Humility: A Barrier Against Pride
It is written, “So said your servant Jacob: ‘I have sojourned with Laban and have lingered until now.’ … The messengers returned to Jacob saying, ‘We came to your brother, to Esau. Moreover, he is heading toward you, and four hundred men are with him.’ Jacob became very frightened, and it distressed him” (Genesis 32:5-8).
1. What did Jacob want Esau to understand? Jacob aroused his brother’s anger, and Esau’s hatred was even more potent than when his father blessed Jacob by saying, “When the voice of Jacob will be heard in the houses of study and prayer, Esau’s hands will be powerless” (Bereshith Rabba 65:16).
2. How is it possible that Jacob observed all the commandments of the Torah while staying with Laban, since in exile he could not honor his parents or observe the commandments that apply to the land of Israel, or fulfill other obligations as well?
3. Why did Esau have 400 men accompanying him? What does this number indicate? Moreover, why was Jacob so afraid of him, since after having defeated Esau’s angel (Chullin 92a), surely he could have also defeated Esau?
To answer these questions, let us first cite the verse, “Take words with you and return to the L-RD” (Hosea 14:3), which Rash explains as meaning: “Please accept the words that we recite as a replacement for the sacrifices that we should have offered to You.” The Sages have said, “The one who studies Torah is considered as if he presented a sacrifice” (Menachot 110a), which means that studying the laws relating to a certain Torah commandment is considered as if one had actually carried out that commandment. Therefore Jacob, who studied all the laws of the Torah, made Esau understand that this study would surely save him from his attacks.
It is possible to add that Jacob observed Shabbat in Laban’s home (Bereshith Rabba 79:6). Therefore since Shabbat is equal to all the commandments of the Torah (Shemot Rabba 25:16), it was as if Jacob observed all the commandments without exception.
That being said, let us explain the meaning of Jacob’s words in light of the fact that Esau came with 400 men to attack him.
The number 400 symbolizes exile, as it is written: “And He said to Abraham, ‘Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own – and they will serve them, and they will oppress them – 400 years’ ” (Genesis 15:13). We know that the exile began with Jacob (Zohar II:2b,5b). Such was the message that Jacob transmitted to Esau: I was in exile with Laban, yet despite this I did not imitate his wicked ways. On the contrary, I studied the details of the 613 Torah commandments and I progressed to such a point that even the angels serve me. However you, Esau, did not live in Haran but in the land of Israel, whose air makes one wise (Bava Batra 158b). You were not in exile. You lived with our father Isaac, yet despite this you did not learn from his pious ways (Yoma 38b). You could have progressed and elevated yourself to such a point that the angels would have been at your service, and now you want to scare me with these 400 men – with exile? It was precisely in exile that I attained the highest level, but you lost out because you could have repented of your sins and elevated yourself in Torah and the fear of G-d.
We learn a profound lesson from this, namely that it’s tragic for a young yeshiva student, surrounded by teachers, to not benefit from such a situation and perfect himself in the fear of G-d, and instead to waste a great deal of precious time. In the future he will realize that he did not take advance of such a great opportunity, and he will regret what he lost. Imagine how shameful, how sorrowful, and how harsh his punishment will be!
Esau, however, thought that in exile a person becomes lazy and abandons Torah study, for “the one who lives outside the land of Israel is like one who lives without G-d” (Zohar III:29b). Esau came accompanied by 400 men in order to make Jacob understand that he was still in exile. This is because Esau wanted Jacob to remain in exile, and since as such he was similar to one living without G-d, he would be punished. Esau hoped in this way to dominate him.
However Jacob replied that the opposite was true: I sojourned with Laban, and if it is true that living outside the land of Israel is like living without G-d, I myself stayed close to G-d. “When a student is exiled [in a city of refuge], his teacher exiles himself with him” [Makot 10a], and the Torah is what connects us to G-d. The Divine Presence accompanied and saved me from the exile.
The words 0"- .3 (“with Laban”) have the same numerical value (192) as bakol mikol kol (an expression that indicates abundance). They are also equal to the words hadda Yaakov (“I am Jacob” in Aramaic). This means: I sojourned with Laban and I dominated everything [bakol mikol kol]. I studied Torah and observed all its laws. Instead of falling, I elevated myself to the point that I merited having angels serve me (Bereshith Rabba 75:4), and G-d’s word was revealed to me. The angels I sent you are a sign that you cannot deny.
However Esau was not impressed by the words of his brother, and he decided to attack him by using his forces of impurity (Zohar III:163b) and the power of 400 years of exile. With their help, Esau thought to conquer Jacob. This is what the angels reported to Jacob: “We came to your brother, to Esau. Moreover, he is heading toward you, and four hundred men are with him” (Genesis 32:7).
It seems to me that here we have an indication of how the Satan works. Even when a righteous person dominates the evil inclination, it does not give up. With its remaining strength it once again tries to fight him, to the point that a righteous person needs to ask G-d for help throughout his life, as the Sages have said: “Without G-d’s help, it would impossible to conquer the evil inclination” (Sukkah 52b). Even if a righteous person manages to conquer it once or even several times, he does not rid himself of it for good, since the evil inclination never surrenders. Thus G-d’s constant help is essential.
Jacob, seeing with what pride Esau came to confront him and the wicked forces that he used, chose to conquer him by confronting him with the attribute of humility. He prayed and said, “I have been diminished by all the kindnesses” (Genesis 32:11), meaning: I am not worthy of all these miracles.
Jacob continued his prayer and said, “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau” (v.12), meaning: Save me from his pride, that I not boast in seeing him, for “it is forbidden to look at the face of the wicked” (Megillah 28a) and I only desire to remain “diminished.” The hand of Esau was his pride, and the Sages have said, “Save me from the hand of Esau, who does not act towards me as a brother, but as an enemy” (Bereshith Rabba 75:7). A brother feels sympathy, but Esau exhibited no sympathy whatsoever, even on the outside. This is why Jacob prayed for G-d to save him from the evil that, in his pride, his brother wanted to inflict on him. Jacob said: Save me from the hand of my brother, from the pride that hides in my brother’s heart, and which can be seen on his face and in his words.
The pride and wickedness of Esau made him lose his senses, and even after having lost the right of the firstborn, he pursued his wickedness – even though he knew that Jacob was the firstborn and legitimate heir. We find a parallel situation when Abraham died. It is written, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him” (Genesis 25:9), and the Sages said: “This teaches us that Ishmael repented” (Bava Batra 16b). At the time of Abraham’s funeral, Ishmael allowed Isaac, his father’s heir, to walk before him. However at Isaac’s death it is written, “Esau and Jacob his sons buried him” (Genesis 35:29), which indicates that even at the time of Isaac’s death, Esau did not repent or allow Jacob to go before him. Not only had Esau not changed, he grieved his father even in the grave when he rushed to go before Jacob on that day. The birthright meant little to Esau, as did the fact that Jacob succeeded his father, for Esau remained just as wicked as before and did not repent as Ishmael had done.
This is also why G-d hated him, as the prophet said: “I loved Jacob, but Esau I hated” (Malachi 1:2-3). The great pride that dwelled within him was abhorrent. He refused to recognize the truth and yield to it. Nevertheless, he had the perfect opportunity to mend his ways: His extremely pious father, whom he served with such great respect, had just died, and death provides an opportunity for an individual to reflect, for there is no better time to repent. This is what the Sages have said, “Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin…” (Perkei Avoth 3:1) as well as, “Repent one day before your death” (ibid. 2:10). But no, not only did Esau not change, he became filled with pride and walked before Jacob at his father’s funeral, to the mockery of his father at such a solemn time.
As for Jacob, he was insulted and dishonored by Esau, yet he said nothing because he was among those “who are insulted yet do not insult” (Yoma 23a). It is possible that the verse, “Let those who love Him be like the powerfully rising sun” (Judges 5:31) refers to those who are insulted yet do not respond, for Jacob is compared to the sun (Bereshith Rabba 84:10). This again shows us the greatness of Jacob and the wickedness of Esau.
We may now explain why Jacob feared Esau, even though he had defeated an angel and received his blessing. He did not fear the angel or the injuries that Esau could have caused him, but rather he feared confronting Esau’s pride. Jacob needed special heavenly assistance in order that none of his family members be subjected to Esau’s influence, as it is written: “For I fear him, lest he come and strike me down, mother and children” (Genesis 32:12), which means that he feared Esau’s evil influence on the members of his family.