Parashas Vayishlach – Battle Plans against the Yatsa Horra

This week's sedra picks up where we left off last week with Yaakov, having finally broken free of the conniving Lavan, continuing his journey home with his wives, children, servants and masses of wealth which he accumulated, with Hashem’s continuous blessings, during his time away. Unfortunately for Yaakov this isn’t just a standard walk in the park and in order to reach his destination in the South he would have to pass through the land of Seir where his evil brother Esav and his band of 400 men happened to be waiting for him. If we backtrack two parashas earlier, you will remember that Yaakov had to escape his brother’s wrath having deceived him for Yitzhak's blessing… 34 years later he is still clearly not over the episode and he wants to attack Yaakov and his new family. Chazal actually question Yaakov's decision to pass through his brother's region saying that he 'pulled the ears of the sleeping dog' by choosing this route... which is potentially where the English expression, 'let sleeping dog's lie' comes from. Either way, Yaakov continued forward on his journey towards Esav and therefore prepared for confrontation.

As we all remember Esav was born a hairy, red monster of a child who quickly acquired a taste for idolatry, infidelity, extreme violence and deception of his father. He has now grown into an even worst problem as he has the authority to summon 400 men to fight with him, and as we all know that number usually spells trouble in the Torah. Haven’t learnt this information, Yaakov immediately prepared for war, a preparation which many Jews would later model their own defences on. In his planning, Ramban teaches that Yaakov used a three pronged strategy; Preparation; in the form of dividing the camps to prevent complete annihilation Prayer; begging Hashem for a positive outcome Appeasement; in the form of gifts

On the surface, these courses of action convey contradictory messages; aggression and servility seem to be irreconcilable characteristics but hidden within this strategy are key lessons that can be learned in our own daily battles against the yatsa horra. Esav epitomises evil and when preparing for this potential confrontation, Yaakov is subsequently teaching us the route which should be taken in order to win over our own battles with the yatsa horra. Further investigation into these three stages highlights these tactics.
Preparation- The Torah describes how Yaakov divided everything he owned into two camps stating, “if Esav comes to one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camp shall survive” [32:9]. Ramban brings down that this teaches us a lesson of general derech eretz that one should not put all their money into one place, whether that be physically or investment wise, but on a deeper level we also learn how these same pre-considerations must be taken when fighting one's inclination towards aveiras. Preparation is therefore an essential part of combating one's yatsa horra, for example if someone would be trying to fight alcoholism, it wouldn’t be wise to take walk a route which involved the passing of pubs or bars! On the same pretext, it would be sensible for someone who is trying to grow spiritually to avoid people or situations which are prone to make them fall to sin.
Prayer- We learn throughout the book of Bereishis the power of prayer with Sara, Rivka and Rachel all described as barren but then able to bear children following their appeasement of Hashem through intense prayer. The power of prayer for a Jew is therefore incalculable.
Appeasement- Yaakov sent Esav quite a hefty gift which was ultimately a successful appeasement in the subduction of his anger. These same tactics are advised when fighting the yatsa horra... the best advice I ever received on attempts to overcome my own struggles was to barter with my yatsa horra and this is the lesson being taught here in the Torah. To give an example, arguably the biggest struggle for most people starts when they wake up, with great effort necessary to get out of bed in the morning. By providing yourself attractive motivation to get up, for example the thought of a large breakfast after shacharis, we can appease the Yatsa Horra which wants us to stay in bed. Another example of this is seen when people receive honour for giving tzadakah, for instance when plaques are put up in peoples names. The yatsa horra makes it very hard to hand over money to charity but with the incentive of honour, where people will recognize you as a giving person, it becomes easier. This was therefore the appeasement of Esav who is the physical representation of our yatsa horra.

So we learn that Yaakov carefully selected the gift to be sent to Esav, but what was the deeper messages behind it? At face value Yaakov’s gift to Esav seems a very well thought out and generous one; “two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats; two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty nursing camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty she-donkeys and ten he-donkeys” [32: 15-16]. Sforno notes how these are the perfect proportions to keep breeding levels up and therefore yield maximum productivity from the new flocks. Rashi also points out that the Torah describes how Yaakov commanded the gifts to be given in separate droves so that Esav would see the animals coming towards him from 'clear across the horizon', making the gift seem even larger and more impressive. So what is going on here really? According to the mefarshim, at face value, Yaakov's gift might appear to be one of barter for his own protection but what we really see is that Yaakov is cunningly sending out a clear message with this move. To explore this idea further, we can observe that the first thing Esav is going to see which is of his brother after 34 years of rage is that of “two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats” [32:15]... Sound familiar? This was of course the same animal Yaakov used to deceive his father, by wearing goat skin on his hands and neck, to take the blessing which Esav was meant to receive all those years ago. The Torah even spells this message out for us, describing the way Yaakov compiled the tribute to his brother, stating how “he took, that which had come in his hand” [32:14]... with the purposely selected usage of the word 'hand' in this sentence hinting very nicely to the part of body which was covered in goat skin during that famous deception. Another brilliant idea is brought down by the Ben Ish Chai, with an even more abrupt statement being sent out by Yaakov through his gift. In order to reveal this rather cryptic message we need to count the amount of excess female animals (one’s who don’t have a mate) that Yaakov sent to his brother as a gift. This count comes to; 180 she-goats without he-goats (200-20), 180 ewes without rams, 30 cows without bulls and 10 donkeys who don’t have a mate… which adds up to… 400... and from this calculation we see how Yaakov communicated to Esav what he thought about his 400 men which he had brought with him...

So with his preparations complete the attack eventually came but not from the source which Yaakov originally expected. One of the most famous episodes in the Torah unfolds next in this week's sedra with Yaakov's struggle with an angel described by the Torah; “Yaakov was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” [32:25]. There is a famous Midrash which states that the dust being kicked up from Yaakov’s wrestling with the angel rose so high that it reached the throne of Hashem. Chazal question here, what this is coming to teach us? It is explained that we learn first and foremost from this episode that Hashem recognises our struggles and they reach him. Our outcomes might not always be successful but it is the effort that Hashem sees. Someone might spend days trying to figure out a certain section of Torah and come up with no results but we still need to struggle on because Hashem recognises our battles and this is ultimately what really matters to him. We must adopt the attitude that eventually we will be successful in our battles but until then we need to struggle on!

On that note I think it is appropriate to wish everyone success in all their struggles! Shabbat Shalom

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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