[Based on Sapphire from the Land of Israel, by Rabbi Chanan Morrison, a sefer based on the writings of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook ztl]
In the third passuk of Vayishlach, Yaakov sends a message to his brother Eisav:
וַיְהִי לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה וָאֶשְׁלְחָה לְהַגִּיד לַאדֹנִי לִמְצֹא חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ
“I have an ox and a donkey” (32:6)
What was Yaakov conveying by informing Eisav that he possesses an ox and donkey?According to Breishis Rabbah 75, Yaakov was not speaking about the material possessions he had amassed, but about something of far greater significance. The ox refers to Mashiach ben Yoseph, the precursive Messianic leader descended from Yoseph. The ox is a symbol of the tribe of Joseph (“bechor shoro hadar lo”
), as both Yaakov and Moshe use the imagery of an ox when blessing Yoseph (Breishis 49:6; Devarim 33:17).
The donkey is a reference to Mashiach ben Dovid; the ultimate Messianic king descended from Dovid HaMelech, who will arrive as “a pauper riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).
Why do we need two Messianic leaders? And why are they represented specifically by these two animals?
Rav Kook explained the concept of two Messiahs in a eulogy delivered after Theodore Hertzl’s death in 1904. Rav Kook articulates his views on the secular Zionist movement and the tragic rift between the religious and secular sectors of the Jewish people. Hashem created us, he says, with both body and soul. We have forces that maintain and strengthen the body, and forces that protect and develop the soul. Ideally, we should have a vigorous and resilient body together with a strong and healthy soul. The soul is meant to utilize and instruct the body to fulfill Hashem’s will in this world.
The Jewish people function in an analogous fashion to the body and soul. There are forces within the nation that correspond to the body, working to meet its material and physical needs, and there are forces in the nation that work directly toward developing Klal Yisrael’s special spiritual qualities.Every nation (theoretically) wants to promote security and protect the welfare of its people, just as all creatures have bodily and physical functions. But the higher aspect of furthering our spiritual aspirations on the national level is unique to the Jewish people; “It is a nation dwelling alone, not counted among the other nations” (Bamidbar 23:9).
These two tasks were divided between two tribes: Yosef and Yehudah.
looked after the material needs of his family in Egypt. Chazal tell us that Yoseph spoke 70 languages, indicating that his task of caring for the welfare of his constituents was a universal one, common to all nations. He protected the Jewish people in Egypt, and the Gemara in Bava Basra 123b says that the offspring of Eisav are only defeated by the offspring of Yosef (as also mentioned in the dvar torah for Toldos
), and quotes the Navi Ovadya 1:18
וְהָיָה בֵית יַעֲקֹב אֵשׁ וּבֵית יוֹסֵף לֶהָבָה וּבֵית עֵשָׂו לְקַשׁ וְדָלְקוּ בָהֶם וַאֲכָלוּם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה שָׂרִיד לְבֵית עֵשָׂו כִּי ה’ דִּבֵּר
And the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Eisav for stubble, and they shall kindle in them, and devour them, and there shall not be any remaining of the house of Eisav, for the Lord has spoken.
Judah, on the other hand, was responsible for cultivating the special holiness of the Jewish people.
בְּצֵאת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם בֵּית יַעֲקֹב מֵעַם לֹעֵז
הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו
“Judah became His holy nation” (Tehillim 114:1-2)Ultimately, both of these qualities were to be combined in the Davidic monarchy. Dovid was a skilled warrior who vanquished many enemies of Israel. But he was also the unrivaled poet and songwriter – a warrior, but also a yodea nagein. See Samuel I 16:18:
בֵּן לְיִשַׁי בֵּית הַלַּחְמִי יֹדֵעַ נַגֵּן וְגִבּוֹר חַיִל וְאִישׁ מִלְחָמָה וּנְבוֹן דָּבָר וְאִישׁ תֹּאַר וַה’ עִמּוֹYeravam’s split from the southern kingdom of Judah, precipitates the tragic divide between these two forces of the material and the spiritual.
Throughout history, we have witnessed the ongoing conflict between these two forces: secular movements that exclusively work towards improving the nation’s material condition, and religious movements that exclusively promote its spiritual nature.Rav Kook says that redemption of the Jewish people can only be attained when both of these forces are functioning. Only when we are working toward both strengthening the nation’s spiritual health while bolstering the necessary material foundations.
Returning to Yaakov’s choice of ox and donkey, the powerful ox is used to plow the ground, preparing the area to be planted. This corresponds to the mission of Mashiach ben Yoseph — to defend the nation from enemies and clear the path for the revelation of Mashiach ben Dovid. (We also see this in the fact that the Mishkan — a preparation for the Temple — was established in Shiloh, in the territory of Yoseph, while the Temple itself was built in the inheritance of Judah, in Yerushalayim.)
The donkey, on the other hand, is a simple animal, used to carry produce from the field. This corresponds to the mission of Mashiach ben Dovid, who brings the final fruits of redemption.
Yaakov tells his brother, “I have an ox and a donkey,” alluding to Yimos HaMashiach when he/we will no longer fear Eisav’s sword.
Finally, we find a second hint in the text later on in the parsha: After the two brothers meet, Yaakov promises that he will visit Eisav on Mount Seir. Breishis Rabba (78:14) says that nowhere in the remainder of Tanach do we find that Yaakov visits Eisav on Har Seir. Yaakov wasn’t leading him on, so to speak, setting up a phantom lunch date on Har Seir. So when will Yaakov go to Eisav? This will take place in the future, in the time of Mashiach, as it says in this week’s Haftorah, in Ovadya, “Saviors will ascend Mount Zion to judge the mountain of Eisav” (Ovadya 1:21).
Through his interactions with Eisav, Yaakov Avinu hints to his progeny what tools will be needed to ultimately defeat Eisav — physical strength through our human efforts, coupled with spiritual devotion and recognizing Hashem’s omnipotence. To quote an idea my shver once shared with me: “Building the Land with our hishtadlus, recognizing that every brick we lay, technological advancement and weapon developed or successfully used, is only through birchas Hashem, which comes from our ameilus b’torah, strict adherence to halacha, and our chumras in achdus and ahavas Yisroel.”