Parshas Vayishlach - Back Me Up

By Rabbi Zvi Teichman

Posted on 11/30/17

When Yaakov strategizes how to most effectively present his tribute to Esav, he implements two important protocols.

The first code of etiquette he instructs his diplomatic corps is to respond to any questions in the order they were presented. He informs each group that when Esav confronts them he will ask a series of questions. First he will ask, למי אתה, “Whose are you?” He will then ask, ואנה תלך, “where are you going”, concluding with one last query, ולמי אלה לפניך, “and whose are these that are before you?”

Yaakov tells them to answer in response to the first inquiry, לעבדך ליעקב, that they belong “ to your servant Yaakov”, and in reply to questions two and three that shall say, מנחה היא שלוחה לאדני לעשו, “It is a tribute sent to my lord, to Esav.”   

This, Rashi points out, is in following the dictum outlined in Pirkei Avos, that a wise person should always reply,על ראשון ראשון ועל אחרון אחרון , first to the first question and last to the last question.(פרקי אבות ה ז)

The next practice he applies is when physically positioning the members of his family in anticipation of meeting up with Esav.

The Torah describes וישם את השפחות ואת ילדיהן ראשנה ואת לאה וילדיה אחרנים ואת רחל ואת יוסף אחרנים (שם לג ב), He put the handmaids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Yosef last. Here too, Rashi teaches that is in conformance with the popular notion אחרון אחרון חביב, the further back the more beloved.

The simple understanding of his intention in this arrangement was in order to protect those most precious to him by distancing them further away from Esav, with the most cherished, Rachel and Yosef, the furthest, Leah and her children next, and the more ‘dispensable’, the handmaids and their children, exposed to the front line of attack. Could it possibly be that he distinguished among his very own flesh and blood, protecting some more than others? Is it fathomable that Yaakov felt any less allegiance to any one of his wives and children, regardless of stature?

Rav Avraham, the son of the Rambam, states firmly that it is indeed improper to suggest such a notion. Rather he claims this is standard protocol among royalty for those of lesser stature to partition those greater to them, and for the second tier to separate those of higher status behind them.

What is so significant in recording these seemingly simple concepts? Is this a mere coincidence that Yaakov sought to teach these two specific principles of protocol: the notion of answering questions in the order of אחרון אחרון, ‘last last’ and this double emphasis of אחרון אחרון חביב, ‘the later the later’ is more beloved, and they both share a common double accent?

Many earlier sources reveal that the schemes employed in this confrontation between Yaakov and Esav have many implications and lessons for our survival in our interactions during our long exile with the forces, both physical and spiritual, that seek to destroy us.

The Holy Sfas Emes quoting in the name of his saintly grandfather, the Chidushei HaRim, teaches us a most vital lesson in how to thrive amongst challenge that is derived from here.

The three questions posed by Esav: Who are you?, where are you heading?, and what is this before you?, echo the famous questions Akavia ben Mahalalel asks each one of us to pose to ourselves: מאין באת לאן אתה הולך ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון (ג א), Know whence you come, whither you go, and before whom you will give justification and reckoning. 

The forces of Esav seek to undermine our self-confidence by questioning our worth, by challenging our mission and claiming there is no accountability.

To them we respond with the resounding call of the ‘voice of Yaakov’, לעבדך ליעקב, we are servants of Yaakov and follow in his mission. ...מנחה היא שלוחה, a מנחה is a term used to refer to the meal-offering of the poor man, which accents the worthiness of all whom, on whatever strata of achievement and stature may find themselves, nevertheless give it their all, in accordance to their ability and circumstance. Finally, ...לאדני לעשו, we are accountable and confident that the reckoning will come when we will be lauded for countering the negative influences of Esav and his cohorts, and achieve eternal reward.

The Sfas Emes offers a remarkable addition to his grandfather’s theory. There is one extra sentiment that Yaakov adds to their response, והנה גם הוא אחרינו, and behold he himself is behind us. The simple meaning of their statement is to convey that Yaakov himself is coming up to greet Esav. The Sfas Emes asserts it refers to the Divine Presence, ‘He’, who stands behind us encouraging us in our noble and mission.

The directive to respond to that which comes first is more a call to never divert from that which is ראשון, primary in your mission; self-perfection, and not to get lost or despondent in the frustration of not yet having reached one’s stated objective. אחרון is rooted in אחר, meaning behind or later, representing the backdrop of circumstances and venue that summons us to action. One must always first remind oneself of one’s identity, to whose calling one is responding to, so that one not get distracted by the end goal and forgetting the value of one’s personal standing before G-d.

But the principle of אחרון אחרון is also vital. In determining each of our roles we must realize that wherever we find ourselves positioned in the layers of the ‘royal family’, each one of us serves as backup for someone in front of us. No one lives in a vacuum. Each one of us is part of the layers that create the fabulous tapestry called Klall Yisroel. The ultimate backdrop is G-d, the most ‘coveted’, as the verse indeed asserts that ‘He’ stands, מאחרינו, behind us.

The next layer is Yaakov from whom the family of royalty will burgeon. There are many players, from the ‘handmaidens’ and her children, to the ‘Leah’s’ and her exceptional children, to the ‘Rochel’s’ and ‘Yosef’s’ who inspire those they serve as backup to. Each one is an integral part of the royal family each playing a backup role in the mighty citadel called Klall Yisroel.

It is not important who is last, rather that everyone is in the pecking order of, אחרון אחרון, for all the backups, wherever they may find their role, are each חביב, cherished by the One Whom exclaims, ואני אחרון (ישעיהו מד ו), I am last!

In Yaakov’s charge to his emmisaries he directs them to tell Esav that he had sojourned with Lavan, ואחר עד עתה, and I lingered until now.

The Baal HaTurim says that Yaakov in using the word עתה was alluding to all future exiles and the tribulations the Jewish nation would have to endure. The ע equals 70, a reference to the seventy years they were exiled in Bavel. The ת is numerically valued at 400, signaling the four hundred years they were decreed to  spend in Egypt. The ה standing for 5 in allusion to the five thousand years we would endure the various exiles until the אלף הששי, the six thousandth year by which we are guaranteed the Moshiach will arrive.

Perhaps in his excusing his lingering and stating ואחר, he was alluding to the personal growth and perfection he achieved during the arduous sojourn with Lavan, becoming the אחרון, the last layer that stands behind all his future progeny in prodding them never to forget their worthiness and their roles in that marvelous אחרון אחרון entity, knowing that each one of us along the point of that portrait are indeed very חביב, beloved.


צבי טייכמאן