Last week and this week, the Torah portion gives us the opportunity to compare two of our classic enemies, Laban and Esau. Laban, to say the least, was inhospitable to our forefather Jacob. He was ungrateful and deceitful. Moreover, we are told in the Passover Haggadah that he sought to completely undo us.
Let’s compare him to Esau. Remember that it was because of Esau that Jacob fled to find refuge in the house of Laban in the first place. Remember too that Rebecca herself informed Jacob of Esau’s murderous intentions against him: “Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob … And Esau said to himself, ‘Let the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.’”
As we see in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, Jacob is far more frightened of Esau than he is of Laban. From the beginning of their relationship, Jacob is rather confident that he could deal with Laban’s deceitfulness quite competently. Throughout their relationship, Jacob has no problem negotiating with Laban, and the two eventually part company relatively peacefully.
On the other hand, we quickly learn that Esau comes to meet Jacob with 400 men, presumably well-prepared for battle. He fears the overwhelming threat of Esau’s attack and prepares for it by every means at his disposal: bribery, strategic maneuvers, and prayer.
Clearly, then, Esau is the greater enemy of the two. I always thought that that was because of Esau’s wickedness —that is, until I recently came across a passage in the Midrash in a sermon on the Torah portion delivered by one of today’s chasidic masters, the Tolner Rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchak Menachem Weinberg.
Weinberg highlights a verse in the writings of the prophet Amos (5:19): “As a man should run from a lion and be attacked by a bear…” The Midrash continues: “The man is Jacob… The lion is Laban from whom Jacob fled. He is called a lion because he pursued Jacob to take his life. The bear is Esau who attacked him on the road … The lion knows shame, the bear knows no shame.”
I am certainly no expert on wildlife, but I’m sure we will all agree that the lion has a reputation for greater ferocity than the bear. Yet the Midrash considers the bear more dangerous. Why?
Weinberg’s analysis focuses on the very essence of Esau’s personality. He reminds us of the verse in last week’s Torah portion in which we learned that “they called him by the name of Esau.” Rashi informs us that “they” — all who knew him — called him “Esau,” which means “completely made, all done, finished.” Esau was a finished product. He was born resembling an adult, physically and behaviorally. He never changed.
There are people who are so confident of themselves that they see no reason to change. Such people, our Midrash suggests, can never be ashamed. That is the nature of the bear, who knows no shame. Such a person, like Esau, is truly dangerous.
The lion, on the other hand, is open to opinions. If he errs and is made aware of his errors, he feels ashamed and alters his behavior. He develops and grows and changes in the course of his interaction with others. Perhaps this is why he, and not the bear, is the king of beasts.
There are human beings who, like the bear, insulate themselves from the opinions of other people, closing their ears to constructive criticism. Not only do such individuals not develop over the course of their lifetime, but they pose a threat to society, especially if they are in leadership positions.
But there are others who, like lions, not only tolerate criticism but seek it out. They know well the 48 qualifications for a Torah scholar. Among them are that he “love mankind, love righteousness and justice, and love admonishment.” (Avot 6:6) That’s how one grows to be a lion, a royal personality, a true talmid chacham.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.