If you have wronged someone, and many years later you want to make amends, how can you arrange a meeting in a way that will reduce your former victim’s hostility? How can you word your message so they will show up calm enough to listen to you?
This question of moral psychology comes up in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (“And he sent”), when Jacob sends a message to his estranged brother Esau. I wrote about it in the first draft of my book on moral psychology in Genesis. Now I am laboring mightily over a complete rewrite of the book, but I still like this essay.
Message to a Brother
When Jacob leaves Beir-sheva in Canaan and heads for Charan, he is already guilty of cheating Esau twice. First he trades a bowl of lentil stew to his famished brother in exchange for Esau’s rights as the firstborn.1 Then he impersonates Esau in order to steal a prophetic blessing from their blind father, Isaac.2
Jacob cheats because he feels cheated. Why should his twin brother get twice as much inheritance, just because he emerged from the womb a few seconds earlier? Why should their father give Esau the blessing and leave him unblessed? It is not fair.
Yet the story of Jacob indicates that he also has a guilty conscience; he knows his own actions were not fair, either. So he obeys his parents without a murmur when his mother tells him to flee from Esau’s anger, and his father tells him to go get a bride from his uncle Lavan’s family in Charan. And he slinks away on foot without taking any valuables to offer as a bride-price. Jacob’s family is rich, but he chooses to leave home as a pauper.3
In the Torah portion Vayeitzei, Jacob works for Lavan for twenty years, then leaves the town of Charan with two wives (Lavan’s daughters), two concubines (his wives’ personal servants that they gave to him), twelve children, and a wealth of moveable property. Lavan chases after him and complains that Jacob stole everything from him.
This time Jacob denies any wrongdoing, pointing out that he served Lavan fourteen years for his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and six years for his share of the flocks. This is a reminder to Lavan that he had only offered to work seven years for Rachel, but Lavan “changed his wages” by tricking him into marrying Leah, and then working an extra seven years to get Rachel, too.4 Compared to that, deceiving Lavan with a secret breeding program in order to get larger flocks from his last six years of labor hardly balances the scales.5
Jacob walks away from Lavan free of guilt. But he still has not cleared his guilt over cheating Esau.
Jacob’s unethical behavior did no long-term harm to Esau, who now has everything Jacob thought he was stealing. The firstborn rights have not come into play, since their father is still alive, but it no longer matters who gets the most inheritance. The first part of the blessing Jacob thought he had stolen from Esau is now true for both of them:
“And may God grant you
From the dew of the heavens and from the fat of the earth
And an abundance of grain and wine.
May peoples serve you
And may tribes bow down to you.” (Genesis/Bereishit 27:28-29)
Both men now have abundant possessions and plenty of food, and each brother is the head of his own tribe (though Esau’s is larger).
Jacob is heading for Canaan, where their parents live, not Se-ir, where Esau rules. For once he does not want what his brother has.His route to Canaan goes west along the Yabok River, then crosses the Jordan north of the Dead Sea. The hills of Se-ir are south of the Dead Sea, more than 150 miles (240 km) away from Jacob’s camp on the Yabok. If he merely continued his journey, he would be settled in Canaan long before any news of his whereabouts reached Esau.
Instead Jacob deliberately lets Esau know where he is camping.
Then Jacob sent messengers ahead to Esau, his brother, to the land of Sei-ir, the field of Edom. (Genesis 32:4)
However nervous Jacob might be about a confrontation, he wants to meet with his brother as soon as possible, and get it over with. I suggest that all he wants is to make reparations for his past misdeeds, whether Esau needs them or not. Then he can forgive himself, and maybe Esau will forgive him.
He does not know whether Esau still wants to kill him. When the twins were younger, Esau was impulsive and changeable. But twenty years have passed, and Esau must have learned how to plan ahead, or he would not have become the chieftain of a tribe. He might also have been planning his revenge during those twenty years.
So Jacob takes a chance when he sends messengers all the way to his brother in Se-ir. His action is both ethical and brave.
Jacob words his message carefully.
And he commanded them, saying: “Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau: Thus said your servant Jacob: Garti with Lavan, and I delayed until now. And I came to own ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave. And I send to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes.” (Genesis 32:5-6)
garti (גַּרְתִּי) = I sojourned, I stayed as a foreigner. (A kal form of the verb g-r, גּור = stayed as a geir, גֵּר= a foreigner.)
Jacob instructs his messengers to say the message is from “your servant, Jacob”, and to quote him as saying “to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes”. He wants Esau to know that he considers Esau his senior and superior, as if the sale of the firstborn rights had never happened.
Why does Jacob say he was a geir in Charan, even though he is Lavan’s nephew and son-in-law? Rashi wrote that Jacob’s subtext is: “I have become neither a prince nor other person of importance but merely a sojourner. It is not worth your while to hate me on account of the blessing of your father who blessed me (27:29) ‘Be master over thy brethren’, for it has not been fulfilled in me.”6
Jacob probably mentions his livestock and servants because he wants Esau to know that he is already wealthy, so he no longer needs the inheritance of the firstborn. He also says that he delayed (by twenty years!) his return to Canaan. This implies that he earned his wealth through years of labor, not because of Isaac’s blessing.
Having sent a message intended to show Esau that he is not benefiting from either the firstborn rights or the stolen blessing, Jacob waits for news of Esau’s reaction.
And the messengers returned to Jacob saying: “We came to your brother, to Esau, and moreover he is on his way to meet you, and 400 men are with him.” And Jacob became very frightened … (Genesis 32:7-8)
Four hundred men count as am l independent army in the Torah.7 If Esau is still angry at Jacob, then he can use his army kill his brother and take over his people. If Esau, too, is frightened and anxious, then his army would be good to have on hand in case their meeting goes badly.
Esau might view Jacob’s message as a challenge dressed up in polite language. Here is one way Esau might misinterpret his brother’s words:
Thus said your servant Jacob— “Ah, he’s using the standard polite formula, instead of treating me like a brother.”
Garti with Lavan— “He’s been staying all this time with our mother’s brother? I don’t call that living as a foreigner! I suppose Lavan adores him, just like Mother always did. And Lavan probably taught him some new tricks.”
And I delayed until now— “Of course he delayed. Why would he want to see me again? Or our poor father? He already got everything he could out of us.”
And I have ox and donkey, flock and male-slave and female-slave— “Oh, so he’s rich now, and bragging about it. But he’s still coming back to collect his inheritance when Father dies. I wonder how many men he has, and if they are armed for battle?
And I am sending to tell my lord, to find favor in your eyes— “More polite language, pretending I’m his lord! We both know he got the upper hand over me long ago. Does he wants my favor now so he can safely ignore me? Or is he trying to pacify me before he springs on me? Well, I have four hundred men at my command now. If we start marching north today, we can surprise Jacob. And then maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a chance to hold my own against him.”
This is only my midrash; Esau’s reactions to Jacob’s careful message are not recorded in the Torah. But Esau does march north immediately with 400 men.
If Jacob had anticipated Esau’s response, he would have sent a different kind of message. What if Jacob called Esau not “my lord”, but “my older brother”? What if he said he wanted to see his brother again so he could apologize? Esau might not have mustered his 400 armed men.
But Jacob is so cautious, he does not say enough. Although he is trying to make amends for his past misdeeds, he is unable to approach the problem head-on. By trying to avoid a confrontation with Esau, Jacob makes confrontation more likely.
- Genesis 25:29-34.
- Genesis 27:1-36.
- See my 2011 post Vayeitzei: Guilty Conscience.
- Genesis 31:38-43. Lavan tricked Jacob into marrying Leah and paying an additional bride-price in labor (Genesis 29:23-27).
- Jacob tricked Lavan by asking for the spotted kids and dark lambs as his wages, so he could conduct his secret breeding program (Genesis 30:31-43).
- Rashi, translation in sefaria.org.
- David has 400 men in 1 Samuel 22:2 and 25:13.