Preparing for Battle, Praying for Peace
Years ago, as then-Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin prepared for a critical meeting with Presidents Saadat and Carter, he stopped in New York on the way to Washington. There he met individually with three of the great rabbis of that generation, Rabbis Moshe Feinstein, Menachem Schneerson, and Yosef Soloveitchik. From reports I have heard, all three rabbis gave Begin the same advice: Before the fateful meeting, review the Torah portion of Vayishlach.
This advice reflects the rabbinic understanding of the parashah, expressed in the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 78:15) and reiterated in Ramban’s commentary on the Torah (Bereishit 32:4), that the section dealing with the dramatic meeting between Yaakov and Esav was not just a “biblical story.” Rather, it contains within it a prophetic program for future diplomatic, political and even geo-political encounters that should be heeded throughout the long years of Jewish exile.
The context is Yaakov’s impending return to Israel, the land of his birth, the land promised to him by his father and later by God Himself. Yaakov was now nearing the borders of his promised land, but there was a “catch”; for Yaakov, nothing ever happens the easy way. He had just escaped unscathed from a skirmish with his father-in-law Lavan, and was about to contend with the matter of his brother, who might still be piqued over certain blessings that had made their way to Yaakov.
Yaakov makes the first move. He sends a delegation to his brother Esav, bearing gifts and words of rapprochement. The response brought back by these messengers is ominous: Esav is on his way, with an “escort” of four hundred men. While Yaakov tries to avoid war with gifts, Esav seems poised for battle. Yaakov divides his household into two camps; he reasons that if one camp is attacked, the other might escape.
Our sages extrapolate both economic and communal conclusions from Yaakov’s preparations: One should not “put all of their eggs in one basket,” or, in the words of the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 76:3), “Do not put all your money in one corner.”This lesson is taken beyond the purely monetary realm, and the rabbis stress that the same principle is true regarding even more valuable “commodities” – people. Just as Yaakov hoped to minimize the toll of war and to insure his family’s survival in case of attack, so, too, should the Jewish People plan for the worst, and attempt to save even a portion of the dispersed and persecuted Jewish nation. If the Jews in one community are in danger,hopefully another community will survive; when, for example, the community in the “south” (presumably Israel) is under threat, steps must be taken to insure the survival of the Jewish community in the diaspora. The sages of the midrash had seen the First and Second Temples destroyed, and they developed a pragmatic strategy for Jewish survival, a strategy that dated back to Yaakov: Divide and survive.In fact, the midrash itself tells us that this parashah was more than just the source of general wisdom; it served as required reading, as the text with which representatives of the besieged Jewish community prepared themselves for meetings with the ruling authorities.
A careful reading of this episode teaches us that Yaakov took a three-pronged approach to his precarious situation: First, he attempted to make peace, sending a conciliatory message and showering his brother with gifts. Yaakov also turned to God in a prayer for peace and deliverance from harm, while simultaneously taking practical defensive steps to minimize the damage in the event that the worst-case scenario would unfold. Indeed, this formula has been applied throughout thousands of years of Jewish history: Paying “tributes,” taxes and ransoms to the lords of the lands in which the Jews lived, dispersing Jewish enclaves to the farthest corners of the known world to insure that not all would be lost, and a great deal of prayer.
Rabbinic sources refer to this strategy specifically regarding Rome, the symbol of Christendom. We cannot help but wonder how Prime Minister Begin read this passage. Would our sages have been more worried about dealing with President Carter than with President Saadat?
In recent history, our return to the Land of Israel in vast numbers has created a double-edged sword. On the one hand, more and more Jews are concentrated in a small, defined geographic area, which makes the threat to Jewish survival more acute. On the other hand, the Jewish People now has, for the first time in thousands of years, the ability to fight back, to protect itself against the constant threats of persecution, exile and annihilation. This new/old reality has engendered a gradual paradigm shift, in which Yaakov’s example, which was predominantly a diaspora model (as observed by the Ramban Bereishit 33:15), has become augmented by the example set by Yaakov’s sons. Rather than pulling up stakes or avoiding conflict when their sister Dina was abused, they chose the opposite path. They were unwilling to defer to their adversaries, and stood up to claim their rights as equals, at the very least, among the community of nations. This inevitably led to confrontation - the type of confrontation Yaakov preferred to avoid.
For a more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2014/11/audio-and-essays-parashat-vayishlach.html