By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
This week’s Torah portion is Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4-36:43
Regular readers of my column on the weekly Torah portion are familiar with my style. They know that I usually focus upon some early personal memory and connect it to the parsha. Within each parsha, I select a less-known incident or relatively minor personality for reflection and elaboration. I rarely deal with the major issues of the Torah interpretation, and I steer clear from both grand philosophical themes and the upheavals of world history.
This week’s column will be somewhat different from my customary style. I intend to go beyond my usual microcosmic interests and will instead relate to a macrocosmic phenomenon. I refer to the cyclical nature of history, a process epitomized in the old adage, “History repeats itself.” This phenomenon is especially important to students of the Book of Genesis, which is read in the synagogue every Shabbat during this time of year. I say this because our sages have told us that the events of all of Jewish history are “repeats” of the narratives we are currently reading and studying. They have taught us that ma’aseh avot siman l’banim, “the stories of the patriarchs are precursors for what will happen to their descendants.”
Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Ramban or Nachmanides, commits himself, in his renowned commentary, to finding predictions of future Jewish events in the narratives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Perhaps more than any other traditional commentator, Ramban insists that we read these Torah portions closely enough to be able to discover patterns of events that occurred to the Jewish people centuries, and even millennia, after the accounts described in these readings.
It is, therefore, no wonder that Ramban finds the opening drama of this week’s parsha especially significant. By the time we begin this week’s Torah reading, we are already thoroughly familiar with the enmity that Esau bears toward Jacob. Just two weeks ago, in Parshat Toldot, we read: “Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, ‘Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.’” Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, knew of Esau’s hostility, and it was at her urging that Jacob fled Beersheba and sojourned for many years in the faraway land of Haran, where he married, raised a large family and amassed significant wealth.
This week, we read of Jacob’s return to Canaan, but not before he must deal with the unavoidable encounter with his hostile sibling. How does Jacob prepare for this frightening encounter? The Torah tells us that he prepares in several ways: He readies himself for battle, he sends gifts ahead to try to mollify Esau and he prays to the Almighty. We learn that he divided the people with him into two camps, reasoning that “if Esau comes to one and attacks it, the other may yet escape.” We then learn Esau approaches Jacob and his camp, accompanied by a small army of 400 men.
At this point, Jacob humbles himself extremely. “He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother.” Esau greets him, embraces him, kisses him and weeps with him. But that does not bring the bowing to an end. The maids and their children bow low, as do Leah and her children, and even Joseph and Rachel “came forward and bowed low.” Jacob begs Esau to accept his gifts, and repeatedly refers to him as “my lord.” He does not merely humble himself; he subjugates himself and demeans himself before his brother. The fact that Esau has apparently relinquished his enmity and seems ready to restore brotherly relations does not convince Jacob to cease his abject behavior.
Eventually, Esau and Jacob take leave of one another. Esau offers, “Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.” Esau seems ready to offer Jacob equality. But Jacob refuses Esau’s offer and, consistently referring to him as “my lord,” he says, “Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly.” Jacob seems to prefer a subsidiary status.
What does all of this mean for future relationships between the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Esau? If one is to take the phrase ma’aseh avot siman l’banim seriously, one must consider Jacob’s behavior as a blueprint for the Jews’ relationship with other nations for all future time.
Is this the prescribed policy for the Jewish nation’s dealings with other nations throughout our history? Are we to bow and beg forever, ignoring the conciliatory behaviors that other nations demonstrate toward us? Are we to also reject offers of equality and insist upon subsidiary status?
These questions call to mind the numerous occasions in our history when they were very relevant to Jewish policy makers. Even today there are those who, on religious grounds, insist that we must not assert ourselves in the international arena. We must avoid confrontation, even if it means forgoing rights and privileges. We must follow Jacob’s example, they argue.
Others vehemently disagree. They see this passive behavior as surrender. For them, this behavior was a nearly fatal flaw that has haunted us throughout the many centuries of our exile.
It is here that we are advised to carefully examine the words of those commentators who have explored these issues in terms of the story of Jacob and Esau’s confrontation. Chief among them is Ramban himself, who criticizes Jacob for humbling himself before Esau and referring to himself as “your servant Jacob.” In fact, Midrash Rabbah goes even further and states: “The moment that Jacob referred to Esau as ‘my lord,’ the Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him, ‘You have lowered yourself and designated him as your master eight times. I swear that I will install eight kings from among his descendants before your descendants ascend to positions of royalty.’”
How telling is the passage in the Midrash on the Book of Esther, which teaches us that Mordechai was chosen to be the hero of the Purim story, because as a descendant of Benjamin he could courageously and successfully defy Haman. Benjamin was the only one of Jacob’s children who did not bow before Esau. Benjamin was not yet born at the time of the story of Jacob’s encounter with Esau.
These passages in the writings and teachings of our sages do not see Jacob’s behavior as the perfect model for future relationships between the Jews and their enemies. They find Jacob’s behavior weak and ultimately ineffective. Instead, they glorify Mordechai and Matityahu, heroes of the stories of Purim and Chanukah. Can it be just a coincidence that in little more than a week, we will recall and joyously celebrate the Chanukah story and Matityahu’s courageous leadership?
The medieval commentary authored by Ba’al Haturim puts it harshly: “Jacob’s fear of Esau, addressing him as ‘my lord,’ caused his descendants to become exiles among the other nations.” Another commentary reminds us of an ancient proverb: “He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.”
Intellectual honesty demands that I at least refer to other traditional commentaries which value Jacob’s behavior and do recommend it as a model for future confrontations between Jews and their enemies. Thus, the Midrash Lekach Tov suggests that all Jewish leaders who find themselves dealing with the leaders of other nations are to study this week’s Torah portion and to learn from it strategies of appeasement and compromise. The 16th century Jewish Italian commentator, Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, also adopts this position and lauds Jacob’s tactics.
There are no easy answers to the dilemmas of leadership. But the leaders of today are well advised to study this week’s parsha well, with all of its diverse interpretations, and decide for themselves which tactics to choose at today’s crucial juncture of world history. Personally, I am convinced that if they do study the parsha, they may find that there were times when Jacob’s way was sadly necessary. But I wager that today, they will find the strategies of Mordechai and Matityahu more compelling. I pray that they will find them effective.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.