After having laid the groundwork for his patriarchy in the preceding parsha, Vayeitzei, Jacob now embarks on the second phase of his spiritual career in parshat Vayishlach. This second phase centers on his relationship with his brother Esau: the parsha opens with their suspenseful reunion after twenty years and concludes with the chronicle of Esau's descendants, closing the curtain on Esau's relevance to the Torah's narrative until the messianic future. The intervening narrative material--the abduction of Jacob's daughter, the birth of his last son, the death of his wife and his father--culminates the chronicle of the first phase of Jacob's life: how he establishes his family and prepares to take his father's place as the next leader of the chosen people.
Jacob's overtures to Esau may be viewed simply as an attempt to make peace with him for the sake of enabling him to continue on his way home, where he can then resume raising his family and preparing them for their task in life. Although there is undoubtedly truth to this view, a closer look at the background and details of the episode unveils a much more profound plot unfolding before us.
As we saw in parshat Toldot, Isaac favored Esau over Jacob, seeing in him the ideal next link in the chain of transmission from Abraham. This preference stemmed from Isaac's awareness of Esau's great potential: if only Esau's boundless energy, youthful single-mindedness, and artful cunning could be harnessed for holiness, Isaac reasoned, Esau could prove a valiant champion of Abraham's great vision. Isaac therefore wanted to bless Esau with the material bounty required for this mission, hoping that this fatherly display of confidence in him would inspire him to reform himself. Only when it became clear that Esau was not even remotely interested in dedicating his life to his father's ideals did Isaac reconcile himself to naming Jacob his successor and giving the blessings intended for Esau to him instead.
All this was not lost on Jacob. He knew that their father's acute spiritual sensitivity was not misleading him when he discerned vital potential in Esau. He acknowledged those qualities of Esau's that were superior to his own and understood that in order to bring the world to its ultimate destiny, it would be necessary to combine these strengths with his.
At the same time, Jacob understood what his mother had seen (and that his father had not): that he, and not Esau, would have to be the one to orchestrate and oversee this process of synthesis in order for it to work. Due to his faithful devotion to the study of the Torah, Jacob was the one who possessed the breadth of vision and intricate knowledge of G-d's will necessary to harness the raw, untamed power of Esau.
In this light, we can now understand that Jacob, in his encounter with Esau, sought not merely to neutralize his brother, to get him out of the way so he could get on with his task, but rather to induce him to join forces with him. If Esau had not been ripe for this in their father's time, perhaps now--once Jacob had proven himself capable of raising a righteous family, outwitting the crafty Laban, and amassing a sizable fortune--Esau would be impressed enough to submit to Jacob's leadership, especially if Jacob flattered him by acknowledging his superior strengths.
When it became clear that Esau was still not willing to cooperate, Jacob had no choice but to accept the fact that harnessing Esau's strengths would be a long, arduous, and gradual process, which would have to be implemented on a metaphysical level before it could be implemented on a national/political level. Therefore, when his sons took revenge on the inhabitants of the city-state of Shechem in retribution for their leader's son's maltreatment of their sister Dinah, Jacob rebuked them. His encounter with Esau had taught him that the time had not yet come to confront evil so directly.
The rest of the parsha, then, is devoted to the process of completing Jacob's family in preparation for their lifelong work of making the world into G-d's home, which now would include the ongoing process of rectifying the powers associated with Esau. The chronicle of Isaac is closed, now that the Torah trains its focus on Jacob's assumption of leadership, as is the chronicle of Esau, now that he becomes relevant only metaphysically rather than as a political or military entity to be reckoned with.
Nonetheless, although the initial version of Jacob's plan had to be aborted, he apparently foresaw the key to his plan's ultimate success from the outset. The name of the parsha, Vayishlach ("and he sent"), refers to how Jacob sent emissaries to Esau with the aim of offering him to join forces. Far from being an incidental detail of the story, this act encapsulated the ideal that would prove necessary to ensure the success of Jacob's encounter with Esau, now that it had to take place chiefly on a metaphysical plane.
A military encounter with Esau would have proved dangerous enough; battling the evil of Esau on a metaphysical level is perilous in the extreme, for at stake is not just the body but also the soul. The enticements of the material world are so numerous and so powerful that it requires almost superhuman strength to resist them. It is for this reason that outside of Judaism, religiosity and holiness are almost universally synonymous with asceticism. It is practically a given that any engagement with the physical world corrupts, so the only option for spiritual aspirants is to shun all involvement with the material world. In contrast, the Torah demands that we both engage the physical world and control it, co-opting the vitality of materiality for holy purposes.
Jacob understood that in order to face this challenge successfully, it is imperative for us to conceive of ourselves at all times as emissaries. As G-d's emissaries in the world, we remain aware that we are not operating solely on our own power; rather, we are backed by Divine power, and therefore can always draw upon infinite resources of Divine insight, strength, and inspiration.
In order to assume the role of emissaries, we must display both selflessness in our devotion to our mission and creativity in carrying it out. Selfless devotion to our Divine mission prevents our personal agendas from distorting its ends or means, which would interfere with the flow of Divine power and wisdom we need to access. Creativity and ingenuity enable us to devise the specific strategies required by the unique settings in which each of us operates.
As faithful emissaries, devoted to the study and implementation of the Torah's teachings, we can safely appropriate the untamed, raw power and youthful impetuosity of Esau and channel it into the realm of holiness, synthesizing it productively with the sagacity of Jacob. As Isaac foresaw, this union of the exuberance of youth and the wisdom of age is the defining characteristic of the messianic future, and is therefore the key to ushering it in. Indeed, the Jewish people's undying devotion to the Torah and its commandments ever since Jacob's time has largely refined the metaphysical Esau, and we are now at the threshold of Esau's final rectification with the advent of the final Redemption.