Twenty years have passed but Esav hasn’t changed. Esav: hostile, eternally furious, dangerous, violent, indignant and unforgiving. Yaakov is understandably terrified. Wouldn’t you be frozen in terror if you were faced with an armed militia of 400 men? And who exactly are they fighting? – a family with twelve small children, a few slaves, and a large number of animals. A defenceless civilian target! Esav clearly has not changed. The years have not faded his anger, his insult. He is uncompromising. He has no mercy.
“To your brother Esav: You see him as your brother, but he is acting towards you as the evil Esav. He is still filled with the same hate.” (Rashi, Passuk 7.)
“… He (Yaakov) prepared in three ways: Diplomatic reconciliation, prayer, and for violent confrontation.” (Rashi, v.9.)
This is the way in which we traditionally view our Parshat Hashavua. Esav is a threatening menace. Yaakov is the innocent victim. The atmosphere is one of impending tragedy. We read the pesukim tensely and nervously, certain that Yaakov will be able to escape only by the skin of his teeth, and by virtue of a large helping of divine assistance. It is, therefore, with a sense of incredulity and perplexity that we read of Esav’s warm greeting to Yaakov. Esav’s exuberant bear hug and kiss leaves us puzzled. How did this hunter, this monster, suddenly transform into a loving brother and a doting uncle? What changed Esav?
AN ALTERNATIVE READING.
The Rashbam reads this narrative in a very different way. In his view, the messengers return from their rendezvous with Esav with a very different feeling:
“We came to your brother, to Esav: And you gained his favour just as you wished! In fact he is so happy about your arrival that, in his love towards you he is coming to meet you with four hundred men in your honour. This is the focus of the text (Ikar peshuto.) Similar to this is the verse (in Shemot 4:14 which describes Aharon setting forth to meet his brother Moshe): ‘Indeed he is coming to meet you and he will be happy to see you.’
And Yaakov was greatly frightened: in his heart. Even though Esav had expressed to the delegation his intention of honouring Yaakov, Yaakov did not believe that Esav’s intentions were good.”
So here we have a very different picture of Esav, and of Yaakov. But from where does the Rashbam develop this unorthodox reading? Does the text tolerate this reading?
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