How do we remove conflicts from our close relationships? Consider the following marital scenario:

I know it is hard for you when you want so much to impress your Mom. 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".

Is this story very unrealistic? 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 parashat Vayishlach.

Two weeks ago, we read that our forefather Jacob had to flee, lest Esau kill him. Now Jacob is returning home, knowing that his brother's murderous hatred has not subsided. On the way, Jacob defeats the angel of Esau. Traditionally, Esau's angel is depicted as a seven-headed snake, each head representing one of the seven forces of impurity in the world. Next, Jacob is confronted by Esau.

They hug, kiss and weep sincerely. Then we see a puzzling event: Jacob bows down 7 times in front of Esau. They hug, kiss and weep sincerely.

Why did Jacob bow down to Esau, a representative of the evil forces? Surely by now, after having defeated Esau's angel, Jacob knew that he could overpower Esau. Second, why did Jacob bow down seven times? What is the significance of the number seven? Third, how did this radical transformation take place?

Torah's answer here requires that you learn some gematria. Hang in there: the arithmetic is very basic and worth dealing with. I realize that not everyone is "into" gematria, 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 these intrigue me. It involves considering the numerical value of 5 words : a) Isaac; b) G-D's 4 letter name (YHVH, the tetragrammaton); c) Jacob; d) Esau; and e) impurity (tameh).

The name of Jacob 's father, Isaac [in Hebrew, "Yitzchok,"] 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 Jacob? His name 'Yaacov' equals 182 or ( 7 x 26 ). That is, when Isaac gave his blessings to Jacob, he bequeathed to Jacob seven of his "yud-kay-vov-kay"s, seven forces of holiness, seven of his 26's.

So if Jacob received seven of the eight "26"'s in Isaac's name, what happened to the one remaining "26" ? It was given to Esau.

But, Esau's name does not equal 26. It equals 376, which is 26 + 350. Where did the extra 350 come from? Well, 350 equal 7 x 50, and 50 is the numerological value of the Hebrew word for impure ([in Hebrew, tameh]. Thus, Esau equals:
(1 x G-D's name or 26) + ( 7 x "impure" = 350).

OK. We've finished the math.

Each time that Jacob bowed, he provided to Esau one of his forces of holiness, each of which neutralized an impure/tameh. After 7 bows, all the impurity in Esau had been neutralized, and all that was left in Esau was one holy, godly "26". Jacob thus succeeded not only in overpowering his brother, but in returning him to "goodness". In such a state, we feel love.

But how does bowing "neutralize impurity"? How does it cut off the seven heads of the snake? Let us return to the marital anecdote.

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 26's to serve her, thereby neutralizing the negative. She knows 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 fire of anger can be used to better the relationship. The fire of anger can be used to better the relationship. The tool for doing so is "Bitul yesh", shrinking our ego needs for the moment and nurturing our partner. That is the primary lesson that I take from this story of Jacob's bowing. I don't know a satisfying English equivalent of "bitul". The usual is "nullification." 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" ("rag") of ourselves? Absolutely not! Sometimes the most caring thing we can do for someone is to engage in "Tough Love".

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 Mashiach, immediately.

[The full 5000 word article from which the above is condensed is available from the author via email.]