In the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach, we read of Yaakov’s preparations for his dreaded reunion with his brother, Eisav. These included the presentation of a very large gift. The Torah writes, “Va-yikach min ha-ba be-yado” – “He took some of what he had in his possession” and sent it to Eisav (32:14). This gift, as the Torah describes in detail, included large numbers of several different kinds of animals.
Rashi brings a number of different interpretations of the phrase, “ha-ba be-yado” – “what he had in his possession.” One interpretation, cited from the Midrash Lekach Tov, is that Yaakov gave his brother animals “min ha-chulin,” from his “mundane” herds. Rashi explains that Yaakov had ensured to first tithe his animals, as he had promised (28:22), thus ensuring that the groups of animals given to Eisav were entirely “chulin,” without containing any animals which were declared sacred. According to the Midrash, this is the meaning of the expression “ha-ba be-yado” – that they were permissible for use, and not made hallowed.
Rav Menachem Bentzion Sacks, in his Menachem Tziyon, suggests a symbolic understanding of this Midrashic reading of the verse. The image of Eisav has often been viewed as a symbol of hostile nations and harmful forces which threaten us, either by seeking to inflict bodily harm or by denying us the ability to devote ourselves to God. The story of Yaakov’s confrontation with Eisav thus represents the tense relationship that our nation has often had with our adversaries. Just as Yaakov felt compelled to send a lavish gift to Eisav in an attempt to assuage his hostility, the Jewish People, too, must at times give of themselves to other nations in the interest of maintaining or achieving peaceful relations. The Midrash warns, however, that we should be prepared to sacrifice only “chulin” – our “mundane” commodities, such as money and property, for the sake of securing the goodwill of other peoples. But our sacred possessions – our values, our ideals, our principles, and our lifestyle – must never be compromised for this purpose. We should be ready, as Yaakov was, to part with “chulin,” our material blessings, but our sacred property must always remain off-limits. Our religious heritage and teachings are more precious than any material possessions, and may never be sacrificed for any purpose, even in our ongoing struggle against “Eisav” in all his various manifestations