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  • Writer's pictureJames Kennard

Vayishlach: Missing Person Alert

The parasha of Vayishlach opens with the long-awaited reunion of Ya’akov and Esav. To Ya’akov’s consternation, he learns that Esav is not coming to the meeting alone.

(א) וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא וְעִמּוֹ אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ … (בראשית לג:א)

Ya’akov lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, Esav was coming, and with him four hundred men… (Bereishit 33:1)

At the end of the encounter, Ya’akov tactfully rejects Esav’s offer to leave some of his men with Ya’akov.

וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו אַצִּיגָה נָּא עִמְּךָ מִן הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתִּי וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה זֶּה אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי.

(בראשית לג:טו)

Esav said, “Let me now leave with you some of the people who are with me.” He said, “Why? Let me find favor in the sight of my lord.” (Bereishit 33:15)

And so Esav departs.

וַיָּשׇׁב בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עֵשָׂו לְדַרְכּוֹ שֵׂעִירָה. (בראשית לג:טז)

So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. (Bereishit 33:16)

Rashi points out that this verse implies that Esav was now alone, without his entourage. What has happened to his escort?

​רש"י​ ​על​ ​בראשית​ ​פרק​ ​לג​ ​פסוק​ ​טז

וישב​ ​ביום​ ​ההוא​ ​עשו​ ​לדרכו​ ​-​ ​עשו​ ​לבדו​ ​וארבע​ ​מאות​ ​איש​ ​שהלכו​ ​עמו​ ​נשמטו​ ​מאצלו​ ​אחד​ ​אחד.

So Esau returned that day on his way – Esav alone returned, but the four hundred men who had accompanied him slipped away from him one by one.

(Rashi is often sensitive to cases of “missing persons” such as this. For instance see Bemidbar 22:7-8 and Rashi’s comment there.)

Commentators raise a question on Rashi’s explanation of verse 16, in light of verse 15. If the 400 hundred men had disappeared by verse 16, how could Esav offer some of them to Ya’akov only moments before?

Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura (15th century, Italy) resolves this issue by explaining that the men offered by Esav in verse 15 were not part of the 400-strong militia (who had already left the scene). Rather, they were from his own household and personal retinue, and had not been mentioned earlier in the text since they were not relevant up to this point.

But the Maskil L’David (18th century Sarajevo) suggests that this is precisely why Rashi adds that the 400 men “slipped away from (Esav) one by one”. There were still a few left by the time of verse 15 (and these were offered to Ya’akov), and none at all left by verse 16, which tells us that they did not leave in one sudden movement, but “one by one”. We see again the genius and the precision of Rashi, and the layers of meaning hidden in his words.

The Beer Hetev (19th century Sarajevo) takes a slightly different path but also concludes that the tension between verse 15 and verse 16 is leading Rashi to his conclusion. There is no inherent problem, he says, in mentioning the 400 men in verse 1 and not in verse 16. Normally, we could simply assume that “Esav” in verse 16 means “Esav and those who were with him” just as verse 17, which states that “Ya’akov journeyed to Succot” is naturally interpreted that as meaning “Ya’akov and all who were with him journeyed”. But it is the mention of Esav’s men in verse 15, as they are offered to Ya’akov, and then their disappearance in verse 16, which obliges Rashi to give an explanation.

The Beer Hetev also suggests another problem that Rashi is solving. The syntax of verse 16 is unusual, saying “וַיָּשׇׁב בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עֵשָׂו” (literally: “he returned, on that day, Esav”) instead of “וַיָּשׇׁב עֵשָׂו בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא”. The verse is therefore to be read as saying “he returned on that day - and who returned? Esav!” stressing that it was Esav alone. For this reason as well, Rashi needs to explain the absence of the 400 men.

Rashi continues with an enigmatic comment:

והיכן פרע להם הקב"ה? בימי דוד, שנאמר (שמואל א ל:יז) כי אם ארבע מאות איש נער אשר רכבו על הגמלים:

When did the Holy One, blessed be He, reward them (the 400 men)? In the days of David, as it is said (1 Shmuel 30:17) (in reference to an attack which David made on the Amalekites, descendants of Esav) "(and no man from them escaped) except for four hundred young men who rode upon camels".

Why does Rashi even mention this episode? The Maharal of Prague (16th century) writes that Rashi mentions the 400 Amalekites as proof for his assertion that Esav’s men slipped away. The saving of the Amelekites must have some divine justification and that can only be because a related group of 400 people performed a meritorious deed. From this we conclude that the 400 accompanying Esav must have defected from his alliance of evil and hence earned merit from which the later group could benefit.

Amalek’s genealogical descent from Esav gives a link between the two incidents, but it remains difficult to see why one group of 400 people should receive the reward for the actions of a different group, in another place and in another time.

A contemporary Rashi scholar, Rav Avraham Barzel, answers this question as follows. The 400 Amalekites fled when they realised that they were the only survivors after David had thoroughly defeated their nation, and that they were the recipients of heavenly reward. This is analogous to Esav’s men realising that their leader’s defeat at the hands of Ya’akov was complete. This was manifested not by violent conquest, but by Esav acknowledging that Ya’akov was the rightful owner of the blessings that he had been granted by his father. Thus our episode, and that of David and the Amalekites, are united by the notion of total victory over the forces of evil, and hence the reward due to one group can be shared with the other.

Therefore we can also say that Esav’s solitary taking his leave of Ya’akov, bereft of his supporters, represents the end of any threat to Ya’akov and his family - physical or spiritual - that Esav had previously presented. Ya’akov now emerges שלם - complete (33:18) - ready to return to the land of Israel, and to his father, and to establish the foundation of the Jewish people.

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