Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Confrontations and Tribulations

I. Emes L'Yaakov

Parshas Va'yishlach opens with Yaakov Avinu's message to Esav (Bereishis 32:4-6). As explained by Rashi, Yaakov refers to the berachos he received from Yitzchak Avinu many years before. Claiming to have not benefited from them, Yaakov professes that there is no reason for Esav to hate him or kill him for taking the berachos (27:36,41). He goes on to allude to his keeping 613 mitzvos in Lavan's house, and concludes that he seeks Esav's love.

Yaakov's honesty and forthrightness in his message to Esav reflect his character trait, truth, emes L'Yaakov (Micha 7:20). Nonetheless, his message seems quaint, even naive. After all, Esav is a swordsman (27:40), and it would be wiser to sneak past him than to chance awakening his potentially fatal hatred. The Medrash Rabbah (75:3) compares Yaakov to one who seizes a dog's ears (Mishlei 26:17) instead of letting sleeping dogs lie.

In the end, Yaakov is forced to deceive Esav. To avoid Esav's offer to accompany him (33:12), he responds that he will join Esav in Se'ir (33:14). While Rashi cites the Medrash Rabbah(78:14) that Se'ir can refer to the messianic era, Yaakov's deceit seems to run counter to his trademark, emes.

This Rashi reminds us (see Sapirstein Edition fn. 10) of a similar statement Yaakov made when deceiving his father Yitzchak in order to receive the berachos. "I am Esav your first born" (27:19), an outright lie, is reinterpreted midrashically (Rashi, Tanchuma): "It is I; Esav is your firstborn." These attempts to make Yaakov's words technically true only highlight the fact that emes L'Yaakov is being trampled.

Yaakov's relationship with Lavan parallels his confrontation with Esav. He begins, characteristically, with truth and honesty to a fault. He guarded Lavan's flock faithfully through blisteringly hot days and frigid, sleepless nights (31:40). He is the paradigmatic honest and righteous employee, serving Lavan with all his might (31:6; Rambam Hil. Sechirus 13:7).

In the end, Yaakov engages in practices that appear less forthright (30:31-43, see Ha'amek Davar and Harchev Davar 30:42), which some have compared to insider trading. As with Esav, he separates himself from Lavan deceitfully by fleeing (31:20). Once again, emes L'Yaakov seems compromised.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky (Emes L'Yaakov 27:12) explains that our forefathers were tested by being challenged to serve Hashem in a manner diametrically opposed to their nature. Yaakov abhorred lies. His entire being was repulsed by dishonesty. Therefore, his tribulations, nisyonos, required that he operate against his lifelong, uncompromising adherence to truth.

"The signet (chosam) of Hakadosh Baruch Hu is truth" (Shabbos 55a). Yet Hashem changed (shina) Sara's statement, by commission or omission (18:13, see Rashi and Ramban), for the sake of marital peace, and we are commanded to do likewise (Yevamos 65b, see Rif). Similarly, "with the crooked You [Hashem] act perversely" (Tehillim 18:27). Yaakov did likewise in dealing with Esav and Lavan. It was a nisayon precisely because he did Hashem's will in an untruthful way. In reality, Yaakov's behavior was consistent with Divine Truth.

II. Chesed L'Avraham

Avraham Avinu was tested ten times and passed all of them (Avos 5:3). Rav Yaakov (ibid.) explains that Avraham's attribute was chesed, kindness. The tests demanded that he serve Hashem out of character. He is told to leave his aging father and to chase away his son Yishmael, acts that appeared insensitive and cruel. The akeida, sacrificing his son Yitzchak, was the total opposite of Avraham's nature and his lifelong mission of teaching that Hashem is merciful and does not demand human sacrifice as practiced by idolaters. Only by serving Hashem against his nature did Avraham pass the tests.

While Rav Yaakov mentions only these three nisyonos, other tests (see Rashi and Rav op cit.) also conflict with chesed. As an outgoing activist, Avraham was sorely tested by thirteen years of hiding from Nimrod underground. As a man with plans for a life devoted to chesed, it was more difficult to give up his life when Nimrod threw him into a fiery furnace.

As war is the antithesis of chesed, Avraham's decision to wage war against the four kings who captured Lot was particularly challenging. The prophetic knowledge that his descendants would be oppressed was especially painful to a man of Avraham's compassion. [If he had a choice that his descendants be spiritually deficient and not oppressed, see Bereishis Rabba (44:21), this nisayon is even greater.]

Finally, bris milah, even now, is viewed by some as barbaric, the opposite of chesed. Avraham may have been concerned that knowledge of his and his son's bris would compromise his lifelong chesed mission of promulgating monotheism (Michtav MeiEliyahu, II. p.162).

While Avraham's tribulations required that he suppress his innate instinct to do chesed, ultimately, as the fulfillment of the Divine Merciful Will, they were acts of chesed. Avraham, like Yaakov, passed his tests by serving Hashem against his natural inclination.

III. Pachad Yitzchak

Yitzchak Avinu differed from the other patriarchs. As Rav Yaakov notes (25:19), despite Yitzchak's greater longevity, very little is written in the Torah about his life. Even his passing is chronologically misplaced in Parshas Vayishlach (Rashi 35:29). This difference is echoed in the Rambam (Avoda Zara 1:3). He describes at length the widespread activity and influence of Avraham and Yaakov. Yitzchak is mentioned only briefly as having taught and appointed Yaakov.

Avraham's hospitality and kindness attracted tens of thousands. Yaakov's truth and Torah, while not as popular, attracted numerous adherents, as well. Yitzchak represented the uncompromising self-sacrifice of the akeida. In the long term, his contribution equaled that of Avraham and Yaakov, ingraining into his descendants the self-sacrifice indispensable to our survival. In his lifetime, however, Yitzchak's nature limited his activity and precluded widespread influence. His strength (gevura) and "service out of fear" (avoda miyirah, as in "Pachad Yitzchak" (31:42)) were not popular.

What, then, was the nisayon of Yitzchak? Not the akeida, says Rav Yaakov. A test must require going against one's nature. The akeida is the ultimate self-sacrifice, the very characteristic of Yitzchak. He personified serving Hashem with fear and strength. How is he challenged in the manner of the other avos?

According to Rav Yaakov, the test will come at the end of days (Shabbos 89b). When told by Hashem, "your children sinned," Avraham and Yaakov respond: "Let them be erased and thereby sanctify Your Name." Yitzchak overcomes his penchant for strict justice and defends his people: "They are Your children, too. Of seventy years of life, only twelve and a half are punishable. Please shoulder them all, or we'll split them, or I'll shoulder them."

This remarkable and creative suggestion still makes Yitzchak completely different from the other avos who passed their tests in their lifetimes. Let us, therefore, explore two other possibilities.

First, normally, an uncompromising attitude of strict justice leads to fighting. When wronged, Yitzchak's instinct would be to fight back with strength. Indeed, Esav extended and perverted Yitzchak's gevura and became a murderer [Similarly, Yishmael perverted Avraham's chesed, improperly channeling it into immorality. Yaakov combined the chesed of Avraham and the gevura of Yitzchak to achieve the proper combination, tiferes, and balance, emes. (Michtav Me'Eliyahu II p.164-165)]

In fact, Yitzchak was wronged when his wells were fought over by other shepherds. Instead of fighting back, he dug a different well. When they fought over the second well, he moved to a different place and dug a third well (26:18-22). These concessions for the sake of peace were against Yitzchak's nature. His tribulation was to avoid confrontation.

Second, when Rivka saw Yitzchak for the first time, she asked, "Who is this awesome, frightening man?" From then on, she feared him and was unable to express her opinions and disagreements with Yitzchak. Therefore, she was forced to gain the berachos for Yaakov surreptitiously (Ha'amek Davar 24:65).

Yitzchak wanted to grant Esav physical blessings, so that he would help Yaakov, the spiritual heir of Avraham (27:28; 28:4). Rivkah disagreed. Esav could not be trusted, and Yaakov needed the physical berachos, as well. In fact, this is the Divine plan for Am Yisrael.

Unable to persuade Yitzchak, Rivka tricked him. When Yitzchak discovered the ruse, he was flabbergasted (27:33). His parenting plan went awry, with untold consequences for both of his sons.

Yitzchak's uncompromising strength and strict justice would lead to a retraction of his beracha to Yaakov or its automatic cancellation, since it was a case of mistaken identity. Instead, Yitzchak overcame his nature and acquiesced to Rivka's plan. He agreed and blessed Yaakov knowingly (Rashi).

All of us are challenged uniquely to serve Hashem in a manner which goes against our natural inclinations. We look to our forefathers as examples inspiring us to pass our respective tests.  May their heroic deeds be a siman l'bonim as we confront the challenges of life.

Copyright © 2010 by The TorahWeb Foundation. All rights reserved.