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 gamble, but if we ourselves gamble, it will be futile. They think, “If it is so bad, why do you do it? If you do it, it can’t be that bad, so, I can do it, too.”
We are role models for our children whether we like it or not.
If we would realize that our father has thought out each step that he takes to assure that it is the most appropriate one, we would surely want to follow his every move, knowing that it would be the very best path for us to follow.
We are the children of our fathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, and we recognize that the Torah carefully details for us all of their stellar qualities so that we may follow their sterling examples and seek to model our lives after theirs.
Not only are they the perfect role models, 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.
“שכל אחד ואחד מישראל חייב לומר “מתי יגיעו מעשי
למעשה אבותי אברהם, יצחק, ויעקב.”
“Every single person in Israel is obligated to say, ‘When will my deeds reach the level of our fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov?’”
(Midrash Tana DeVei Eliyahu Rabah 25)
But there is yet a deeper concept called,”מעשה אבות סימן לבנים” : “The deeds of our fathers are a sign for their children.” This means that the way that they dealt with their challenges created the template for us, their children, to follow when dealing with those same issues. If we fail to follow their path, we are doomed to fail.
This week’s Parshah 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 world’s surrounding gentile nations. It thus behooves us to examine how Yaakov dealt with Esav to determine how we are to deal with our gentile adversaries 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 twelve sons would form the kernel of the people who would receive the Torah on Mount Sinai and bring the world to its purpose. That supreme goal motivated Yaakov’s every decision. To be successful, his plan would also need to encompass the continued existence of the holy Jewish people, for if they could not be sustained throughout time, all would be for naught.
Esav also knew well his chosen 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. For Esav, 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 could not maintain his perfect degree of holiness and that in a hand to hand battle, they would lose. To guarantee the Jewish people’s continued existence, he 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 helps us understand Yaakov’s strategy and why it is essential for us to follow it. Because we are not on Yaakov’s level and find ourselves far from perfect in our service to HaShem, to take Esav head on and try to defeat him in battle could not possibly succeed. Hence, following Yaakov’s circuitous path is the only path that can work for us.
Yaakov’s plan was to try to avoid outright war with Esav at all costs and seek a way to neutralize Esav’s hatred and desire to kill Yaakov.
Yaakov initially sent messengers to Esav. Attempting to appease him and minimize Yaakov’s perceived threat, the messengers delivered to Esav a message of greeting and of subservience. But 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.
“רבי שמעון 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.”
(Sifrei, Bamidbar, Beha’alotecha 29)
With the world’s history behind us, we in the 21st-Century immediately recognize and fundamentally understand Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s trenchant observation made some 1,800 years ago: 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. It is part of Esav’s nature.
Yaakov understood what he was up against and recognized that he was facing total annihilation. The odds were terrible. Esav, a seasoned killer, with 400 armed warriors, coming 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 had no need for physical weapons to defeat his brother Esav even with his army.
Though Yaakov knew that he personally 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 eleven sons (Binyamin had not yet been born) were the perfect candidates to form 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 his 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.
Rashi, Genesis 32:9, (listing them out of order) explains:
“וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה”: “על כרחו כי אלחם עמו
התקין עצמו לשלשה דברים: לדורון, לתפלה, ולמלחמה.
“Yaakov prepared himself for three things: prayer, a gift, and war.”
First, Yaakov prayed fervently that HaShem save him from Esav. It is interesting that in the prayer that Yaakov offered, he said:
“הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו”
“Please save me from my brother, from Esav…”
Why the redundancy? Yaakov had no other brother, so why the repetition?
The Beis HaLevi and others see a deep meaning in this. There are two different tactics that Esav uses to try to destroy us. One is when he attacks us as an opponent. The other is to approach us as a loving brother, allowing us to enjoy all their liberties, hoping that we will join them and abandon our heritage. This latter tactic is what we face today; and, unfortunately, it has taken a tremendous toll on us.
Before parting ways, Esav offered to travel together with Yaakov and be friends. Citing his family and children’s many needs, Yaakov politely refused. Esav did not take offense at Yaakov’s declining his offer, and, thus, Yaakov’s prayer was answered in full.
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.
Although Yaakov’s prayer was answered, he still took this second step to create the template for future generations whose prayers may not be as pure and powerful as his.
The last resort, if the first two strategies have failed, is war, for which Yaakov prepared by dividing his family into two different camps.
“וַיֹּאמֶר אִם יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה”
“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 them all. 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 be able to 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.
There was just one more unfinished detail. The Midrash tells that Yaakov had left a few small vessels on the other side of the river and went back to retrieve them. When Yaakov was alone on the other side of the river, the Torah tells us:
“וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב לְבַדּוֹ וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר”
“ And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn.”
Who was this man, and what was he after? The commentaries teach us that this “man” was really Esav’s angel who was fighting with Yaakov over the “small vessels” that Yaakov had sought to retrieve. The angel was trying to wrestle the small vessels away from Yaakov, telling him they are not worth his efforts; but Yaakov would not relinquish even the smallest one. He valiantly fought for every one of them.
What were these small vessels?
Our Sages teach us that they symbolize those Jews who are not fully practicing Judaism and who are far from Yaakov and his way of life. The angel of Esav announced, “These are mine! Leave them to me!” But Yaakov refused to agree. As insignificant as they seemed, as long as they have even the slightest spark of Judaism within them, Yaakov would not concede them to his brother.
The wrestling match lasted until dawn. Our Sages explain that dawn symbolizes the final redemption, the coming of the Mashiach. This battle for the “small vessels” will continue until Mashiach arrives.
What could better describe the challenge we face today as we prepare to welcome the Mashiach? We continue Yaakov’s struggle to save every Jew that has even the smallest spark of Judaism within him; we continue the struggle to return him to his father Yaakov.
The angel failed to overcome Yaakov, but he did injure him by dislocating his thigh. The Chofetz Chaim (d. 1933) explains that the thigh represents the supporters of the Torah, the philanthropists.
Just as the thigh supports the body, and Yaakov’s body is synonymous with Torah, the thigh represents the support of the Torah. Because of this injury the fate of all true Torah institutions such as Yeshivas and day schools is to always run in the red. Unfortunately, the support of Torah learning is unpopular and certainly unglamorous. They thus never have enough money to cover their budgets.
Yaakov’s efforts and planning paid off. When Yaakov and Esav finally met face to face, Esav, rather than attacking, 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.
1,700 years later, during the second Holy Temple, the Sages of the Mishnah suffered under the dominion of Edom, the Roman Empire, Esav’s descendants. And Yaakov’s blueprint was what the Sages followed when dealing with the Romans.
The Midrash tells us:
“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 [our Parshah] of the Torah.”
(Midrash Bereishit Rabah 72:15)
The following story illustrates this point.
This is what Yaakov told the messengers when he sent them to Esav:,
“וַיְצַו אֹתָם לֵאמֹר כֹּה תֹאמְרוּן לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו כֹּה אָמַר עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב”
“ 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.
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 then 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’? “
(Midrash Bereishit Rabah 75: 5)
Rebbe carefully followed Yaakov’s model vis-à-vis the posture he assumed towards Antonius. Rebbe understood that if this is the way that 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 Russian Cold War different factions wanted to help their brothers behind the Iron Curtain. To this end, they conducted demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in Washington DC. 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 invoke 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. When the Jewish people, HaShem’s beloved nation, is oppressed, we must recognize that the gentiles are not the problem’s cause: we are. We have drifted away from HaShem, Who wants us back. HaShem 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
“סָגַר עֲלֵיהֶם הַמִּדְבָּר”: אמר רבי ירמיה בן אלעזר אין סגר אלא חיות שנאמר “אֱלָהִי שְׁלַח מַלְאֲכֵהּ וּסֲגַר פֻּם אַרְיָוָתָא” (דניאל ו, כו). 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 רבי יהושע בן לוי: למה הדבר דומה? 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 Reed Sea.” Rabbi Yirmiyah the son of 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. She would not respond. 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 screaming 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 Egyptians oppressed the Jewish people , 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.
(Midrash Shemot Rabah 21:5).
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. 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 Bnei Brak heard of the impending danger, they organized a rotation of Jews who were praying twenty-four 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 is our secret weapon 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.
“אֶלֶף לַמַּטֶּה אֶלֶף לַמַּטֶּה לְכֹל מַטּוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל תִּשְׁלְחוּ לַצָּבָא”
“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:
“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.”
(Midrash Bamidbar Rabah 22:5))
In that war, the Torah tells us a seemingly obscure fact:
“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?
“בֶּחָרֶב”: 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 שנאמר (בראשית כז, מ) “וְעַל חַרְבְּךָ תִחְיֶה”
“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 thirty-six men because someone had sinned. Otherwise, every soldier returned safely 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.
This is a very empowering idea. The Jewish people need help in so many areas. Be it in Israel where bombs are falling or Jews are being stabbed, be it people sick in hospitals, or many other difficult circumstances that seem irreparable, we have the power to make a difference with our prayers. We each have an atomic weapon to use on any problem—our prayers to HaShem—Who is in control of all circumstances. This may very well be the reason for the problem in the first place, like the princess in the parable.
We are not helpless. Au contraire, we have immense power, and we should use it!