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Vayishlach: Judging Others and Ourselves

וישלח יעקב מלאכים לפניו אל עשו אחיו ארצה שעיר שדה אדום.

“And Yakov sent emissaries before him to his brother Eisav in the Land of Seir, in the field of Edom.”(Bereishis 32)

The verse uses the word malachim, which can mean angels as well as emissaries. Rashi points out that Yakov sent real angels as his emissaries. Why indeed was it necessary to send angels on this mission, instead of sending human emissaries?

Another interesting word in this verse is l’fanav – before him, which makes it seem as if Yakov was headed towards Seir and sent these emissaries before he arrived there. In truth, Yakov had no intention of settling anywhere near Eisav. He was traveling towards Eretz Yisroel. If so, what is the meaning of the word l’fanav?

If Eisav truly intended to kill Yakov, why didn’t he make any attempts to track him down in Charan during all those years and attack him there? Eisav didn’t seem to want to pursue Yakov; Yakov was only in danger if he was near his brother. This is why his parents urged him to flee. Once he was out of Eretz Yisroel, he had nothing to fear. But if that were the case, why did he have to worry about Eisav when returning to Eretz Yisroel after Eisav had moved away to Seir? Eisav no longer lived in Eretz Yisroel, and if Yakov was only in danger when he was near Eisav, coming back to Eretz Yisroel now shouldn’t have been a problem. Why was Yakov still afraid?

Yakov instructed the angels to refer to Eisav as his master, and to Yakov as Eisav’s servant. Why did Yakov humble himself to such a degree?

These interactions between Yakov and Eisav are powerful and pertinent lessons for us. There is much to be learned from every word in these verses, as we will now explain.

There is a famous story about the tzaddik Rebbe Mottel of Chernobyl. One Friday night he came very late to the tisch after keeping the Chassidim waiting for a long time. To answer their unspoken question, he said that Eliyahu Hanavi visited him and told him about some developments in heaven. The angels made a commotion, urging Hashem to send Moshiach already, and it was decided that if the leaders of the Jewish people would agree, Moshiach would come immediately. “I was asked if I agreed, and I declared that I didn’t,” Rebbe Mottele said, much to his Chassidim’s amazement. “Let him not come just yet! If you are wondering why, I will tell you. I know that there are many Jewish souls who have not yet achieved their tikun (spiritual completion) and if Moshiach would come now, these souls would be lost forever. I asked that he wait until these souls achieve their tikun.”

One of the Rabbonim who sat near the tzaddik couldn’t contain himself: “Is it fair to postpone the redemption because of a few souls? Why didn’t the Rebbe agree? It would be much better if Moshiach came already!”

Rebbe Mottele turned to him, looked at him sharply and said: “And how do you know that you are not among those unfortunate souls?...”

We all wait desperately for Moshiach, but let us not forget what the Satmar Rebbe repeatedly said: “When Moshiach will come, he will point his finger at us and say: ‘This person’s good deeds hastened the redemption, and this person’s sins postponed the redemption!’” Oh, the humiliation of those who will be pointed at as having delayed Moshaich’s arrival!

The Mishna says (Avos 3:16): “And the person pays [for his deeds] with his full knowledge as well as without his knowledge.” This is explained to mean that the person is punished according to the way he himself perceives his own deeds, and at the same time he is judged without his knowledge. This explanation is quite puzzling. Why would a person agree to suffer punishment for his deeds? Wouldn’t he find excuses for his mistakes and rationalize why he didn’t deserve any punishments?

The holy Baal Shem Tov explains this concept with a powerful teaching. When a person sees someone else committing a sin, he automatically judges the person. Then at any point in time when he commits a similar transgression, he is judged according to the way he perceived that very misdeed in others! If a person would only have the sense to search his own deeds before passing judgment on others and then judge them favorably, he would be spared much heavenly retribution for his sins. By passing judgment on others, he is effectively judging himself and agreeing to suffer divine punishment for the transgressions he committed. This is the meaning of the Mishna - the person pays for his deeds with his full knowledge according to how he perceives his own deeds when performed by others, while at the very same time he doesn’t even know that he is judging himself.

The Baal Shem Tov once saw a simple wagon driver transgress the Shabbos due to ignorance, and he took it very much to heart. He thought to himself: perhaps I also have transgressed the Shabbos in some way, and therefore it was ordained in heaven that I should witness someone committing a similar transgression. He prayed that it should be revealed to him how he transgressed the Shabbos, and he was told that he once kept silent while a Torah scholar was being shamed. Since a talmid chacham is compared to Shabbos, his silence was comparable to transgressing the Shabbos. In order to evoke his tshuva, he was made to witness an act of chilul Shabbos. This amazing anecdote shows us how we should perceive other people’s wrongdoings.

Yakov witnessed Eisav’s spiritual decline. Although they grew up in the same home with the same holy parents, Eisav strayed further and further from the path of truth. Instead of becoming arrogant and thinking how much better he was than his brother, Yakov took it very much to heart. He kept on thinking: ‘Who knows if I am not guilty of committing similar transgressions? Perhaps I am in any way at fault for Eisav’s spiritual decline? Perhaps had I not taken away his birthright or his blessings he would have turned out better? And if I am partially to blame, then I must take responsibility for his sins.’ Yakov truly felt that had he been completely righteous, his brother Eisav would not have turned out the way he did. Therefore, he kept on looking for opportunities to bring Eisav back to Hashem.

In addition to all of this, Yakov was able to see through divine inspiration that Eisav would have many worthy descendents who would become righteous converts to Judaism. Among eisav’s descendents who converted or whose parents converted were many notable personalities, such as Rebbe Meir, Shemaya and Avtalyon, Rebbe Akiva, Onkeles, and others. Yakov hoped that due to Eisav’s illustrious lineage on the one hand, and his righteous descendents on the other hand, there was still hope for Eisav to become a tzaddik, perhaps even greater than Yakov.

As Yakov prepared to return to Eretz Yisroel, his thoughts were on his brother Eisav. He was not afraid that Eisav would kill him; after all, he never pursued him in Charan and he wasn’t planning to settle near Seir. Rather, he was afraid that he would somehow be held accountable for Eisav’s sins and now upon his return he was hoping to have the opportunity to influence Eisav to do tshuva and become righteous. He sent emissaries l’fanav – before him, to prepare Eisav for the encounter that he hoped would bring about positive results.

This is why Yakov sent real angels and not human emissaries, out of respect for Eisav’s potential for greatness. On his way home, he knew that the day will come when “The redeemed ones will ascend to MountZion in order to judge the Mount of Eisav.” This will take place when Moshiach will come. Yakov was fearful as to what that judgment would reveal. Would he be found to be at fault for Eisav’s transgressions? He therefore wanted to do everything possible to bring Eisav back to Hashem, to hasten the redemption and the tikun of the world.

Yakov referred to Eisav as his master and to himself as his servant, indicating that if Eisav would only do tshuva he would indeed become Yakov’s master. Yakov didn’t mind one bit if Eisav would become his master in righteousness. In fact, this is what he hoped for all along.

We can see from all of this how careful we must be when judging others. We never know who is truly worthy and who needs to repent before Moshiach arrives. If we would focus more on our own deeds and less on others’ shortcomings, we would truly hasten the redemption.


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