Why does Yaacov belittle himself by referring to Esov (32:5) as his “master” and to himself as Esov’s “servant” when he was not even speaking to Esov nor was he in his presence of anywhere near within earshot and were there any subsequent consequences resulting from this?
Ibn Ezro explains that Yaacov made his men call Esov his master to ensure that they realised he did indeed consider Esov to be such and they would subsequently address him in a befitting manner. The only way to prevent bad language in public is to make sure you do not use it in private. Otherwise it has a nasty habit of slipping out inadvertently. Similarly when preparing Kerias HaTorah one should say the Shem properly for this reason (quite apart from the other reasons for doing so). Yaacov therefore wanted to ensure that they would all treat Esov with the respect which he wanted to afford him. The only way of making sure of this, was to do so throughout. Similarly, children cannot be expected to show proper respect to Rabbonim, teachers or parents unless they see such respect shown by their own teachers and parents at all times even in private.
Ramban in his alternative explanation explains similarly Yaacov was warning them not to mention Esov disrespectfully even outside his presence. They would learn this lesson by example from Yaacov. He says that Yaacov’s reason for doing this was out of fear and for the purpose of removing the hatred from Esov’s heart. It was necessary for this purpose for Yaacov to demean himself in this manner since it was customary for a younger brother to bestow great honour to the first born in similar manner to one’s father, as we find that the Torah tells us that ‘Vov le-Rabos Ochicho HaGodol’ – The older brother must be honoured, derived from the extra vov in the fifth commandment. Yaacov wishes to prove to Esov that notwithstanding the sale of the birthright, he was not yet laying any claim to it.
Netsiv in Haamek Dovor follows this view and adds Yaacov had to be cautious even in his own camp, so that no report should leak out to Esov of any disrespectful attitude towards him. Some Midrashim however criticise Yaacov for calling Esov his master and as he did so on eight occasions there would be eight kings from Esov (mentioned at the end of the sidro), and for calling himself Esov’s servant five times there were subsequently five wards with his sons.
Taking this idea of the medrash of Yaacov’s five-fold mention of Avdecho, we find that Yehudoh called his father Avdecho 5 times when talking to Yoseph in Mitzrayim.
Not all the medroshim agree however that Yaacov’s action in calling Esov ‘Odon’ or himself ‘Eved’ was necessarily wrong. On the contrary, there are other midroshim which compliment him for his humility. Thus the Zohar and Ramban (in his first explanation) emphasises his sincerity throughout. The Baal HaTurim, Rabbenu Bachye and Redak explain that Yaacov was only mistrusting his men in how they were to address Esov when they were in his presence for one must show respect for Royalty.
When Yaacov said “Kotonti” (32:11) it is teaching us a lesson in humility. The Vilna Gaon explains, sighting the Gemoro in Sota 5a which states that a person is allowed to have “Shiminis ShebeShiminis of Gaavah” – 1/8 of an 1/8 (1/64) of arrogance.
The Gemoro means the 8th Pasuk in the 8th parsha. Parshas VaYishlach is the 8th parsha and “Katonti Mikal HaChasadim” is the 8th Pasuk. A person’s level of haughtiness must be on the level that he is unworthy of anything. – “I have been diminished by all the kindness and all the truth you have done for me.” Whatever Hashem does and will do for me is not coming to me. It is a gift from Hashem, “Katonti” – I am unworthy!
So Yaacov conducted himself in the appropriate manner.