Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
In our weekly portion, Parshat Vayishlach, Yaakov returns to the Land of Israel after being absent for over twenty years. He has not forgotten that he fled the land due to his parents’ justifiable suspicion that his brother, Esav, was intent on killing him after he had stolen his blessings. What Yaakov certainly could not have known is how much hostility Esav might still feel toward Yaakov, even after such a long period of separation. Yaakov dispatches messengers (who may have actually been angels), with the following message: “So shall you say to my master, to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Yaakov: I have sojourned with Lavan, and I have tarried until now.’”
Many commentators have pondered why these messengers were sent with this task. Even if we were to skim over this text, we would be sure to notice that Yaakov calls his brother “my master”, while he refers to himself as a servant. All of a sudden, with no warning, Yaakov, a clever man who managed to swindle his brother and steal both his birthright and his blessings (and even managed to get along quite well with Lavan), now presents himself as if he was a slave confronting his master. Was Yaakov really foregoing his birthright status and his precedential stature in his family with a mere wave of the hand? Was he doing so simply because he was terrified of Esav, who was closing in on him? Did he really believe that Esav would accept the story that he had simply been detained for many years at Lavan’s house, and that this was why they had not met?
Some of our sages comment on Yaakov’s conduct, invoking the verse: “A passerby who becomes embroiled in a quarrel that is not his is like one who grabs a dog by its ears” . Esav was going his own way, and Yaakov dispatches a delegation, saying “so says your servant Yaakov”? To put it in other words, who asked Yaakov to contact his brother and debase himself? What if Esav had no intention of bothering his brother, and all Yaakov accomplished here was to stir up evil inclinations that had been buried deep inside his brother’s psyche for a long time?
Other commentators took this critical approach several steps further, bringing us centuries into the future, to the end of the Second Temple period. Nachmanides (13th Century Spain) wrote: “I believe that this hints to the beginning of our own demise at the hand of Edom, when the kings of the Second Temple period made a covenant with the Romans. This opened the door to the Romans, and it was the reason the Romans subdued them.”
The inference here to the Maccabees is crystal clear. After their great victories over the Greeks, the Maccabees – the victors – attempt to create a pact with the Romans, a pact that would result in the destruction of the Second Temple.
In fact, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to argue that Yaakov’s behavior was problematic from a theological perspective, as well. After all, Yaakov had been assured by God that he would return to the land safely, and that everything would turn out very well. Why, then, should he have feared anything?
Conversely, it is also difficult to accept that the Torah would describe the exchange of gifts and reconciliation between Yaakov and Esav for the sole purpose of criticizing Yaakov, without even one word of rebuke appearing explicitly in the text.
It is interesting to note that Nachmanides, when attempting to explain the story of Yaakov’s messengers, writes that “this was written to teach us that he didn’t rely on his righteousness, and did his utmost to save his own life. Another concept alluded to is that all that occurred to our forefather with Esav will repeat itself with us and Esav’s descendants. It is therefore appropriate for us to emulate the efforts of Yaakov, who initiated three tactics in preparation for his encounter with Esav: prayer, presents, and evading war – escaping and being saved.”
In other words, alongside the justified criticism of Yaakov’s actions, the moral of this story should be studied by future generations. We must never rely on a Divine promise at the expense of taking necessary actions as human beings. Even righteous people – and Yaakov certainly qualified as such – cannot avoid making an effort to change things. Human effort takes many forms. It can mean preparing for war, engaging in prayer, or engaging in diplomacy and politics.
Yaakov is teaching us a lesson in diplomacy. Not everything must be said explicitly between leaders – and that is why language laundering exists. Should Yaakov have told his brother he was afraid of being murdered? Must we always tell the whole truth, face to face? This is another lesson we can glean from Yaakov’s story. We are often appalled at the hypocrisy of other nations and their double standards vis-a- vis Israel, while they disregard the atrocities occurring every day in our region. When we see how the world remains silent when such crimes are committed, yet continues to lambast Israel for basic defensive actions it takes, and is fully justified in taking, we feel disgusted at the international hypocrisy exhibited by these friendly nations.
Still, we need to ask ourselves if we should be speaking to them as friends, whose weapons and money are critical to our national security, using Yaakov’s gently and conciliatory rhetoric. Alternatively, should we get worked up and end up in an undesirable situation?
Is Yaakov’s approach devoid of error and risk? Of course not. This is exactly the double-edged sword that Nachmanides alludes to in his commentary. For us, Yaakov’s path is like a beacon perched atop a fork in the road. His path can take a dangerous turn, as it did in the destruction of the Second Temple, but it also has the potential to lead us to progress by urging us to be wise and remain patient.