Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Eternal Battle

Every year, on Rosh Hashanah, just before the shofar is sounded, the Jewish heart pounds with anticipation and awe. During one of the most exalted moments of the year, as we are about to hear the shofar blown, we recite kappitel 47 of Tehillim seven times in succession. The perek is replete with references, hidden and revealed, to the avodas hayom.

Among other hints to our destiny, in those pesukim we praise “gaon Yaakov asher oheiv selah, the pride of Yaakov, which Hashem loves forever.” Referring to the Jewish pride which is ingrained in us, we point to Yaakov as the paragon of the middah of gaavah dekedushah.

Why is this trait most associated with Yaakov Avinu? Didn’t Avrohom, with his wealth and influence, and Yitzchok, who stood dignified and noble, imbue us with this middah as well? Why is Yaakov, the ish tom yosheiv ohalim, who studied Torah in the seclusion of his tent, linked with this attribute?

Yaakov was unique in his role. He led his children into golus, instilling in them the qualities that they would need to persevere and thrive through a long exile. He dealt with Eisov and his malach. Although Yitzchok married the daughter of a rasha, he never lived with him or had any dealings with him. Yaakov, however, lived with, worked for, and negotiated with his infamous father-in-law, Lovon. 

Yaakov fled from one wicked person, his brother Eisov, into the clutches of another, Lovon. And when he finally left Lovon, he was confronted once again by his brother and his intentions to kill him and his family.

Yaakov is the av who epitomized Jewish pride, the gaon Yaakov, because his entire life – from the time he was in his mother’s womb – was spent wrestling with evil schemers. He was able to proclaim, “Im Lovon garti vetaryag mitzvos shomarti.” He was unaffected by them, “velo lomadeti mimaasov haro’im.” Not only did his adherence to the mitzvos remain firm, but he was not influenced by Lovon. He remained as holy and pure as he was in the home of his parents, or when he studied in the yeshiva of Sheim and Eiver.

The ma’asei avos, each account of the avos and their travels recounted in Sefer Bereishis, is replete with life-lessons and directives. Yaakov’s experiences guide us, his children, of a long and bitter journey through many nations, and remain as true today as they were in previous periods of our history. We have to remain focused not only on shemiras taryag mitzvos but on the ability to remain untouched by the pervasive dishonesty and depravity. 

Parshas Vayishlach is in particular a guidebook on relations with the umos ha’olam. Chazal recount that chachomim who traveled to Rome to meet with their overlords would carefully study the parsha prior to setting out on their precarious journeys.

The Ramban writes that this week’s parsha “contains a hint for future generations, for all that transpired between our forefather Yaakov and Eisov will happen to us with Eisov’s children, and it is fitting for us to follow the path of the tzaddik (Yaakov).”

As our chachomim throughout the ages studied this parsha and Yaakov’s behavior before traveling to the seat of power, they internalized that nothing has changed. The rulers of our exiles have changed in deportment and title, from dictators and despots to well-dressed diplomats with wide smiles, but Eisov remains Eisov and Yaakov remains Yaakov. The modus operandi is the same.

Beneath all the veneers, the children of Eisov are the same Eisov. Sometimes they present themselves as achim, brothers, concerned about our welfare, and other times their evil intentions are apparent.

Our response to Eisov also remains the same throughout the ages. We deal with Eisov the same way Yaakov did.

The parsha opens with the account of the malochim Yaakov sent to approach his advancing brother to seek his favor. Rashi teaches that the messengers were malochim mamesh, actual angels. What was it about this mission that it could not be carried out by humans and required angels to fulfill the task?

Why did Yaakov immediately assume that there was malice in the heart of his approaching brother? How did he know that Eisov intended to harm him? Perhaps upon hearing that his brother was returning home after having done well, he wanted to greet him, express his love and begin a new chapter in their relationship.

The Baal Haturim in Parshas Toldos (25:25) calculates that the numerical equivalent of Eisov is shalom, peace. Perhaps we can understand the significance of this gematria by noting that even when Eisov seeks to do battle, he presents himself as a man of peace.

He speaks in peaceful tones and his actions appear to be motivated by a desire to spread peace and brotherhood in the world. He presents himself as an intelligent, thoughtful person. Many people are impressed by his guile.

Rav Chaim Vital and the Ohr Hachaim write that Yaakov feared that if he would send a human to scout out his brother’s intentions, the messenger would be influenced by Eisov’s outward appearance and comments, and would be fooled into thinking that he really seeks a peaceful existence with Yaakov.

When he heard that Eisov was approaching, Yaakov sensed that he was in danger. The Torah doesn’t recount that the malochim warned Yaakov that Eisov was planning to do battle. It only says that he was on his way. But Yaakov understood that if Eisov was coming towards him, it could only mean trouble.

Success in any interpersonal dealing depends on clear knowledge of the person you are meeting and what they really want. Yaakov well understood Eisov’s essence, and he had the vision to see beyond the exterior and appreciate his opponent. When we deal with other people, we must possess the awareness of our grandfather Yaakov. He gifted us this ability as part of his legacy to us.

When dealing with others, whether brothers or opponents, we must be honest with ourselves and not permit outside influences and considerations to impress us. Whether it is shtadlonim representing us in the halls of power or in other confrontations, we must preserve the gaon Yaakov with doron, tefillah and then milchomah.

We have to ensure that we are not taken in by sweet talk and that we do not fall for back-slapping and empty promises. We don’t have malochim to act as envoys and discern the true intentions of modern-day Eisovs, but we do have the message of Yaakov Avinu, who taught us the halacha of Eisov sonei l’Yaakov, an ever-relevant message.

One of the futile activities that many well-meaning Jews engage in is headline-watching, looking for hints that the general media is biased against Israel. Time and again, they expose the slant and prejudice that indicate that media reporting is skewed and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. They are certainly right in their conclusions. What I don’t understand is why they are still surprised. What expectations do they have? What hopes do they harbor? If we accept that the sinah is real and enduring, then we should know better than to try to engender their sympathy to our side. Why do we work so hard to curry favor and glean compliments from them?

Learn the parsha and our role becomes clear. Encounters with Eisov mean trouble. Yaakov had no expectations of genuine love. He had low expectations. The most he hoped for was that they would be able to exist side by side without antagonism. If you examine the pesukim, you will note that although Chazal say that Yaakov prepared himself for milchomah, in essence what his preparation consisted of was a defensive posture. He divided the family into two camps. If Eisov would beat one, the other would escape and survive.

We convince ourselves that some nations of the world care about us, like us, and have our best interests at heart. We forget the admonishment of Chazal (Pirkei Avos 2:3): “Hevu zehirin barashus she’ein mikarvin lo l’adam ela letzorech atzmon.” We hobnob with politicians, deluding ourselves into thinking that they are actually interested in our issues. We forget the lessons Yaakov Avinu taught about how to deal with governments. We should lobby and seek to soften the edges, convincing good people to advocate for our causes, but we should not be surprised at the all-too-present moral equivalence and the hypocritical double-standards.

Too many of us look at Eisov with respect and high regard, as if he is concerned about us and our welfare. We are impressed when he throws some nice sound-bites our way and stunned when we read of increasing anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews around the world. We are incredulous when Eisov turns on us, as he has been doing ever since he lived with Yaakov in the home of Yitzchok and Rivka. Too many of us crave Eisov’s recognition.

A fatal error of the Zionist movement is that it believed that with the ascent of the Jewish state, the nations will accept our existence as a member of the club of nations. “When we have a state,” they said years ago, “the goyim will no longer seek our destruction. Pogroms and hatred will be things of the past.” Sadly, that theory has been disproven too many times.

Some of our brothers also adopt the posture of Eisov, portraying themselves as victims. They proclaim their desire for peace and harmony. As they campaign, promoting their agendas, they smugly claim that the heirs of Yaakov are not interested in achdus. They present themselves as calm and intellectual, forward-thinking and progressive, while we, they say, are erratic, frightful and old-fashioned. They always manage to find someone around whom to rally and present their canard as if they are following an accepted shitah, which is usually a daas yochid that the mesorah has not accepted.

Under the banner of peace, with niceties and catch-phrases, diplomats seek to destroy the lone lamb that exists amongst seventy wolves. With innocent proclamations, they betray their arrogance and anti-Semitism, disguised by a mask of respectability and concern for justice.

A prominent askan once referred to Rabbi Moshe Sherer as his rebbi. He explained: “Some rabbeim give shiur on sugyos in Shas, some in sugyos in halacha or aggada. Rabbi Sherer gave shiur every day on the sugya of ‘Yisroel Bein Ho’amim,’ our role and proper mode of conduct interacting with the nations of the world.”

The middah of Eisov is very much alive and ever-present. Eisov is begematria shalom, for that is the card he uses to gain entry into our camp and upend us. His mantra has always been, “I only want to save you from yourselves. Metzitzah b’peh is dangerous for you, so we’ll help. We want peace, you want war. Chareidim really want to work; they’re just scared of social pressures, so we’re bringing your community up to date, because you can’t help yourselves. Palestinians desire peace, but your imperialism robs them of opportunity and leaves them no choice but to savagely murder your citizens.”

Our answer has always been that while we appreciate their friendship and concern, the goal is not necessarily to earn their respect and friendship, but to reach a proper working relationship, with each of us distinct and comfortable in our differences.

This is what is meant by “gaon Yaakov.” Yaakov not only understood Eisov’s true colors, he appreciated his own. With pride, he was confident and clear about his own mission. The ability to swallow when necessary is just as important as the strength to react with courage. It takes poise and precision, and a perfect awareness of our role, to be able to prepare for battle by assuming a defensive posture and not always choosing to be confrontational. The gaon Yaakov has allowed us to flourish despite centuries of oppression. Our focus always remains the same: Not only to exist, but to exist as shomrei Torah. Thus, our desire to fight is in that context. We determine which course of action will best promote our agenda. It is not necessarily by being on the offensive. Often, it is achieved by retreating and waiting for a better opportunity.

Those who, like Yaakov, are steeped in the Torah of Sheim and Eiver are charged with determining the course of action to pursue. It is to them that the nation turns for guidance, not to the people who think superficially and operate rashly without an appreciation for the larger mission and goal.   

Yaakov Avinu also wanted to achieve shalom, but he wasn’t prepared to forfeit his goal for that ideal. The posuk (ibid. 32:8) relates, “Vayira Yaakov meod.” He feared that he would either get killed himself or he would have to kill someone. But capitulation to Eisov was not an option.

Shalom is only an attribute when it is achieved within the framework of emes. Great men, descendants of Yaakov, have always opted for the emes of Yaakov, stating the facts as they are and accepting the ramifications.

The novi Michah said (7:20), “Titein emes l’Yaakov.” Yaakov Avinu, the fountain of emes, sent malochim to Eisov to gauge his positions. Yaakov yearned for shalom, but his primary concern was that it be within the context of emes.

He sent malochim mamesh, who could discern the truth of Eisov’s intentions. Yaakov was sending a message: “If you speak of peace, but under your smile lies a dagger, I will have no choice but to kill or be killed. I will not compromise on the emes. I won’t change and will not adapt it to conform to your evil path.”

This is so relevant, because, often, especially in times when we face acts of terror and war from Eisov and Yishmoel, the first reaction is to scream and threaten revenge. Our instincts tell us that fighting is the only way. However, Yaakov Avinu prepared a three-pronged approach, perceiving that at different times, Eisov could be defeated in different ways. Sometimes it is through the force of tefillah. Other times it is through diplomacy and submission. And in some situations, there is no recourse other than combat.

The Torah guides us and instructs us. Through the Torah, we know when doron is appropriate and when it isn’t.

Rav Dovid Soloveitchik related that his grandfather, Rav Chaim, once traveled to the capital city of St. Petersburg accompanied by the Brisker dayan, Rav Simcha Zelig Rieger, to plead on behalf of their people. They had  an appointment with the minister of education, but as the time for the audience approached, the minister stepped into the waiting room and insisted that only one of them may enter.

“The more important one should come in. Alone,” he said.

Rav Chaim explained that they had come together and were of equal importance, but the minister refused to accept two petitioners. He indicated that Rav Chaim should follow him into his office.

When the door closed, Rav Chaim decided to forego the arguments and claims he had so carefully prepared. Instead, he reached into his pocket and withdrew an envelope filled with money. The minister’s eyes bulged with desire and the rov handed him the money. The minister assured him that he would repeal the decree and honor the request of the Jews.

Rav Chaim later explained why he decided to immediately offer money rather than attempt dialogue. “When he made it clear that he would only accept one visitor,” Rav Chaim said, “I understood that his wish for privacy stemmed from a sense of embarrassment about what he was about to do and a desire to keep it a secret.”

He had prepared himself well for the engagement with Eisov, and when he sized up his opponent, Rav Chaim determined that for that descendant of Eisov, at that time, doron was the preferred means of hishtadlus.

We look forward to the day the novi Ovadiah speaks about in this week’s haftorah: “Ve’olu moshi’im beHar Tzion lishpot es har Eisov.” The era will soon arrive when Am Yisroel will exact punishment on Eisov for his guile, when the gaon Yaakov will radiate as our pride fills the world. May it be soon.



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