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    Who are you? – Vayyishlach

    Jacob sees Esau coming to meet him, by James Tissot

    Jacob knew that when he met up with Esau after all the years of estrangement, it was likely to be a moment of great tension.

    So he put together a peace offering of money, jewels and cattle, entrusted them to his servants and added, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, ‘Whose are you? Where are you going? Whose are these things before you?’, you shall say, ‘They are your servant Jacob’s – a present sent to my lord Esau'” (Gen. 32:18-19).

    Note that Jacob mentions three questions (“Who do you belong to?” “Where are you going?” “Whose are these things?”) but he equips the servants with an answer only to the third and not to the others.

    The actual questions are echoed in Pirkei Avot 3:1 in the famous saying of Akavya ben Mahalalel, “Look at three things and you will not come into the power of transgression – Where do you come from? Where are you going? Before whom will you have to give account and reckoning?”

    In Esau’s case, Jacob had the instinct to know that only the non-philosophical question, the one about the material gifts, would have any meaning. After all, was not the brothers’ initial estrangement about material things – lentil soup when Esau was famished, and prosperity as the choicest blessing?

    Esau might utter philosophical questions but probably only as a matter of course. What really interested him was much more concrete than concepts.

    We, however, as the descendants of Jacob, know that whilst possessions matter, in the long run what is really worthwhile is higher than all the money, jewels and cattle in the world.

    To understand yourself (“Who do you belong to?”) and to have a sense of destiny (“Where are you going?”) – this is what the family of Jacob have always rightly prized.

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