Parashas Vayishlach

This week’s parashah describes Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav. In preparation for the encounter, Yaakov prays to Hashem for help, and then sends agents to bring Eisav a lavish tribute offering. In connection with the tribute, the Torah relates (Bereishis 32:21-22):
“And you should say [Yaakov speaking to the agents]: ‘Moreover, behold, your servant Yaakov is behind us.” (For he said [to himself]: “I will appease him with the tribute that precedes me (אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו בַּמִּנְחָה הַהֹלֶכֶת לְפָנָי), and afterward I will face him, perhaps he will show me favor.”) And the tribute passed before him [literally, before his face] (וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה עַל פָּנָיו), and he lodged that night in the camp.
The Maggid asks: Why did Yaakov feel the need to send Eisav a tribute offering, given that he had already prayed to Hashem to save him from Eisav? Surely it was within Hashem’s power to turn Eisav from an enemy into a good friend without the aid of a tribute offering from Yaakov to Eisav. Why, then, did Yaakov send the tribute?
The Maggid draws an answer from a Midrash that Rashi quotes in his commentary on the above-quoted Torah passage. In the second verse of the passage the Torah uses an unusual phrasing, writing וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה עַל פָּנָיו whereas the usual phrasing would be וַתַּעֲבֹר הַמִּנְחָה לְפָנָיו. In Bereishis Rabbah 76:8, the Midrash interprets the word  פָּנָיו(face) in the phrase עַל פָּנָיו as signifying agitation and anger, along the lines of the phrase פָּנַי יֵלֵכוּ in Shemos 33:14 [see Targum Yonasan and Ibn Ezra there, and Berachos 7a]. The Midrash is saying that Yaakov felt anger as he dispatched the tribute offering.
We can what Yaakov had in mind as follows. Shlomo HaMelech teaches (Mishlei 27:19): “Just as water reflects a face back to a face, so a man’s heart is reflected back to him by his fellowman’s.” If a man’s heart radiates friendship toward his fellowman, his fellowman’s heart will radiate friendship back to him; conversely, if a man’s heart radiates hatred toward his fellowman, his fellowman’s heart will radiate hatred back to him. Now, when Rivkah sent Yaakov to Lavan, she told him (Bereishis 27:43-45): “Dwell with him a few days, until your brother’s rage quiets down. Until your brother’s anger against you fades away (עַד שׁוּב אַף אָחִיךָ מִמְּךָ), and he forgets what you did to him, and then I will send and take you from there.” The commentators explain that Rivkah was giving Yaakov a sign through which he would know when it was safe to return home. The sign was שׁוּב אַף אָחִיךָ מִמְּךָ, the simple meaning of which is “your brother’s anger against you fades away,” but which can also be understood as meaning “the anger against your brother fades from you.” Rivkah was telling Yaakov that when his anger against Eisav for threatening to kill him faded away, this would be the sign that Eisav, too, had forgotten what Yaakov had done to him, and he could therefore return home without fear. However, while Yaakov was in Lavan’s house, he continued to feel the same anger toward Eisav because of his threat to kill him. Over twenty years, his feelings toward Eisav had not changed one iota. Nonetheless, Yaakov had to return home, for Hashem had told him to do so. And when he reached home, he was compelled to seek Eisav’s favor to make sure that Eisav would not harm him.
It is true that Hashem had the power to induce Eisav to reconcile with Yaakov. Still, it was necessary for Yaakov to show himself to Eisav as a loving brother. This sentiment was very remote from Yaakov’s heart, for he considered Eisav contemptible. He therefore had to develop a strategem for cloaking his feelings about Eisav and displaying love and friendship toward him. The method he chose was to send Eisav a lavish gift that was sure to impress him. Yaakov’s purpose, as the the Torah relates it, was אֲכַפְּרָה פָנָיו בַּמִּנְחָה הַהֹלֶכֶת לְפָנָי. The root כפר can denote a form of covering, such as the lining of pitch that Noach put on the walls of his ark (וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ בַּכֹּפֶר, Bereishis 6:14) or the covering of the Holy Ark in the Mishkan (כַּפֹּרֶת). [See the commentary of Rav S.R. Hirsch on Bereishis 6:14 and Shemos 25:17.] Yaakov had in mind that the tribute offering should serve as a screen to cover over and block out his anger toward Eisav, so that Eisav would not sense it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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