The Torah portion of Vayishlach opens with the dramatic narrative of Jacob being pursued by his hostile twin brother, Esau. Although not new to being pursued by his nemesis, this time, after spending two decades with Laban, his circumstances were quite different. Jacob now had a large family and had amassed tremendous wealth.

Upon learning that Esau was once again coming after him, Jacob took swift action. He dispatched messengers (who were, in fact, angels, according to the commentaries) with the following message: “I have lived with Laban … and I have accumulated great wealth: oxen, donkeys, flocks of sheep, servants …. Let’s make peace.”1

Sadly, the messengers returned to Jacob with bad news. “Esau is coming towards you with 400 terrorists, armed to the teeth!”

Terrified, Jacob prepared for the confrontation. In a last-ditch attempt to avoid battle, he sent an enormous gift to Esau, a substantial collection of valuable animals. Miraculously, Esau was moved by the gesture, became calm, and upon finally seeing Jacob, greeted him with a hug and a kiss.

Observing Jacob’s extensive family, including his 11 sons, Esau inquired, “Who are these to you?”

“These are my children,” responded Jacob, “with which G‑d has graced me, your servant.”

By delving deeper into the narrative, we gain a profound appreciation for the life lessons derived from this story.

Living With Laban

Upon learning that his wicked brother, Esau, was heading his way, what message did Jacob send? “I’ve been living with Laban!”

What was Esau supposed to do with that information?

The answer lies in Rashi’s commentary, which encourages us to read between the lines. Jacob said, “Im Lavan garti – I lived with Laban.” The Hebrew word garti has the numeric value of 613, representing the 613 commandments in the Torah. This was Jacob’s message to Esau. “I lived in the house of Laban. I lived in the city of Aram Naharayim, where everyone is morally bankrupt and wicked. And even there, I kept all of Torah’s laws. I did not adopt Laban’s evil ways. I didn’t compromise even one iota of my Jewish way of life.”

But why would Esau be impressed that Jacob remained faithful to the Torah?

The explanation lies in the fact that Esau wanted to do more than just eliminate Jacob; he wanted to annihilate the Jewish people. He intended to make sure that there would be no Children of Israel. A deeper conversation was unfolding. Esau, from whom the Roman Empire descended, was saying to Jacob, “I am going to kill you. And without you, your children will grow up to be good Romans.”

And Jacob responded, “You won’t kill me, and you won’t influence my children. You may be a superior warrior, but I’m a tougher guy! I lived with Laban. I lived in a hotbed of immorality, and yet, look at the children I raised there—nice Jewish kids! Each of my sons wears a kippah. My daughter lights Shabbat candles!”

Resilience, Programmed Into Our DNA

Esau was shocked.

“How could you possibly raise children like that in such a place?” he asked. “You had no Jewish infrastructure—no synagogues, no day schools, not a single kosher restaurant! What’s your secret?”

G‑d graced me with these children,” Jacob answered, using the Hebrew word chanan. The three letters that spell the word chananchet, nun, nun—form an acronym for the three central mitzvot of a Jewish home: challah, representing the laws of kosher; niddah, representing the laws of family purity; and ner, representing Shabbat candles.

When we raise our children in observance of kosher, in observance of family purity, and in observance of Shabbat, no Esau—no physical or spiritual enemy of the Jewish people—can successfully exert power over us.

Wrestling Angels

This week’s parshah also contains the riveting narrative of Jacob’s battle with Esau’s angel, during which the angel dislocated Jacob’s thigh. One might ask, why didn’t the angel go for a knockout punch to the face?

There is deep symbolism here. Esau’s angel realized that he could not overpower Jacob directly, so instead, he targeted the “loins of Jacob” – his children.2

“I cannot defeat you,” admitted the angel, “victory is beyond my reach. Instead, I will target your children. I will attempt to lead them astray through assimilation, to entice them to abandon the teachings of the Torah and the observance of mitzvot.”

Thus, Jacob and the angel engaged in fierce battle, culminating with the angel conceding and acknowledging Jacob’s victory.

And so, until Moshiach comes, the Jewish people will be here, recognizably Jewish, proudly Jewish, despite Esau’s 400 terrorists.

Saved by Association

My father, Rabbi Sholom B. Gordon, of blessed memory, served as the rabbi of Congregation Ahavath Zion, the largest Orthodox congregation in Newark, N.J.

A member of the synagogue’s board once approached my father with a serious problem. His young daughter had come home one day and declared, “Dad, I’m becoming Shabbat observant!” The father nearly fainted. “Are you crazy?!” he exclaimed. “Shomer Shabbat? Shabbat observant? You’re signing up for a life of poverty! You’ll never make a living.”

Utterly devastated, he came to my father in desperation, seeking his help. “Rabbi,” he said, “I’m your friend. I need you to do me a big favor. You’ve got to save my daughter from certain doom! She decided to be shomer Shabbat! Her brother is a doctor, and her sister works for the State Department – and she’s going to become shomer Shabbat?! Please, rabbi, talk her out of it.”

“Let me get this straight,” said my father. “You want me, the rabbi, to convince your daughter not to observe Shabbat?!”

Then, utilizing his fantastic sense of humor, my father shared a teaching of the Midrash: Esau approached Jacob with the intention of harming him and instead they ended up hugging and reconciling.

What caused this sudden change of heart? The Midrash explains that a group of angels approached and began beating Esau. “Don’t hit me!” cried Esau, “I am the grandson of Abraham!” But the chief angel insisted on continuing. “I am the son of Isaac!” cried Esau, yet the chief angel persisted. “I am the brother of Jacob!” wailed Esau, and upon hearing that, the chief angel ordered, “Stop the beating. He is Jacob’s brother; he gets full protection.”

That was the story, according to the Midrash, behind Esau’s attitude adjustment.

“After 120 years,” continued my father, “when you come up to heaven for judgment day, the angels will review your life, see that you weren’t perfect, and start hitting you. ‘Stop!’ you’ll shout, ‘My son is a doctor!’ But they will keep hitting. ‘Stop!’ You’ll plead, ‘My daughter works at the State Department!’ but they’ll keep hitting. ‘Stop hitting me!’ you’ll cry, ‘My daughter is shomer Shabbat!’ and the beating will immediately stop.

“Do you really want me to take away your source of protection? I won’t do that.” With his trademark humor and his wise approach, he brought that negotiation to a wonderful conclusion. The girl grew up to be a G‑d-fearing young woman who went on to build a beautiful, traditional Jewish family.

This was the message that Jacob was sending to his brother, Esau. “I’m a tough guy; your 400 terrorists don’t scare me. In the toughest conditions, I kept true to the Torah and raised a generation of children who do the same!”

Divine Prescription for Peace

In 1977, my father came to Encino, Calif., to celebrate the birth of our son Eli. During that visit he shared a powerful message with our community. At the time, Egypt and Israel were taking the initial steps that eventually led to the Camp David Accords, and the Jewish world was filled with a spirit of optimism.

“Shaking hands with your enemy and singing Hava Nagila on the White House lawn certainly feels very good,” remarked my father, “but, the Torah teaches us what truly brings about everlasting peace for Israel.” For that, he said, we need only take to heart the verse in Psalms: “And may you see children [born] to your children—peace upon Israel.”3

Said my father, “Bringing another Jewish child into this world and raising him as a Jew will do more for peace in the Middle East and bring more peace to Israel than anything else possibly can.”

We must raise Jewish children wherever we are, even in the most spiritually desolate environments. We must be strong, resilient, and fearless.

While there will always be an Esau, G‑d will always be there for us, sending an attitude-adjusting message. Our responsibility is to ensure the creation of one generation after another, with children and grandchildren connected to the Source.