Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’ co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
As the apparently harmonious reunion of Yaakov and Esav draws to a close (a reunion which, according to the rabbis, is actually more discordant than appears on the surface), the Torah recounts the following conversation between the brothers:
Esav: Let us travel…and I will proceed alongside you.
Yaakov: My lord knows that the children are tender and that the sheep and cattle are a burden upon me. If they are driven hard for a single day, then all the sheep will die. Let my lord travel ahead of his servant and I will make my way according to the pace dictated by the cattle…and by the children; until I come to my master at Seir.
Esav: Allow me to assign to you some of the people who are with me.
Yaakov: For what purpose? Simply allow me to find favor in my lord’s eyes.
After the conversation concludes, Esav returns to his home in Seir while Yaakov travels to Succot.
Why does the Torah record this dialogue? Are the brothers’ travel arrangements so significant that they need to be detailed for posterity?
How does this seemingly innocuous conversation serve as an appropriate epilogue to the dramatic reunion between Yaakov and Esav and to the powerful events that preceded it?
Why does Yaakov tell Esav that he will join him at Seir, and then travel to a totally different destination?
As usual, the pashut pshat of the Torah text conveys volumes. What seems, at first, to be an innocuous conversation is actually, upon examination, a critical negotiation. Years of separation and the dramatic reunion have all led to this one moment. The patriarch must now carefully delineate his ongoing relationship with his brother as he cautiously treads along the path between open hostility and “too much” harmony.
We find ourselves, again, at one of those quiet moments within the patriarchal era when a misstep on the part of one man can inexorably and permanently alter the course of our nation’s history.
Against the backdrop of the preceding events and with the undercurrents beneath the diplomatic language revealed, the conversation between Yaakov and Esav might well read as follows:
Esav’s opening gambit: “Let us travel…and I will proceed alongside you…” I am not going to let my brother out of my sight again. I will, therefore, suggest that we travel together towards a shared destination. If we move together through life, it will only be a matter of time before he and his family are overwhelmed by the strength of my presence and lose their uniqueness. Our camps will then coalesce and become one entity under my control.
Yaakov’s rejoinder: “My lord knows that the children are tender and that the sheep and cattle are a burden upon me. If they are driven hard for a single day, then all the sheep will die. Let my lord travel ahead of his servant and I will make my way according to the pace dictated by the cattle…and by the children; until I come to my master at Seir.” Dear God, what a dangerous moment! At all costs, I cannot allow our camps to travel together. Our lives and our priorities are totally different. I must find a way to negotiate a severance from my brother. And yet, how can I do so diplomatically, without arousing his anger? Perhaps if I remind him that I will have to travel slowly and if I let him think that I will join him in Seir, he will go on alone, ahead of me.
Esav’s second attempt: “Allow me to assign to you some of the people who are with me.” Yaakov’s trying to slip away! Not so fast! All I have to do is place some of my agents in his camp and, eventually, I will still be able to control him.
Yaakov’s rejoinder: “For what purpose? Simply allow me to find favor in my lord’s eyes.” Oh, no, that’s all I need – a fifth column within my own camp! I will just have to politely refuse and again insist that all I want is good relations. Hopefully, my brother will then go on his way to Seir and I will go somewhere else entirely. By the time we reach our respective destinations, he’ll get the message that I want to keep my distance. Hopefully he will come to accept that reality or, at least, he won’t find it worth the effort to come back and find me.
In the light of day, we witness that Yaakov has learned well the lessons that were conveyed to him, dramatically and perilously, in the darkness of the night.
In our previous study (see Vayishlach 2, Approaches c) we noted that, on the eve of Yaakov’s reunion with his brother, God caused the patriarch to struggle in mortal combat with a mysterious stranger, identified by the Midrash as an angel, the spiritual representative of Esav. Clearly, on one level, this conflict was meant to warn Yaakov to see beyond appearances at the meeting with Esav the next day. In the most effective way possible, God teaches the patriarch the hard and bitter truth that, although things might seem harmonious on the surface, philosophical and even at times physical confrontation will define the relationship between the brothers until the end of days. In order to survive, Yaakov will be forced to build the relationship with his brother within clearly defined philosophical boundaries.
Now Yaakov meets his moment of truth. When all is said and done, Yaakov cautiously negotiates a severance from his brother. His successful completion of this delicate negotiation helps define the parameters for our nation’s long journey across the ages.