Our world has come to realize that we most successfully educate our children by example, not speeches. We can instruct our children from morning till night not to smoke, but if we ourselves smoke, it will be futile. They think, “If it is so bad, why do you do it? I can do it, too.” We are role models for our children whether we like it or not.
Would we know that our father has thought out each step that he takes to assure that it is the most appropriate on all levels, we would want to follow his every move, knowing that it would be the very best path to follow.
As the children of our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, this is very much the case. We recognize that the Torah carefully details for us all their stellar qualities so that we may follow their sterling examples and model our lives after theirs.
Not only do they provide the perfect role models to follow, we, the Jewish nation, have inherited their exemplary traits and outstanding qualities as part of our very essence.
King David said, “The Jewish people have three inherent attributes: They are kind, they are humble, and they are merciful. We inherited the kindness from Avraham, the humility from Yitzchak, and the mercy from Yaakov. These three great qualities are evident in the Jewish people until today, which is why our Sages tell us that we are obligated to strive to achieve the greatness of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
תנא דבי אליהו רבה – פרק כה
לפיכך הייתי אומר שכל אחד ואחד מישראל חייב לומר מתי יגיעו מעשי למעשה אבותי אברהם, יצחק, ויעקב.
But there is yet a deeper concept called מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – The deeds of our forefathers are a sign for their children. This means that the way forefathers dealt with their challenges created the template for us, their children, to follow when dealing with those same issues. If we fail to follow the path forged by the forefathers, we are doomed to fail.
This week’s Parsha details the encounter between the world’s two opposing forces: good and evil, manifest in Yaakov and Esav. These two actors are still center stage in today’s world in the form of the Jewish people and the surrounding gentile nations of the world. It thus behooves us to examine how Yaakov dealt with Esav for determining how we are to deal with our gentile enemies today. If we follow Yaakov’s path, we are sure to succeed.
Yaakov understood that his role in the world was to found the Jewish nation, the ultimate reason for creation. His 12 sons would form the kernel of the people who would receive the Torah on Mount Sinai and bring the world to its purpose. Yaakov’s every decision was with that supreme goal in mind. To be completely successful, his plan would also need to encompass the continued existence of the holy Jewish people. If they could not be sustained throughout time, all would be for naught.
Esav, also knew well his role in life. He represented the force of evil, whose job it is to challenge Yaakov at every turn and try to take him off his game. Any tactic is acceptable, no holds barred, in his quest to bring Yaakov down.
Although Yaakov was completely righteous, and, thus, could have defeated Esav summarily, and solved the immediate problem, Yaakov knew that his progeny would not maintain the perfect degree of holiness that he had achieved and that in a hand to hand battle they would lose to Esav’s evil descendants. Yaakov thus needed to adopt a strategy that would work even if his children were not perfectly righteous. Such a strategy would guarantee the Jewish people’s existence for all time. This insight will help us understand Yaakov’s strategy and why it is essential for us to follow it. We are not on Yaakov’s level to take Esav head on and try to defeat him in battle. Because we are far from perfect in our service to Hashem, this is the only path that can work for us.
Yaakov’s strategy was to try to avoid outright war with Esav at all cost, and rather seek to neutralize his hatred and desire to kill Yaakov.
Yaakov initially sent messengers to Esav to appease him. Attempting to minimize Yaakov’s perceived threat, the messengers delivered a message of greeting and of subservience. It didn’t work. Esav refused to give Yaakov’s messengers the time of day, continuing his advance with 400 seasoned warriors to kill Yaakov and his family.
With the world’s history behind us, we in the 21st century need to recognize and understand a fundamental fact, one already observed by the rabbis of the Talmud: Esav hates Yaakov. There is no changing that. All that we can do is try to avoid or mitigate the hatred, but there is no way to remove it.
ספרי במדבר פרשת בהעלותך פיסקא סט
ר”ש בן יוחי אומר הלכה בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said: It is a law, it is a known fact, that Esav hates Yaakov.
Yaakov understood his adversary and recognized that he was facing total annihilation. The odds were terrible. Esav, a seasoned killer, with 400 armed warriors, against Yaakov, a scholar and a family man, with only his family–a bunch of kids, his wives, and some female servants. But Yaakov knew that he didn’t need physical weapons to defeat his brother Esav and his army.
Though Yaakov knew that he would remain alive and well (Hashem had promised him protection), he did not know whether his wives or children would be casualties of war, something that Yaakov did not want to risk. He knew that his 11 sons (Binyamin had not yet been born) were the perfect candidates to be the kernel of the Jewish nation. Yaakov therefore invoked a weapon of far greater power than anything Esav possessed. The Jew’s atomic weapon is his mouth, his power of prayer and the study of Torah. When used properly, nothing can withstand it, for it enlists Hashem’s invincible power, a force that works at all times for all people, even for those not perfectly righteous. For when we turn to Hashem for help through sincere prayer, Hashem always answers; the very act of praying to Hashem makes us more holy and worthy of the salvation we are needing. Prayer is the guaranteed path to salvation in all times and situations.
In his continued effort to neutralize Esav, Yaakov had a three–part strategy.
רש”י על בראשית פרק לב פסוק ט
והיה המחנה הנשאר לפליטה – על כרחו כי אלחם עמו התקין עצמו לשלשה דברים לדורון לתפלה ולמלחמה.
Rashi (listing them out of order) explains: Yaakov prepared himself for three things: Prayer, a present, and war.
First Yaakov prayed fervently to Hashem to save him from Esav.
ספר בראשית פרק לב
(יב) הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו
Please save me from my brother, from Esav…
Yaakov then sent Esav a massive gift: 200 she goats, 20 he goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 nursing camels, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 she donkeys, and 10 he donkeys. Yaakov divided the gift into many groups and spread them out over several miles. Hence, when Esav looked down the road, he perceived a gift that went on and on. When Esav inquired, “What’s this all about?” the messengers answered, “It’s from Yaakov your servant, a tribute sent to my lord, to Esav.” Yaakov’s goal was to soften Esav by appealing to his love of money and possessions.
Our Sages explain how a bribe to Esav works. Because the default position of the Esav/Yaakov scale is always tilted against Yaakov, the bribe counteracts the bias, evening out the scale, allowing Esav to see things in a balanced way.
The last resort, if the first two strategies have failed, is war, for which Yaakov prepared by dividing his family into two different camps.
ספר בראשית פרק לב
(ט) וַיֹּאמֶר אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה:
9. For he said, “If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camp shall survive.”
Yaakov recognized that some of his family may be killed in a war against Esav. At the same time, Yaakov was sure that Esav would not be able to completely kill his entire family. There would always be a Jewish nation. Our Sages learn this from the words – The remaining camp shall survive. This is a statement of fact; it will always be the case. Esav will never destroy the entire Jewish nation. Even if he succeeds in destroying one camp, another will always survive.
The stage is set. Yaakov has done all that he could to achieve the desired outcome. He has prayed to Hashem, he has sent a bribe to appease his brother, and he has prepared for the ultimate last resort, war.
Yaakov’s efforts paid off; when Yaakov and Esav finally met face to face, Esav embraced and kissed his brother. After a short exchange in which Yaakov convinced Esav to accept his gift, they parted ways peacefully, and the danger was, at least then, averted.
1700 years later, during the second Holy Temple, the Sages of the Mishna suffered under the dominion of Edom, the Roman Empire, Esav’s descendants. And Yaakov’s blueprint was the blueprint that the Sages followed when dealing with the Romans.
The Midrash tells us:
מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה עח פסקה טו
רבינו כד הוה סליק למלכותא הוה מסתכל בהדא פרשה
Before Rabbi Judah the Prince would go to deal with the emperor, he would review this portion of the Torah.
The following story illustrates this point.
When Yaakov sent the messengers to Esav, this is what he told them.
ספר בראשית פרק לב
(ה) וַיְצַו אֹתָם לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמְרוּן לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו כֹּה אָמַר עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב
5. He charged them, saying – “Thus shall you say, ‘To my lord, to Esau, so said your servant Jacob’”
Yaakov took a position of clear subservience to Esav. This was part of his strategy to minimize Esav’s resentment to him.
מדרש רבה בראשית – פרשה עה פסקה ה
רבינו אמר לרבי אפס כתוב חד אגרא מן שמי למרן מלכא אנטונינוס. קם וכתב, “מן יהודה נשיאה למרן מלכא אנטונינוס.” נסבה וקרייה וקרעיה. אמר ליה, “כתוב ‘מן עבדך יהודה למרן מלכא אנטונינוס.'” אמר ליה, “רבי, מפני מה אתה מבזה על כבודך?” אמר ליה, “מה אנא טב מן סבי? לא כך אמר ‘כה אמר עבדך יעקב’?”
Rabbi Judah the Prince (Rebbe) told Rabbi Apos his scribe to write a letter from him to Antonius the king. The scribe wrote: “From Rabbi Judah the Prince to The King Antonius…” Rebbe read it and tore it up. He instructed Apos to write: “From your servant Judah to the King Antonius…” “Why do you lower your honor so much and disgrace yourself?” asked the scribe. Rebbe responded, “Am I any better than my grandfather Yaakov? Didn’t Yaakov tell his messengers to tell Esav, ‘so has Yaakov your servant said’? “
Rebbe carefully followed Yaakov’s model vis-à-vis the posture he assumed towards Antonius. Rebbe understood that if this is the way Yaakov acted with Esav, this is the way that we need to act with his descendants. If we take a superior or even equal posture, we cannot succeed. This lesson applies today as well.
Back in the 70’s during the cold war with Russia, there were different factions that wanted to help their brothers behind the Iron Curtain. To this end, they conducted demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. Citing the subservient posture that Yaakov needs to adopt vis-à-vis Esav, our Torah teachers advised against participating in these demonstrations. They explained that not only would it not help them, it would only make things worse. The Russian officials would not take kindly to being threatened by Jews and would intensify their oppression of the Jews.
Jews who later came out of the former Soviet Union confirmed these facts. The demonstrations only made things worse for them.
Similarly, when threatened by today’s Esav, we also need to use Yaakov’s three-prong strategy to defeat him. Prayers, bribery, and only, as a last resort, war.
This has always been our Sages’ advice and their urging throughout history. When we are the subject of persecution from Esav’s descendants, our first course of action must be prayer and increased Torah study. When the Jewish people, Hashem’s beloved nation, is being oppressed, the gentiles are not the cause; we are. We have drifted away from Hashem, Who wants us back. He wants a close relationship with us. If we do not respond to the benign stimuli Hashem has sent, He resorts to more painful ones. He puts us in a situation where we see our only option is to pray to Him. The whole setup is to elicit prayers from us so that we return to Him.
We see this concept from the following Midrash.
(4) מדרש רבה שמות – פרשה כא פסקה ה
“סגר עליהם המדבר.” א”ר ירמיה בן אלעזר אין סגר אלא חיות שנאמר (שם ו) אלהי שלח מלאכיה וסגר פום אריותא כיון שראו ישראל שהיו מוקפין מג’ רוחות הים סוגר והשונא רודף והחיות מן המדבר תלו עיניהם לאביהם שבשמים וצעקו להקב”ה שנאמר ויצעקו בני ישראל אל ה’ ולמה עשה הקב”ה להם כך אלא שהיה הקב”ה מתאוה לתפלתן אמר ריב”ל למה”ד למלך שהיה בא בדרך והיתה בת מלכים צועקת לו בבקשה ממך הצילני מיד הלסטים שמע המלך והצילה לאחר ימים ביקש לישא אותה לאשה היה מתאוה שתדבר עמו ולא היתה רוצה מה עשה המלך גירה בה הלסטים כדי שתצעוק וישמע המלך כיון שבאו עליה הלסטים התחילה צועקת למלך אמר לה המלך לכך הייתי מתאוה לשמוע קולך כך ישראל
The desert closed in on them (the Jewish nation) as they were camped at the Red Sea. Rabbi Yirmiyah the son Elazar said, “When the Jewish people saw that they were enclosed from all sides, the sea in front, the enemy in back, and the desert with wild animals on the other two sides, they lifted their eyes to Hashem in heaven and screamed out to Him. Why did Hashem do this to them? Because Hashem wanted their prayers.” Rabbi Yehoshua the son of Levi said, “It’s like the story of the king who was travelling when he heard the voice of a princess screaming, ’Help! Save me! They are killing me!’ The king hurried to the rescue and saved the princess. He brought her to the palace and wanted to marry her. He tried to converse with her, but she would not talk to him. He said to himself, “I know how to get her to talk.” He sent her on an excursion in the forest, and had an attack staged on her by some of his men. When she started to scream for help, the king appeared and saved her. When he got her in his carriage, he said to her, “All I wanted was for you to talk to me. Had you done so before, I would not have had to do this to you.” Similarly, when the Jewish people were oppressed by the Egyptians, they were praying to Hashem all the time. But once He had taken them out, they slacked off. Therefore, Hashem put them in this situation to renew their prayers to Him.
We see that Hashem’s desire for prayer is the source of the problem and not the other way around.
In the spring of 1942 the Yishuv of Palestine was in terrible danger. Rommel, the legendary Nazi general who had never lost a battle, was poised to attack Palestine. He had even flown to Jerusalem to meet with the head Mufti to discuss how they would divide the booty.
When the Jews in Jerusalem and in Bnai Brak heard of the impending danger, they organized a rotation so that Jews were praying 24 hours a day for three days straight. Though Rommel attacked, he was miraculously repulsed by the British forces under the command of Bernard Law Montgomery. After the victory, Montgomery said publicly on the radio, “I don’t know how we did it.” Contrary to how victorious commanders usually talk, “We executed brilliant strategy, our men were valiant, etc.,” he had to admit that this was a miracle.
There is another source in the Torah for the concept that prayer and Torah are our secret weapons in war. When the Jewish nation went to war against Midyan as revenge for enticing the people to sin, which caused the death of 24,000 Jewish people, Moshe instructed each tribe to choose 1,000 soldiers for the battle. The Torah cites Moshe’s command in a peculiar way.
ספר במדבר פרק לא
(ד) אֶלֶף לַמַּטֶּה אֶלֶף לַמַּטֶּה לְכֹל מַטּוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּשְׁלְחוּ לַצָּבָא:
4. A thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe, for all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the legion.”
Why the repetition of “A thousand from a tribe”? The Midrash explains:
מדרש רבה במדבר – פרשה כב פסקה ב
וי”ב אלף לתפלה. ומנין שכן שנאמר אלף למטה אלף למטה? הרי כ”ד אלפים
Twelve thousand were sent to pray for the soldiers at war. How do we know this is so? Because it says “1,000 from a tribe, 1000 from a tribe” that’s a total of 24,000.
In that war, the Torah tells us a seemingly obscure fact.
ספר במדבר פרק לא
וְאֵת בִּלְעָם בֶּן בְּעוֹר הָרְגוּ בֶּחָרֶב:
and Balaam son of Beor they slew with the sword:
Why has the Torah told us that they killed Balaam with a sword? Who cares?
רש”י על במדבר פרק לא פסוק ח
בחרב – הוא בא על ישראל והחליף אומנתו באומנותם, שאין נושעים אלא בפיהם ע”י תפלה ובקשה. ובא הוא ותפש אומנותם לקללם בפיו אף הם באו עליו והחליפו אומנותם באומנות האומות שבאין בחרב שנא’ (בראשית כז) ועל חרבך תחיה:
Balaam tried to use our weapon against us, our weapon being our mouths in prayer and supplication, so we used his weapon, the sword, against him.
When the Jewish nation fought this battle, they did not lose a single soldier, which was the case in all their battles in conquering the land of Israel, except for one in which they lost 36 men because someone had sinned. Otherwise, every soldier returned safe from the front. The people praying for them was their secret weapon. This holds true for today as well. The prayers of the people, and Torah learning of the Yeshiva students is the greatest merit for our soldiers at the front. This is our secret weapon.