Watch Your Aura
We left last week’s parsha with the very dramatic episode of Yaakov usurping the blessings that were originally meant for Esav. Understandably, Esav was quite upset about this, and resolved to murder his brother once their father was dead. It seems like parsha Vayetzei begins with an entirely new chapter and scene, which begins with Yaakov fleeing his parents’ home in Eretz Israel, and his dream of the Ladder while in flight.
But are the stories connected? The Midrash Tanchuma states that the whole reason why Yaakov needed to leave Eretz Israel is because he had the status of an accidental murderer. The accidental murderer must flee to an Ir Miklat, a City of Refuge, exiling himself from his hometown and his family, and Yaakov needed to do the same. What does this mean? In what way was Yaakov like a murderer?
Rav Yaakov Lainer and others suggest that in the aftermath of Yitzchak giving the blessings to Yaakov instead of to Esav, the Torah records that Yitzchak was filled with a great, frightful epiphany (27:33): He came to the realization that Esav was not the man he thought he was, and that he would not, tragically, play a role in being a part of the Chosen People. Imagine for a moment Esav’s feelings, realizing that his father had now discovered the truth about him. “I’m not the man they thought I was at home,” he thought. What happens to such a person? How does his behavior change?
Esav’s attempts at tesuvah
Initially, Esav thought that he might win back his father’s respect. He tried, as recorded at the end of last week’s parsha, when seeing how his parents had sent Yaakov away to find a wife from their own family. Esav decided to follow suit and married Yishmael’s daughter.
But that didn’t last. He must have realized that his parents nonetheless gave up on him; after all, they never told him to go seek out a wife from their family as they had instructed Yaakov.
When Esav previously thought that his father held him in high regard, Esav restrained himself. Despite his violent and lustful tendencies, he kept himself in check at least when he was in his father’s presence. But now, reasoned Esav, the charade is over.
I might as well live my life to its fullest and do whatever I want. We sadly know of more than one story of a young man or woman who felt “exposed” as falling short of their parents’ or mentors’ expectations. This led them to give up entirely on trying to be good and eradicating their flaws (Obviously, this is a lesson as much for the parents and mentors to be careful with their words as it is for the individuals who have fallen short).
Yaakov failing his brother
This is the murder to which the Midrash refers. Yaakov’s taking of the blessings caused Esav to spiral downwards to a life of complete abandon. He lost his spiritual “life,” as it were, and Yaakov was complicit in this “death.”
Yaakov himself may have been bothered by this. To continue the Midrash’s metaphor, if Yaakov was the accidental murderer, then Esav was not only the victim, but also the blood avenger, the go’el hadam that the Torah says is entitled to vengeance (Num. 35:19). Yaakov was afraid of Esav’s legitimate call for vengeance; as a result of Yaakov’s act, Esav had been demoted and truly had suffered a death of sorts. If I am truly blessed of God, thought Yaakov, why should my brother fail because of my righteousness?
This may be one of the reasons why Hashem showed Yaakov the vision of the Ladder, with angels ascending and descending. God was teaching Yaakov that there will be times when one person can succeed and others, inspired by that success, will ascend the ladder with him. There will be other times in life, however, when as one “angel” ascends the ladder, another angel is forced to “descend.” Sometimes the light of one person can inadvertently extinguish someone else’s light. But that should not be a reason to desist from ascending the ladder. As long as a person is acting righteously and for the sake of Heaven, he must continue along that path even if his bright light will end up casting a shadow of darkness upon others.
This lesson would prove vitally important to Yaakov when encountering Lavan and living in his home for such a prolonged period of time. Yaakov needed to remember the discipline of not changing who he was in order to avoid the jealousy or resentment of his father-in-law’s household. It was also a necessary lesson when preparing to go down to Egypt with his family, as will be documented over the next several weeks. The Diapora Jew should remember that living a life of religious observance can never be abandoned for the sake of others.
If there is a way to mitigate the negative fallout from the Tzadik’s ascent, Hashem will help it happen. This is why Hashem compelled Yaakov to leave his hometown. He was showing compassion to Esav, by not forcing him to live under the unbearable shadow of Yaakov’s righteousness.
This is why Yaakov had to go into “exile” for his inadvertent “murder.” Just as the family of the murder victim is entitled to be protected from having to continuously live in the presence of their loved one’s murderer, Esav was entitled to live his life without the constant torment of Yaakov’s righteous presence.
The story of Yaakov’s departure from Esav’s presence is thus the story of Cain and Abel all over again, and this is stated explicitly by the Zohar. Cain could not bear the pain of seeing his brother’s success shine a light on his own failure, and so he killed him. Fortunately, Yaakov fled his parents home before Esav could arise and kill him.
Ultimately, if the tzadik remains steadfast in his behavior, without the objective of flaunting it, eventually those around him will come to accept and even embrace the other’s righteousness. This is borne out by the reconciliation between Yaakov and Esav, years later, as will be documented in next week’s parsha.
Righteousness and sanctimony
Still, we should all be conscious of our “auras.” We should not allow ourselves to be conspicuously righteous, if we can at all avoid it. In some yoga studios, there is a sign that reads: “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.” “Energy” can refer to anger, depression, or other negative emotions. But it can also refer to the sense of pride that a person may carry for being or doing good.
We have to remember that there’s a fine line between righteousness and sanctimony. If we project that sense of superiority over others, then we are provoking the ire of Esav. What’s more, even when one’s righteousness is genuine, if we can shield our behavior from the Cain’s and the Esav’s out there, we’d be wise to do so. No one wishes to be an accidental murderer or to flee to a City of Refuge.
We all remember the “goody-goody” in our class when growing up, the one who would presume to lecture his or her classmates on proper behavior and who strove to be the teacher’s pet. No one likes the goody-goody, and we certainly don’t wish to project that image to our peers and the rest of the community. In our efforts toward doing what Hashem wants, our goal should be to be modest in our behavior and being a positive example for others whenever possible. Let’s try to keep others in mind as we ascend the ladder toward the final Redemption, bb”a.