After Yaakov and Esav’s peaceful reunion, Esav proposes that they join together: “He [Esav] said: Let us go and journey, and I will go alongside you” (33:12). Yaakov declines, explaining that this would be difficult on his children and flocks: “My master knows that the children are delicate, and my sheep and cattle are nursing; if they are pushed one day, all the sheep will die. My master shall please pass in front of his servant, and I will proceed at my slow place, as appropriate for my property and the children…” (33:13-14). Yaakov explained to Esav that he must travel at a slow, relaxed pace because of his children and animals, and therefore he could not join together with Esav, who would travel too quickly.
The Tolna Rebbe noted the symbolic significance of this exchange between Yaakov and Esav. The figure of Esav is widely regarded as a symbol of the forces of evil which threaten to derail us from our mission and destiny. And one of the spiritual dangers that threaten us is Esav’s offer that we try to keep us with his rapid pace. Impatience is one of the greatest impediments to spiritual growth and progress. If we try to advance in instantaneous leaps, and to change and grow overnight, we are doomed to failure. In all likelihood, we will either undergo a short-lived change, convince ourselves that we have grown and achieved when we have not, or just despair. Growth must proceed “at my slow pace,” one step at a time. If we expect too much of ourselves, our chances of success are near zero.
In his response to Esav, Yaakov emphasizes in particular the delicate nature of his children. The Tolna Rebbe noted that the notion of slow, incremental growth is especially vital in the area of child-rearing and education. Pushing a child beyond his limits, and setting unreasonably high expectations, can easily overwhelm a child and lead to despair and resentment. “Chanokh le-na’ar al pi darko” – “Educate a child according to his path” (Mishlei 22:6). Each child must be led along the route most suitable for him or her. Some require an accelerated route to high achievement, whereas others need to progress more slowly. Pushing children to progress and advance beyond their capabilities is a tactic of “Esav,” a manifestation of the impatient impulse that too often drives us to demand immediate results.
In all areas of life, we need to follow Yaakov’s example of “va’ani etnahala le-iti” – to set reasonable expectations of ourselves and others, and understand that ambitious goals require a great deal of time and effort to realize.