A Time for War and a Time for Peace

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb’s Parsha column on Vayishlach says the following (shortened):

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. Additionally, 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 four hundred 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.

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 galut.

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 Rabba 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 Midrash Rabba, not on the Book of Genesis, but on the Book of Esther, which teaches us that Mordecai 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 Mordecai and Matityahu, heroes of the stories of Purim and Hanukkah. Can it be just a coincidence that in little more than a week, we will recall and joyously celebrate the Hanukkah story and Matityahu’s courageous leadership?

The medieval commentary authored by Ba’al Haturim puts it this 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 parasha 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 parasha, 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 Mordecai and Matityahu more compelling. I pray that they will find them effective.

Wait, why are you quoting something on Vayishlach? We passed that one.

It relates to Chanuka. And the message is still timely.

Fine. Go on!

I have two comments on the above piece:

Firstly, Rabbi Weinreb got it all, minus misquotations, from Nechama Leibowitz’s “Studies in the Weekly Sidra” on Vayishlach. Why does he give her no credit?

More importantly, there is no leadership “dilemma” over whether to appease enemies. Stop attributing to Hashkafa what is part of Halacha! When you are sovereign or powerful, it’s a desecration of God’s name to snivel. When you are weak and subjugated to others, the right course of action is flattery and gifts. There is no debate what Yaakov was, in fact, doing here, either. The only disagreement evident among Torah commentators is about which of these states biblical Yaacov found himself. (And no matter how militarily weak, there are times to rebel and rely on Hashem, as did the Maccabees!)

Chazal do criticize him for “acting the sheep”. But when that is what you (either personal or national) need to be doing, such as when traveling to your Caesar in Rome to defeat an evil decree, go ‘learn from the master’ of the tactic: Yaacov.

By the way, this is another thing anti-Zionists get wrong. Even if/when Jews are not a national entity, avoiding confrontation, too, has limits, and each situation must be judged anew. They never judge anything religious anew, sadly.

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