We read in Parashat Vayishlach of Yaakov’s reunion with Esav, an encounter which Yaakov dreaded but ended up being peaceful and conciliatory. At the meeting, Esav turned to Yaakov and asked, “Who is this entire camp that I met?” (33:8), referring, presumably, to the series of gifts that Yaakov had sent ahead with his servants in an effort to earn Esav’s favor and forgiveness for his having stolen their father’s blessing. Yaakov answered by explaining the purpose of these gifts: “to find favor in my master’s eyes.”
The Midrash, cited by Rashi, adds another level of interpretation, explaining that there was also another “camp” which Esav confronted before his reunion with Yaakov. The Midrash relates that Esav encountered groups of angels, some of which violently struck and shoved him and his men. Other angels called on these angels to desist, as Esav was the child of Yitzchak. After the violent angels disregarded this call, the other angels urged them to stop because Esav was the grandson of Avraham. This call, too, was ignored. Finally, the other angels cried, “He is the brother of Yaakov,” whereupon the angels left Esav and his men alone.
How might we understand the meaning of this story? What does the Midrash seek to teach us through this seemingly peculiar account?
Rav Chaim Zaitchik, in his Ha-mada Ve-ha’chayim (vol. 1, p. 138), explains this Midrashic passage as emphasizing the basic concept of teshuva. The point being made is that Esav could not earn forgiveness without correcting his flaw, his hostility towards Yaakov. His stature as Avraham’s grandson and Yitzchak’s son did not allow him any shortcuts or dispensations. When a person has a flaw, his process of repentance and atonement requires him to address his area of wrongdoing and work to correct it. Any virtues he has are immaterial in this regard; there is no substitute for working to improve oneself by struggling to eliminate flaws. In Esav’s case, this meant overcoming years of hatred and hostility and once again becoming Yaakov’s “brother” in the full sense of the term. If he wished to avoid the consequences of his wrongdoing – symbolized by the image of his being beaten by angels – he needed to perform complete repentance, which entailed restoring his brotherly feelings towards Yaakov.
Accordingly, the Midrash teaches us that we cannot comfortably tolerate our faults on the basis of our achievements. While we all have much to be proud of, it does not absolve us of the need to honestly acknowledge our faults and try to correct them.