What Yaakov Told Esav
"And I have oxen and donkeys... - 'oxen' refers to Yosef, as it is written: 'the firstling of his herd, grandeur is his' (bekhor shoro hadar lo) (Devarim 33); 'donkeys' refers to Yissakhar, as it is written: 'Yissakhar is a strong ass' (Yissakhar hamor garem) (Bereishit 49); 'sheep' refers to Israel, as it is written: 'But you my flock, the flock of my pasture...' (Yehezkel 34); 'and servants' refers to David, as it is written: 'I am Your servant, son of Your handmaiden' (Tehillim 115); 'and maidservants' refers to Avigayil..." (Bereishit Rabba 75:12)
Our Sages taught: "'oxen' refers to the anointed one of war... 'donkeys' refers to Melekh HaMashiach." (ibid. 7)
What the midrash seems to be saying is a far cry from the 'pshat' of the text. What does the midrash mean, and what is the real significance of Yaakov's statement, "I have oxen and donkeys, sheep and servants and maidservants..."?
This midrash needs to be understood in light of another midrash which appears later in the parasha:
"'Let my lord, I pray you, pass over before his servant, and I shall lead on slowly, according to the pace of the cattle that goes before me and the children, until I come to my lord to Se'ir.' - When will he come? In the days of Mashiach, as it is written, "And the saviors will ascend to Har Tzion to judge the mountain of Esav..." (ibid. 78;17)
When Yaakov tells Esav that he is on his way to meet him at Se'ir, he isn't referring to the immediate present. Yaakov doesn't mean to go right now to Se'ir; he is referring rather to acharit ha-yamim, when the time comes and the hour is right, and then "the saviors will go up to Har Tzion...". Until then, Yaakov says, "I shall lead on slowly" - there is no need to hurry.
We learn (Bereishit 36:31), "These are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned a king over the children of Israel" - there were eight of them, and Yaakov established (his own) and cancelled the kingship of Esav in their days" (Rashi).
Yaakov has an historical perspective. He doesn't live for the moment; rather, with every action he behaves in light of the perspective of the future - there is no need to hurry now, because the kings of Israel will have their hour after the kings of Esav, and hence "let my Lord, I pray you, pass on before his servant". This, then, is the deeper significance of Chazal's words in their explanation of the pasuk, "I have oxen and donkeys, sheep, servants and maidservants...".
Yaakov shows Esav what he has achieved, what is destined to develop from him and where his strength lies - in Melekh HaMashiach, in the anointed one of war, in Yosef and Yissakhar.
Chazal are teaching us that we should not view this as a private battle between Yaakov the man and Esav the man, but rather between two nations: the nation of Yaakov - Israel, and the nation of Esav - Edom.
This battle will continue through the years and throughout the generations, and Chazal point out to us the message behind Yaakov's strategy - in dealing with his challenges his strategy isn't merely pragmatic, based on the contemporary reality, but rather historic and futuristic: what will the ramifications of my present actions be for Israel?
The expression "ma'aseh avot siman la-banim" is well known, but in light of the above its meaning can be sharpened: we are not referring simply to a pattern or sign, signifying that what happened to our forefathers will also happen to us. There is a profound significance here - the forefathers knew that they were going to found a nation, and their sense of mission and responsibility in each and every action was enormous. There is no doubt that when Yaakov went out to engage in a battle against Esav, he weighed his future strength, comparing his descendants and his contribution to the world with those of Esav. Only against the background of such a view could he be confident in the justice of his way and his actions. He would certainly survive and be saved, for he was destined to bring Yissakhar, Yosef and Melekh HaMashiach to the world!
A lesson for our daily lives may be learned from this. During our many years of exile, Am Yisrael felt no sense of responsibility towards our history. With the establishment of the State, however, it becomes our obligation and responsibility to understand the historical significance of every step we take. In the course of our contemporary lives we determine the future of the nation and the State!
(Originally delivered Shabbat Parshat Vayishlach 5750.
Translated by Karen Fish.)