One answer is tucked away in an eye-grabbing ( In Yiddish," es varft zich in di oigen") mathematical oddity in this week's parsha. The name Isaac has a numerical value of 8 times Hashem's name; the name of his son Jacob has a value of 7 times Hashem's name; and the name of Jacob's son Joseph equals 6 times Hashem's name. Do you really believe that this sequence is just random? So, how is that sequence relevant to conflict resolution?
A woman is very stressed as she cleans up her house to perfection, in anticipation of a visit by her mother. Her husband, aware of her stress, comes home early to help. She repeatedly, angrily, rudely orders him about, complaining unfairly about his lack of skill. The husband does not argue; he does whatever his wife asks. Later that night, the wife comes to him and tearfully apologizes. He replies, "Well I know it is hard for you when you want so much to impress your Mom. " The wife replies tenderly, "You really are very good to me".
As a therapist, I can vouch for the fact many couples learn how to conduct themselves in precisely that manner. Perhaps one would be less surprised if the gender roles in the story were reversed, and it was the wife who showed such loving patience with a grumpy husband. However, men also can commit to transforming a conflictual situation. These skills are taught by our tradition, as revealed in our Rabbis' analyses of Parshas Vayishlach. They are emphasized by current marital therapists, such as John Gottman, when he trains couples in "soothing" and in "repair attempts".
Now, Yaacov is returning home, knowing that his brother's murderous hatred has not subsided. On the way, Yaacov defeats the angel of Eisav. Traditionally, Eisav's angel is depicted as a seven-headed snake, each head representing one of the seven forces of impurity in the world. Next, Yaacov is confronted by Eisav. Then we see a puzzling event: Yaacov bows down 7 times in front of Eisav. They hug, kiss and weep sincerely. Why did Yaacov bow down to Eisav, a representative of the evil forces? Surely by now, after having defeated Eisav's angel, Yaacov knew that he could overpower Eisav. Second, why did Yaacov bow down seven times? What is the significance of the number seven? Third, how did this radical transformation, changing hate into, affection,take place?
a) Yitzchok; b) G-D's 4 letter name (YHVH, the tetragrammaton); c) Yaacov; d) Eisav; and e) impurity (tameh) . Hang in there: the arithmetic is very basic and worth dealing with. (I realize that not everyone is 'into' gematriot, and I , myself, am put off by ones that require a great deal of manipulation and which seem forced. But the simplicity and clarity of the gematriot here intrigue me.) The name of Yaacov"s father, 'Yitzchok' ( or Isaac in English) , has the numerical value of 208, which equals (8 x 26) . Note : 26 is the numerical value of G-D's name, the tetragrammaton, "yud-kay-vov-kay". So Yitzchok's name equals 8 times G-D's name; his name contains 8 elements of godliness.
What about Yaacov ? Yaacov's name equals 182 or ( 7 x 26 ). That is , when Yitzchok gave his blessings to Yaacov, he bequeathed to Yaacov seven of his "yud-kay-vov-kay"s, seven forces of holiness, seven of his 26s. So if Yaacov received seven of the eight "26"'s in Yitzchok's name, what happened to the one remaining "26"? It was given to Eisav.
But Eisav's name does not equal 26. It equals 376, which is 26 + 350. Where did the extra 350 come from ? Well, 350 equals seven x 50 , and 50 is the numerological value of the Hebrew word for impure ( "tameh"). Thus , Eisav equals ( 1 x G-D's name or 26) + ( 7 x "impure" = 350).
Each time that Yaacov bowed, he provided to Eisav one of his forces of holiness, each of which neutralized an impure/tameh in Eisav . After, 7 bows, all the impurity in Eisav had been neutralized, and all that was left in Eisav was one holy, godly "26". Yaacov thus succeeded not only in overpowering his brother, but in returning him to "goodness". In such a state, we (and Eisav) feel love.
How does it cut off the seven heads of the snake?
What has happened in this interaction? The wife's own anxieties have brought a spirit of impurity into her thoughts and speech, which masked her underlying love and desire to please. Wonderfully, her husband is able to draw on his own internal "Holy sparks". He sees his wife's "26" that is surrounded by the heads of the Snake. He does not allow her Snake to elicit his Snake. He repeatedly uses his loving 26s to serve her, thereby neutralizing the negative. She knows, inside herself, that the only reason that he is putting up with her outrageous behavior and is continuing to support her, is because he truly loves her.
The tool for doing so is "Bitul", shrinking our ego needs for the moment and nurturing our partner. That is the primary lesson that I take from this story of Yaacov Avinu's bowing. I don't know a satisfying English equivalent of "Bitul". The best I can offer is "gratuitous passionate trans-rational dedication".
Does such "Bitul" require that we always give in to other people, or that we make a "shmateh" ( i.e., dishrag) of ourselves? Absolutely not! Sometimes the most caring thing we can do for someone is to engage in "Tough Love". Our sages warn, "He who is compassionate when he should be cruel, will end up being cruel when he should be compassionate." Anger, like any of G-D's creations, can serve a good purpose. When a person is angry at us, we are tempted to respond with our dark side; however, we have a positive alternative. By freeing ourselves from negativity, by finding the strength to do what G-D wants us to do, we use the fire of the conflict to refine both our character and the relationship.
May it be, as we attempt to bring ourselves to spiritual wholeness, that G-D responds in equal measure by bringing about the ultimate " wholeness", with the coming of Moshiach, immediately.
The dvar Torah above is a shortened (1,000 word) revision of a much longer article.
If you would like to see the full article (5,000 words), which is heavily footnoted
and documented, please email me at email@example.com.