Can 400 Humans Make One? Commentary on Parashat Vayyishlach 5784

By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President & Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary


“Every vote counts” is a simple enough slogan. It is a truism that hammers home just how absolutely thin a majority it takes for a simple majority to rule. In 2020, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks won her seat in the United States House of Representatives after gaining 6 more votes than her Democratic opponent. In 1984, Indiana’s 8th congressional district elected Rep. Frank McCloskey over his Republican challenger with a mere 4 vote majority. In 1839, Marcus Morton was elected as Governor of Massachusetts when he garnered exactly one vote beyond the 50% threshold in a state that required more than half of the cast ballots to favor a single candidate.

For this reason, voting is a vital tool for any American who cares about the way their government treats them, their neighbors, their neighborhood, and their land. Not all Americans are necessarily eligible to vote of course. Many citizens are not old enough to vote. Some Americans have criminal records that prevent them from voting. Certain voters face health conditions that keep them away from the polls. Meanwhile, other Americans might simply not be registered to vote.

Though every vote counts—the opinions of the souls who do not vote end up carrying lesser weight in the best of democracies.

Even though our spiritual ancestors whom we meet in the Book of Genesis did not live in a modern democracy, no society, neighborhood, or family has ever been immune to the power of people. Jacob, however, the immediate patriarch to the twelve tribes of Israel, understood that not all people recognize their own power.

As Parashat Vayyishlach begins, Jacob has commissioned a delegation to travel to Se’ir, where his brother Esau resides, to convey a message to the elder of these two siblings (Genesis 32:4). According to the memo, Jacob has recently amassed cattle, donkeys, sheep, and servants of all genders, and he now seeks “לִמְצֹא־חֵ֖ן” (limtzo chen, “to find grace”) in the eyes of Esau (32:6). Before the narrator of our chapter can inform us whether Jacob’s messengers followed their instructions, our text fastforwards to the return of these delegates:


וַיָּשֻׁ֙בוּ֙ הַמַּלְאָכִ֔ים אֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב לֵאמֹ֑ר בָּ֤אנוּ אֶל־אָחִ֙יךָ֙ אֶל־עֵשָׂ֔ו וְגַם֙ הֹלֵ֣ךְ לִקְרָֽאתְךָ֔ וְאַרְבַּע־מֵא֥וֹת אִ֖ישׁ עִמּֽוֹ׃

The messengers returned to Jacob, saying, “We came to your brother—to Esau—and he too has been coming to greet you. There are 400 people with him.” (32:7.)


Though we do not know the total number of animals and servants accompanying Jacob in his own journey, Esau’s census data appears to overwhelm Jacob at first. Jacob in fact fears that Esau’s goal for their meetup may be slaughtering the encampment of the younger brother (32:8–9).

After resting the night (32:14), Jacob allocates for Esau a gift of 590 animals (bigger than 400, but less personable than people) (32:15–16). The masses accompanying Esau seem not to deter Jacob from an encounter that maximizes the humanity of a moment that Jacob renders divine. Upon asking his older brother to accept a zoological potpourri, Jacob confesses, “כִּ֣י עַל־כֵּ֞ן רָאִ֣יתִי פָנֶ֗יךָ כִּרְאֹ֛ת פְּנֵ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים וַתִּרְצֵֽנִי׃” (“Indeed, seeing your face is like seeing the face of God. You have accepted me.”) (33:10). Esau, implying that he has once again learned to love his brother, accepts the gift (33:11) and invites Jacob to accompany him on the elder brother’s own journey (32:12). Jacob declines the offer and explains:


כִּֽי־הַיְלָדִ֣ים רַכִּ֔ים וְהַצֹּ֥אן וְהַבָּקָ֖ר עָל֣וֹת עָלָ֑י וּדְפָקוּם֙ י֣וֹם אֶחָ֔ד וָמֵ֖תוּ כׇּל־הַצֹּֽאן׃ יַעֲבׇר־נָ֥א אֲדֹנִ֖י לִפְנֵ֣י עַבְדּ֑וֹ וַאֲנִ֞י אֶֽתְנָהֲלָ֣ה לְאִטִּ֗י לְרֶ֨גֶל הַמְּלָאכָ֤ה אֲשֶׁר־לְפָנַי֙ וּלְרֶ֣גֶל הַיְלָדִ֔ים עַ֛ד אֲשֶׁר־אָבֹ֥א אֶל־אֲדֹנִ֖י שֵׂעִֽירָה׃

As it is, the children are fragile, and the sheep and the cattle weigh heavily upon me. Should anything push them one day, all the sheep would die! Let my master [Esau] pass before his servant. Meanwhile I will travel slowly, keeping afoot with the velocity of what is ahead of me—that is, afoot with the children. (32:13–14.)


The pace of Jacob’s life has already synched up with the rhythm of the animals and the children around him—souls that cannot march in time and along the paths of men. Until this hour of reconciliation with his younger brother, the sound of Esau’s heartbeat was drowned out by the pulse of 400 formidable people working in lockstep.

According to the 11th century anthology Midrash Lekach Tov by Rabbi Tuvyah ben Eli’ezer:


.כמותו. מה הוא עשוי על ארבע מאות איש. כך כל אחד ואחד מהם עשוי על ד’ מאות איש

[The four hundred people were] like that [man, Esau]. Just as he was composed of 400 people, so too each and every one of them was composed of 400 people.


Rabbi Tuvyah ben Eli’ezer’s explanation implies that no individual here was just a regular person. Perhaps Esau was as strong as 400 unusually strong people put together—each of whom was as strong as 400 typical humans put together. Rabbi Tuvyah may be imagining superhuman strength—or super-duper-human strength—in this biblical archvillain named Esau. The medieval midrashic work Sefer HaYashar, commenting on last week’s torah portion (Vayyetze), ups the ante and imagines “כל המחנה הזאת ארבע מאות איש שולף חרב” (“this entire encampment—400 people each wielding a sword”).

Another reading of Lekach Tov though points to the possibility of two more sobering realizations made by Rabbi Tuvyah. First, Esau was, like Jacob, just another human being. Second, the larger the mass of humans it takes to rally around a single person to make that one person feel real, the more disenfranchised the mass might ultimately feel. Perhaps Rabbi Tuvyah knew that Esau was just a person, and the underlings he had accompanying him felt subhuman—possessing only 1/400 of the dignity a human being deserves. For all that Esau may have been surrounded by people—deprived of their individual personhood as they may have been—Esau was ultimately surrounded by people with underdeveloped potential, who in turn were supported by people who deemed themselves even more worthless. 400 people who believe in themselves can create a militia, and the same may be said of 16,000 who are ready to fight. But a mob of 16,000 people who regard themselves with little self-worth are no match for Jacob, who extended his mercy to animals, to children, and even to a brother who once threatened to kill him (Genesis 27:41).

Jacob would never deny that every human soul matters—and that, in our relationships, all opinions matter. Still, the wisdom of this ancestor highlights for us an important lesson: the seriousness with which we take ourselves ultimately colors the brilliance of our thoughts. We must judge ourselves and each other as deserving the fullness of the blessings that life gifts to us. In an imperfect world, we witness horrors that challenge us to question whether individuals who commit certain grievous sins and crimes should be barred from enjoying specific rights in modern society—holding certain jobs, voting, and other powerful benefits of living in a free country. We, however, as heirs to Jacob’s religion, begin with the assumption of love: that we love ourselves, that we love our neighbors, that our neighbors love us, and that our neighbors love themselves. We reach out to the world around us with an embrace. Only when factions of the world prove themselves time and again unwilling to embrace or to be embraced should we consider denying anyone any single gift life has to offer.

Still, the world holds together best with an embrace—and that is when we recognize how every soul is sacred. This is why even Esau ran to hug Jacob (33:4)—because Esau and Jacob needed each other.




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