- Torah Portion and Tanach
The Rabbis over the ages have seen Yaakov’s approach to his tense meeting with Eisav as the prototype for meetings between Jewish leaders and powerful gentile rulers. Although our status has improved somewhat, there is still much to learn from the encounter, not only when approaching a mortal threat, but in dealing with many difficult relationships.
During the brothers’ exchange, Yaakov said: "Seeing your face is like seeing the face of a Divine being" (Bereishit 33:10). The gemara (Sota 41b), dealing with the topic of flattering the wicked, provides two possible explanations for this statement. One is that in this world, one may have little choice and therefore is justified to flatter the wicked. Another possibility is that Yaakov mentioned his encounter with Eisav’s representative angel so that Eisav would think twice before starting up with him. Although the gemara presents these explanations as conflicting, it is possible that Yaakov intended to convey both meanings and let Eisav contemplate each. As Chazal comment on this meeting, Eisav was capable of trying to harm Yaakov, yet he may have sincerely been won over by Yaakov’s display of respect and affection (see Rashi to Bereishit 33:4). Indeed, wisely crafted vague statements seem to have been effective. We find this approach throughout Sefer Bereishit, in such exchanges as Yehudah with Yosef and Yaakov with Lavan.
However, double meanings have their limits. Having one thing in one’s mouth and another in his heart can take away from the message’s credibility. When Yaakov told his messengers what to say to Eisav when bringing him gifts, he told them to refer to Eisav as his master. That is simple. However, even when not feeding them their lines, Yaakov referred to Eisav in their presence in the same way. He realized that he could not describe Eisav as a despised person and then expect his emissaries to convincingly strike the conciliatory, respectful tone.
The matter apparently runs even deeper. When Yaakov turned directly to Hashem, asking for salvation, he referred to Eisav as "my brother, Eisav." Although there are homiletic approaches to the reference to brotherhood, the simple meaning is that Yaakov was honestly, in a "closed door" meeting with Hashem, stressing his feeling of brotherhood for Eisav. This can partially be explained by Yaakov’s preference that the episode end without a need to fight back and harm his brother (see Rashi to 32:8). However, there is likely an element that if Yaakov wanted to himself be able to show respect and brotherhood for Eisav, he needed to train himself to think of Eisav in that light.
Rav Tzi Yehuda Kook is quoted as saying that Aharon did not "love people in order to draw them to the Torah" but rather to actually love them, which results in drawing them to the Torah. If we have trouble applying this lesson, we should train ourselves to look at the positive in an imperfect person rather than try to turn the charm on and off like a light switch.