treat their children differently based on each child’s individual personality.

But favoring, one child over the other, often has very unfavorable consequences, as we will soon learn in the upcoming Torah portions.

May you be blessed.