The Good Inclination Must Always Overcome The Evil Inclination

It is written, “And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau to brother” (Gen 32:4). Referring to the Midrash, Rashi explains: “these messengers were literally angels” (Bereshith Rabba 75:4).

Some questions may be asked here:

1. Why did Jacob send messengers to his brother? Couldn’t he have approached him directly, even by surprise, and meet him without being preceded by messengers?

2. If he wanted to know about his brother’s arrival, why do it through the intermediary of angelic messengers? Why not just use regular messengers? If it was to impress and scare his brother, he could have at first simply sent regular messengers, and then afterwards sent angelic ones to frighten him. Concerning the verse that states, “What do you mean by all this camp that I met?” (Gen 33:8), the Sages say, “The angels struck Esau several times” (Bereshith Rabba 78:11).

3. Before sending messengers, it is stated that Jacob “divided the people that were with him … into two camps” (Gen 32:8). Why divide the members of his family into two camps? If the angels served and watched over him, surely G-d Himself was with him. What was he afraid of? Moreover, Jacob was afraid of Esau to the point of calling him “my lord”, as it is stated, “Thus you shall say to my lord, to Esau” (Gen 32:5). What was Jacob so afraid of that he accorded so much honor to Esau in calling him “my lord”?

It is written, “And the first came out red … and they called his name Esau. And after that his brother came out, and his hand was holding Esau’s heel, and his name was called Jacob” (Gen 25:25-26). Why in coming into the world was Jacob holding Esau by the heel? And why exactly by the heel? It’s because the one who wants to overcome his evil inclination must from the moment he is born – from the moment he comes into the world – hold the evil inclination in hand, like a prisoner, as it is written, “When the Children of Israel obey G-d, they dominate their evil inclination” (Avodah Zarah 5b). In what way? In consecrating a portion of their time every day to the study of Torah. In the next world everyone will be asked, “Did you fix a time for the study of Torah?” (Shabbat 31a).

The directives of the Torah allow people to overcome their evil inclination, for “I created the evil inclination, and I created its remedy, the Torah” (Kiddushin 30b; Bava Batra 16a). The Torah weakens the desires of men and submits them to its will. This is the sense of the expression, “holding Esau by the heel”. A man must seize his evil inclination in order that it not escape his control. The word "83 (“heel”) is composed of the same letters as the word 3"8 (“to fix”). When the evil inclination is imprisoned, it tries to escape and save itself. One must catch and tame it, as it is written, “The good inclination must always dominate the evil inclination” (Berachot 5a), and Jacob teaches us how to do this.

What we have said allows us to understand why Jacob sent angels to his brother Esau: He was only doing what the Sages recommend be done. Using an example to illustrate this, imagine that two enemies are at war with one another. Each fight with sophisticated weaponry in order to insure complete victory, and each observes the other in order to detect weakness. Yet is possible to defeat one’s enemy even if he is better armed, and this is done by striking first, and by striking decisively. Such an attack doesn’t allow the enemy time to react and use his weapons, even if they are more modern and sophisticated.

It is the same in man’s war with his evil inclination. If one wants to be sure to conquer this powerfully armed adversary, one must know how to put up one’s good inclination against him. And even if one isn’t well versed in the art of war, one can strike the evil inclination with a first fatal blow in order to assure victory. It is in this way that the good inclination dominates its evil counterpart.

And this is precisely what Jacob did. He demonstrated to Esau (to the evil inclination) that he dominates it. This is why he first sent Esau celestial beings – angels – not simple messengers. These were not just any angels, but rather those which he created through his good deeds. He sent these because he wanted to let Esau know that he didn’t fear him. These angels testified to the fact that Jacob never abandoned the study of Torah, concerning which it is stated, “When the voice of Jacob makes itself heard in the houses of study and the houses of prayer, the hands of Esau cannot grab a hold of him” (Peticha of Eicha Rabba 2; Pesikta Zutah Toldot 27:22). The houses of Jacob therefore have the upper hand, and they take hold of the heel of Esau, of the evil inclination. Jacob demonstrated the power of his weapons (the Torah and its observance), which constitutes a fatal blow to the evil inclination, an inclination for whom these weapons are the most menacing and frightening of all.

Yet we shouldn’t think that this is sufficient to conquer the Satan (the evil inclination). We must always fear it, as it is written, “Happy is the man who always fears” (Pr 28:14), for the evil inclination can always gain the upper hand. Even if it has been defeated once, “It gains new strength every day and relentlessly seeks to make us fail” (Sukkah 52b; Kiddushin 30b) since it knows neither rest nor repose. We should always fear it, as the Sages say: “Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die” (Perkei Avoth 2:4). We have as our example Yochanan the High Priest, who served in the Temple for 80 years, yet became a heretic at the end of his life (Berachot 29a; Tanhuma Beshalach 3). Jacob also divided the members of his family into two camps in order to show Esau, to the evil inclination, that he was prepared to wage war against him. “If Esau comes to one camp and destroys it, the camp that is left will escape” (Gen 32:9) and continue in the way of Torah and the service of G-d. In making two camps, he also showed Esau and future generations that men should not be too sure of themselves or think that they’ve completely mastered their evil inclination, but rather they must always continue to fight it.

This also explains why Jacob sent offerings to Esau. Offerings point to the commandments, and they signify that everyone is obligated to practice all the commandments (which are a great help in time of need). They should not be content in simply observing a portion of them.

Despite all this, however, Jacob was afraid. He knew that Esau honored their father more resolutely than he did (Bereshith Rabba 82:15), and so Jacob feared Esau’s merit. It is possible that Jacob addressed him as “my lord” (which is an allusion to Esau’s angel) in order to lesson this merit, thus enabling to gain the upper hand.

This is surprising! Jacob, a man raised by the Patriarchs, a man of integrity, among those for whom the world relies on, feared Esau because he observed a commandment as important as honoring one’s parents! He feared him to the point of calling him “my lord”, to the point of bribing him with gifts. This teaches all of us that we must do everything in our power to practice the commandments, especially the one concerning loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev 19:18), which according to the opinion of Rabbi Akiva constitutes “a fundamental principle of the Torah” (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4). In this way, the evil inclination will not be able to cause sin and will therefore be totally destroyed.

All this applies only to those who are protected through the observance of the commandments, for this renders a person pure, just as the Sages said, “G-d wanted to make Israel meritorious, which is why he gave them the Torah and so many commandments” (Makot 23b; Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan 4:17). The Sages added: “Israel is loved by G-d, which is why He surrounds them with commandments” (Menachot 43b; Pesikta Zutah Beshalach, near the end). However the one who doesn’t get used to performing the commandments becomes weaker, and this weakness becomes part of his nature. This is indicated by the word (-:*& (“and he sent”), which is composed of the same letters as the word :-(*& (“and he weakened”), for Jacob felt weak concerning the commandment of honoring one’s parents, which Esau practiced. This is why he was afraid of Esau and took so many precautions. Everyone must practice all the commandments of the Torah, which allows a person to conquer the evil inclination in all circumstances.


Conquering the Evil Inclination by the Power of Prayer
Bereshit Index
Strategies for Warring Against the Evil Inclination


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