Rabbi Yosef Edelstein
(December 13, 1997)
Many of us are aware that in the last couple of years,
the Southern Baptists have stepped up their efforts to convert the Jews. I know at least
one member of the Jewish community in Savannah who received a form letter from the
Baptists, very friendly in tone, asking him to accept Jesus as the Messiah, while
emphatically stating that he would not be giving up his religion in the process. Take your
Judaism--a good thing, brother--and just make it better!
We have also, perhaps, heard about the even more insidious missionary attempts of Jews for
Jesus, and other groups of "messianic Jews." These are people wearing yarmulkes
and tzitzis, who invite college students to traditional Friday night dinners and Passover
seders, asking them (again) not to renounce their faith, but to "complete" it by
Don't be surprised if a chassid, with long, black coat and payos shows up at your door
some day soon, quoting the Gospels and the Book of Revelation . As another spiritually
restless Jew summed it up some years back, "The times, they are a-changin'."
One Motzai Shabbos last year, I was visiting our friendly, neighborhood kosher ice cream
parlor (and Saturday night rabbinic hangout), Rainbow Row, with my wife and daughter.
After finishing my toasted bagel, I went into the bathroom to wash my hands before
bentching [saying grace after meals.] I turned around from the sink to find, standing in
front of me (that's right, in the bathroom), a friendly, neighborhood missionary.
"Hi, I'm from the Shalom mission", he said, offering his hand. "We're new
in Savannah. I'd like to talk to you."
Now, some might say that my own approach in Jewish outreach is on the aggressive
side...but even I have never tried to save a soul in the john.
I was too stunned to share with him my true feelings about his outreach. "I'm sorry,
I'm not interested," I managed to mumble weakly, pushing myself past him with a
surliness quite in contrast to his cheery demeanor. He came out a couple of minutes later,
and left Rainbow Row, along with two friends who had accompanied him; none of them looked
"Shalom," they said, nodding pleasantly to us as they walked out. "Cute
A quite eerie encounter, if you ask me. Always remember to lock the bathroom door behind
We have remarked before that the parsha always relates to our daily lives, and that our
present experience is often directly foretold in the "ancient" text. Would you
believe me if I told you that the friendly man from the Shalom mission--and his ilk--are
hinted at in this week's parsha?
Last week, we read that Yaakov leaves the house of his uncle, Lavan, after serving him for
20 years. Unmarried and penniless when he first came to Charan to escape his brother and
look for a wife, Yaakov now journeys back to the land of Israel as the wealthy head of a
large household. Lavan pursues him with ominous speed, but is told by Hashem not to harm
him. Yaakov and Lavan make a covenant, and part in peace. One hurdle cleared.
Now, in Vayishlach, Yaakov faces what could be an even more serious threat--his brother,
Esav, whom he finds out is coming to meet him with an entourage of 400 men. What is
Yaakov's response? He puts into operation a three-part plan that has become the prototype
of the Jewish strategy, in exile, in dealing with hostile non-Jewish authorities. (It is
said, in fact, that great rabbis would study this parsha before meeting with Gentile
leaders.) First, he prepares for the possibility of war, dividing his camp into two.
"For he said, 'If Esav comes to the one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining
camp shall survive." (32, 9; Artscroll Chumash, p. 173) Next, he pours out heartfelt
prayer to Hashem to save him. Finally, he shows his goodwill, and submission, by sending a
series of generous gifts to Esav from his flocks, cleverly leaving a space between each
group of animals, "so as to satisfy the eye of that wicked one [Esav], and satiate
his desire with the great number of presents." (Rashi on 32, 17)
In his prayer, Yaakov beseeches Hashem, "Rescue me, please, from the hand of my
brother, from the hand of Esav, for I fear him lest he come and strike me down, mother and
children." [my underlining] (32, 12; Artscroll, p.173) There seems to be an
unnecessary repetition here: why doesn't the Torah condense the two underlined phrases
into one, so that the text reads, "Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother,
Esav"? An amazing answer is given by the great 19th century Talmudic scholar and
leader, Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik, zt'l, in his famous commentary on the Torah,
Beis Halevi. It may help explain the peculiarity of my washroom encounter, and other
missionary efforts of its sort.
The Beis Halevi explains that Yaakov, as he awaits the meeting with his brother, faces two
possible scenarios: either Esav will pursue war and try to kill Yaakov, or he will pursue
peace and show brotherly love for him. BOTH frightened Yaakov greatly--the war for obvious
reasons, and the peace because Yaakov's idealism and Torah practice might be compromised
through close contact with a rasha (evil person). Therefore, he prays to Hashem to rescue
him both "from my brother" (a friendly Esav) and "from Esav" (the
hostile). Conflict with Esav represents a physical threat toYaakov and his family; peace
and goodwill can mean a spiritual threat.
Our sages tell us that there is a famous rule to bear in mind as we learn Chumash; it is
repeated clearly by the Ramban (Nachmanidies) at the beginning of this parsha:
"Whatever happens to the fathers [patriarchs and matriarchs] is a sign for the
children [the Jewish people]-- Ma'aseh avos siman l'banim." Everything that happens
to Yaakov in his struggle with Esav will happen to the Jewish people in their relationship
with Esav's descendants. Who are Esav's descendants? Rabbi Elie Munk, zt'l, briefly
discusses the subject in his commentary, The Call of The Torah:
"In Talmudic sources and in Midrashic literature, the names Esav- Edom are often
identified with Rome...Later, when Rome adopted Christianity, the same appelation
was conferred upon the whole of the Christian world. Flavius Josephus [famous Jewish
general and historian] records that Tz'fo, a grandson of Esav, was the founder of Rome,
eventually became the center of Christianity. Since then, it has become traditional to
consider the Christians as representative of Esav's off- spring and the Jews as
descendants of Yaakov. The antagonism between Jacob and Esav is thus symbolic of that
between Rome and Jerusalem...." (I, p. 337)
It would seem, then, that the parsha could be giving us an insight into the Jewish
relationship with Christianity. Yaakov's prayer, "Rescue me from my brother, from
Esav," is a siman, a sign, for us. We must be wary of the "friendliness" of
Esav no less than of his hostility.
The Beis Halevi writes that the early part of this exile was
characterized by murderous decrees and violence, as we recall every year on Yom Kippur
when we recite the story of the 10 Famous Martyrs killed by the Romans; this is Esav in
his posture of open enmity. (It has continued, needless to say, into the 20th century.)
But towards the end of the exile, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains, the offspring of Esav will
begin to relate to us in that other mode of behavior that worries Yaakov--the friendly
Esav, "my brother." They will show a face of love, and try to minimize the
differences between us. They will urge us to give up those beliefs and practices that
isolate us, and separate us from the mainstream.
Basing himself on a Midrash, Rabbi Soloveitchik even
suggests that it is possible that at the end of the exile, Esav "...will also wrap
himself in a tallis, and clothe himself in the garb of emunah (faith), and go and sit next
to Yaakov." This is the Shalom ministry, no? Esav sidling up close to Yaakov,
sometimes even with yarmulke and tzitzis, and speaking in friendly, reassuring tones:
we're not asking you to renounce your religion, just complete it...
As much as we want to get along with our neighbors, we Jews should be proud to be stubborn
and "stiff-necked" when they start to get friendly like this.
We Jews have to treat every human being with respect, as a creature fashioned in the image
of G-d; we must show goodwill to Christians, as to people of ALL classes, colors and
religions. It has always been the way of our tzadikim to act thus...from Avraham on down
to Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, zt'l, and beyond.
But let's not be blind to the danger of the friendly face of Esav. No matter how warm the
smile, or firm the handshake, or beautiful the graphics--it's still Esav, struggling with
Yaakov (from the womb) over the inheritance of this world and the next.
Let's follow the example of Yaakov in dealing with Esav: the three-part strategy. Be
friendly, of course; peace on earth and goodwill towards men. But prepare for
war...by studying Torah. That's the only way to truly protect ourselves, and for our
children to protect themselves. And, above all, let's pray to Hashem with sincerity to
protect the Jewish people physically and spiritually, and to bring this long exile--the
exile named for Esav's descendants--to a speedy close.
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah
Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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