A Dialogue Between Alienated Relatives and Historical Lessons

Rabbi Shuki Reich is Rosh Beit Midrash of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership and a Ra”m at Midreshet Lindenbaum

Rabbi Shuki Reich - Photographer Rony Nathan

Since time immemorial, the Torah has dealt with sibling rivalry and conversations of conflict.  The Torah begins with the primal story of Cain and Abel which ends in murder.  Later on, we are given the discourse which took place between the children of Noach; we meet Yitzhak and his brother Yishmael; and we even come upon a conversation between Avraham and Lot’s people: “And Avraham said unto Lot: let there be no strife between me and you, and between my shepherds and your shepherds, for we are brethren.  Behold the whole land is before you.  Separate yourself, I pray thee, from me.  If you take the left, I shall take the right; and if you take the right, I shall take the left.”

Avraham says in so many words: we are brethren, so we must separate. 

The same thing happens with Yitzhak and Esav.  And if that is not enough – with Yosef and his brothers as well.

Nowhere in Bereshit do we find sibling affection; instead, there is plenty of jealousy and competition – competition which not only fails to bring the siblings closer together, but ultimately becomes the basis for all future tension throughout history.  

The prophet Jeremiah warns us (9, 3): “Take you heed of thy neighbor, and trust not in any brother; for every brother acts deceitfully, and every neighbor goes about with slanders.”

The expression used by Jeremiah – “for every brother acts deceitfully” – kol ach akov ya’akov – is reminiscent of our Patriarch’s name – Yaakov.  Perhaps this is the reason his name was changed to Yisrael, and the name Yaakov remained secondary (Berachot 13).

According to the Ramban, the encounter between Yaakov and Esav exemplifies future encounters.  This is how he puts it: “We, too, should imitate the ways of this righteous person [Yaakov], and prepare ourselves on three different dimensions, in much the same way that he had prepared himself – by praying; by preparing gifts; and by readying himself for war, for the purpose of escaping and saving himself.”

However, the Ramban does not view Yaakov’s acts of flattery, expressed by the gifts he sends, in a positive light at all: 

“Our Sages have already criticized [Yaakov] for this act.  As is written in Bereshit Rabbah (85, 3) – ‘He that passes by, and meddles with strife not his own, is like one that takes a dog by the ears’ (Proverbs 26, 17).  The Holy One, blessed be He, said unto Yaakov: [Esav] was going about his business, and you were the one who sent out messengers to him saying ‘So says your servant Yaakov’.  In my humble opinion this suggests that we were the ones who caused our own downfall at the hands of Edom.  After all, the kings of the Second Temple were the ones who made covenants with the Romans (Maccabees 1, 8), while some others even traveled to Rome, which ultimately led to their defeat.  This idea has already been stated by our Sages and written in our scriptures…”

The Seforno has a very different take on Yaakov’s act of sending out messengers to Esav:

“‘And Esav ran’ – he immediately had a turn of heart when he saw Yaakov so subdued.  As our Sages have said: [The prophet] Achiya HaShiloni cursed Israel that it may be like a stalk that succumbs to every wind.  Had the zealots of the Second Temple behaved in this subdued fashion, the Second Temple would not have been destroyed, as attested to by Rabi Yochanan ben Zakkai himself (Gittin, Perek HaNizakin): The zealots refused to leave and succumb, and so the Temple was destroyed.”

Both the Ramban and the Seforno base their interpretation on an analysis of the destruction of the Second Temple.  The Ramban contends that the Temple was destroyed because of the desire to forge ties with Rome; while the Seforno claims that the destruction of the Second Temple was the result of the zealots’ refusal to forge relations with outsiders. 

These are two very different historical readings, both of which are enlightening, in that they teach us that any person can look back at historical events and find that which s/he wishes to find. 

The Netziv of Volozhin, in his exegesis on the Torah, pauses the encounter between the two brothers on the word “vayivku” – “and they cried”.  This is what he says: 

“And they cried.  Both of them cried.  This teaches us that at that moment, Yaakov’s heart was also infused with love for Esav.  The same holds true for all generations to come.  When Esav’s descendants become infused with a pure, unblemished spirit and acknowledge the People of Israel and its virtues, we, too, shall attain the awareness that Esav is our brother.  In much the same way that Rabi [Yehuda HaNassi] truly loved Antonius, and there are many other such examples.”

Learning important lessons from the stories of the Torah

The Torah instructs us:  “Remember the days of old, contemplate the years of many generations; ask thy father, and he will declare unto thee, thine elders, and they will tell thee.”  We have a clear obligation to remember past events and understand history. 

However, in our attempt to learn from the encounter between Esav and Yaakov, we seem to be left with two contradicting messages.  How then can we learn from the days of yore?

When taking lessons from history, one cannot simply impose the past on the present.  By learning the past, we gain insight and wisdom – binu is the word the Torah uses for this type of contemplation. But this insight, or wisdom, can only be achieved if we take a broader and more spiritual view of things – not by drawing a straight line from past to present, or by copying-pasting.  As the Sefat Emet put it: remembrance is an internal point void of any forgetfulness. 

It is also the point of faith, which means there we do not attempt to find a straightforward, instant lesson for the present. 

To use the words of the Sefat Emet yet again:

“Remembrance lies deep in one’s heart.  In a place where there is no forgetfulness.  And when there is remembrance down below, in the heart of every Jew, then remembrance is also evoked in the Heavens above.”


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