June 13, 2024
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Shortly before the expected confrontation between Yaakov and Eisav, Yaakov was met by the guardian angel of Eisav, and they had a wrestling match (32:25 and Rashi). The pasuk (v.26) says that he was unable to defeat Yaakov, but hit him in his hip-socket. The Seforno explains that he was unable to defeat Yaakov since Yaakov was so engrossed in bonding with Hashem, both in thought and speech. So—apparently to take his focus away—he showed him the future when the leaders of the Jewish people would sin. This caused Yaakov to become worried, which put a pause on his engrossment in cleaving to Hashem, and in that moment the guardian angel of Eisav managed to dislocate Yaakov’s hip-socket.

Rav Henach Leibowitz asks: If the angel was intending to distract Yaakov, why didn’t he show Yaakov the future calamities that would befall our people—for example, the destruction of both Batei Mikdash, the Spanish Inquisition, Tach v’Tat, the six million in the Holocaust?! Rav Leibowitz answers: The fact that the angel did not use that method shows that it wouldn’t have worked to distract Yaakov; Rather, only the knowledge about the spiritual downfall of the future leaders of Bnei Yisrael would give him pause. (“Chidushei Halev,” Vayishlach).

We can learn from here that Yaakov was more concerned about the spiritual welfare of the Jewish people, than the physical. Why? Rav Leibowitz explains that a national physical destruction can be always rebuilt, whereas a national spiritual destruction, of even the leaders, is more devastating since if the leaders fall, the rest of the nation doesn’t have upon whom to be led by and follow and work their way back up. Maybe another explanation is that while the loss of the physical life is invaluable, the loss of a spiritual life is more surpassing, for it is felt also in the next world, where “life” is spiritual and eternal.

Unfortunately, the loss of spiritual life, can occur not even necessarily through force and hatred of those who oppose Judaism, but can cunningly occur through their displaying love for us and attempting friendship: Anticipating a potentially life-threatening confrontation with his big bro Eisav, Yaakov prays to Hashem, “Please save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav” (32:12). Yaakov didn’t just say “from the hand of my brother Eisav,” but instead split “Eisav” and “brother” (by saying “hand” of my brother … “hand” of Eisav), which indicates that there are two separate fears that Yaakov expresses: “Eisav,” and “brother.”

We can understand the threat of the “hand” of “Eisav”—Eisav is out for Yaakov’s blood. However, what threat could there be from the “hand” of “brother”? If Eisav acts like a loving brother to Yaakov instead of like an enemy, is that something to fear?

Yes indeed, says Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Eisav might try to attack Yaakov in a physical sense, but he also might try attacking in a spiritual sense, through being a “brother,” i.e. by way of friendship, love and closeness, to instigate assimilation. In fact, from the very structure of Yaakov’s prayer we see that he prioritized the threat of “brother” by mentioning it first, showing there’s more to be cautious of in such an instance. (Yaakov’s tefillah for both concerns was accepted as we see that Eisav initially wanted to kill Yaakov, and Hashem saved him. And after, when Eisav was appeased by Yaakov, he told Yaakov, “travel and we will go—I will go alongside you” (33:12), meaning, let’s dwell together as one. But Yaakov turned him down and was saved from that spiritual threat as well.) (see “Bet Halevi,” Vayishlach). When populations seek to attack our physical being—representing the classic “Eisav,” that’s surely a threat. However, when they seek to undermine our spiritual being—representing the “brother,” the loving side of Eisav—that’s more of a concern.

When we see the blatant “Eisav”—the hate and outright antisemitism, it perks our senses. Yet, seeing the “brother,” the accepting, friendly and welcoming environment from those who live their lives antithetical to the values of Judaism, should perhaps heighten our sense of concern more than the former—even if it may not seem like they necessarily have an agenda to draw us away. The bottom line is that closeness and camaraderie with the evil, can be more threatening than the menace and might of the evil.

The yetzer hara can thus come from both angles, either trying to inflict our physical and practical life, or by way of nicety and love to infringe upon our spiritual life. In reference to the aforementioned wrestling match, the root word used for wrestle in the pasuk is “avak” (אבק). Rashi brings two explanations: Either it means dust, like when clouds of dust fill the air from the wrestling movements. Or it means attachment/connection, like when two people wrestle and one hugs the other with his arms to try to bring him down.

The former explanation perhaps carries a more harsh and dark tone, while the latter carries a more nice and bright tone. Rav Nissan Kaplan quotes his brother, Reb Chaim Yitchak Hakohen Kaplan, who explained that these are two strategies of the Eisav. Either the Eisav tries to infringe on our physical and practical life, through making life difficult, bleak and dark. Or it comes like a friend, with a “hug,” and tries to entice us by making what we shouldn’t really be doing seem bright, positive and good.

We can add that of the two explanations, it’s possible that Rashi there prefers the latter, for the first explanation he brings in the name of Menachem ben Saruk, and then Rashi says, “but it appears to me…” and goes on to offer the latter explanation. Hence, we see that the yetzer hara’s primary tactic is to use a more positive and light approach—to make the improper seem light and OK.

While the blatant hate is easily discernible, in truth there can be much more of a necessity to remain on guard, cautious and aware of the brotherly and friendly approach of certain populations and the yetzer hara.


Binyamin is a graduate of Yeshivas Rebbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work,

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