Ari Sacher

 ‘Four Brothers’ Parashat Chukat 5783

One of the axioms of Euclidean geometry is that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The straight line that connected the Jewish People with their destination – the Land of Israel – went directly through the Land of Edom. The Edomites were descendants of Esau, the brother and the nemesis of our forefather, Jacob. Moshe sends emissaries with a message to the king [Bemidbar 20:14-17]: “So says your brother, Israel, ‘You know of all the hardship that has befallen us. Our fathers went down to Egypt and we stayed in Egypt for a long time. The Egyptians mistreated us and our forefathers. We cried out to G-d and He heard our voice. He sent an emissary (malach), and he took us out of Egypt, and now we are in Kadesh, a city on your border. Please let us pass through your land…’” The King of Edom rebuffs Moshe’s request and the Jewish People are forced to take a detour.

Rashi[1], quoting from the Midrash Tanchuma, reveals the identity of the emissary that G-d sent to take his people out of Egypt as none other than Moshe. Rashi’s comment raises a number of questions. The Pesach Haggadah, in its elucidation of the verse [Devarim 26:8] “G-d took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with a great manifestation, and with signs and wonders”, explains that “[Specifically] G-d took us out of Egypt – not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself!” The Haggadah marginalizes Moshe’s role in the exodus. Indeed, Moshe’s name is mentioned only once in the entire Haggadah and even then, only in passing[2]. Why would Moshe emphasize his own minor role? Further, isn’t it somewhat arrogant for Moshe to tell the King of Edom that he personally took the Jews out of Egypt? How does this conform with the Torah’s description of Moshe as being [Bemidbar 12:3] “exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth”?

Let’s add some more fuel to the fire. The emissary that G-d sent to extract the Jewish People from Egypt is not the only emissary mentioned in this passage. The passage begins with the words [Bemidbar 20:14] “Moshe sent emissaries (malachim) from Kadesh to the King of Edom”. Rashi and the rest of the medieval commentators are silent. Apparently these emissaries were just plain old emissaries. But wait, there’s still more kerosene lying around. Years earlier, our forefather Jacob is returning home from a twenty-year exile in Aram, waiting for his brother, Esau, to cool off after having swindled him out of his birthright and his father’s blessing. Jacob sends a message to Esau to test the waters. The Torah tells us [Bereishit 32:4] “Jacob sent emissaries (malachim) ahead of him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the field of Edom.” Rashi, quoting from the Midrash Rabbah, asserts that these emissaries were actually heavenly angels. Rashi’s comment is based on the fact that the Hebrew word malach can mean both “messenger” and/or “angel”[3]. Why doesn’t Rashi assert that Moshe sent angels to the King of Edom or that G-d sent an angel to take the Jewish People out of Egypt? Why is it only Jacob who sends supernatural beings?

Our answer begins with an essay by Rabbi Moshe Liechtenstein[4] titled, “Esau the Brother, Esau the Nation”. Rabbi Liechtenstein identifies a dichotomy in the persona of Esau. On the one hand, Esau is Jacob’s twin brother. Esau and Jacob have their ups and downs over the years but when Jacob first reaches out to Esau on his return home, he sends emissaries specifically [Bereishit 32:4] “to his brother, Esau”. Esau responds in kind, telling Jacob [Bereishit 33:9] “I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours.” While their relationship remains complex, they remain brothers. After his meeting with Jacob, Esau undergoes a transformation. The Torah describes how [Bereishit 36:1] “These are the generations of Esau, that is, Edom.” Esau leaves the his father’s home and sets out for the Judean Desert. He marries Canaanite women [Bereishit 36:3], disobeying a long-standing family taboo. He is no longer the brother of Jacob: He is the father of the newly born “Nation of Edom”. This dichotomy is reflected in Moshe’s words to the King of Edom. Moshe appeals to both of Esau’s personas. Moshe begins his words by telling him [Bemidbar 20:14] “So says your brother, Israel”. Moshe hopes that Edom will fondly remember their familial connections. But when the King of Edom refuses Moshe’s request, Moshe responds by offering to pay for any property destroyed or produce consumed. Moshe no longer treats him like a cousin but, rather, like a foreign official whose border he is about to cross.

In order to leverage Rabbi Liechtenstein’s thesis to address our questions, we must note that Esau was not the only brother with a dual identity. Jacob also underwent a transformation of his own. While born with the name “Jacob”, he assumes the name “Israel” after successfully defeating an unknown assailant the night before his fateful meeting with Esau. The two personas are diametrically opposed. The name “Jacob” – literally “heel” – commemorates Jacob’s grabbing of Esau’s heel when he was born. The name “Jacob” has another heel-related interpretation: After Jacob swindles Esau’s blessing from Isaac, Esau exclaims [Bereishit 27:36] “Isn’t it fitting that his name is Jacob (Yaakov) for he has swindled (va’y’akveni) me twice – he has stolen both my birthright and my blessing”. Jacob does whatever is necessary to get what he needs. Israel is very different. After Jacob defeats his assailant, he tells him that his name will no longer be “Jacob” [Bereishit 32:29] “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven (sarita) with beings divine and human, and have prevailed”. The name Israel not only comes from the word “to strive”. It also comes from the words “sar (minister)” and “s’rara (authority)”. Israel does not need to use trickery to get what he needs. Israel stands tall and demands what is rightly his.

Now we have all the information we need in order to put out the fire we started earlier. Let’s take a closer look at who is sending which emissaries. Divine angels are sent to Esau by Jacob while flesh and blood messengers are sent to the King of Edom by “Your brother, Israel”. Jacob is frightened of Esau. He is outnumbered and outclassed by Esau’s army. He must use all of his ingenuity to escape. To help extricate Jacob from a precarious position, G-d sends heavenly angels. Israel approaches the King of Edom very differently. The Israelites are forty years out of Egypt. They are a sovereign nation ready to enter their homeland. They have no need for supernatural intervention. Moshe sends human emissaries to carry the flag.

The last flame left to extinguish is Rashi’s suggestion that Moshe was referring to himself when he tells the King of Edom how G-d sent an emissary to redeem His Nation from Egypt. When does Jacob become Israel[5]? I suggest that this happens when the Jewish People leave Egypt. They enter Egypt as [Bereishit 46:6] “Jacob and all his children” and they leave it as [Shemot 12:51] “The Children of Israel”. Jacob is a clan while Israel is a nation – “Am Yisrael”, the “Nation of Israel” – unified in purpose and in being under one ruler, Moshe. Moshe tells Edom, “You are not the only brother who has become a nation. We are on our way to our national homeland promised to us by G-d. I have not forgotten that we are brothers but make no mistake, we will no longer cower before you. If you do not let us through, we will take a detour. If you attack us, we will defeat you. And by the way, the name is ‘Israel’.”

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[2] Many people incorrectly believe that Moshe’s name is not mentioned at all in the Haggadah. His name appears immediately after the Ten Plagues: “At the sea it says, ‘Israel saw the great hand that G-d laid against Egypt; and the people feared G-d, and they believed in G-d and in His servant Moshe.’”

[3] Many times in these essays we have quoted Rabbi David Spitz of Moreshet that an angel is anything that automatically performs G-d’s will. According to this interpretation, the force of gravity is an angel.

[4] Rabbi Liechtenstein is one of the Rashei Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion. The essay can be found at

[5] The Jewish People never really lose their “Jacob Persona”. It is still there, lying in wait.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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