Parshat Vayishlach: Prostrating Leadership

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07 Dec 2006

BS”D Vayishlach 5767

Several questions:

1- Two episodes dominate our parsha: Yaakov’s dramatic reunion with his brother Eisav and the destruction of Shechem, at the hands of Shimon and Levi.

Are these apparently unrelated episodes, just two more in the stormy life of Ya’akov, or do they have a causal relationship?

2- In last week’s parsha (Vayetzei 29:12) Ya’akov fallaciously introduces himself to Rachel as “her father’s brother”, when in fact he is her father’s nephew. Rashi explains that Ya’akov was informing Rachel that he is “equal to her father in his ability to deceive”, implying that since he was aware of Lavan’s reputation as a deceiver, her father’s duplicity would be ineffective. Nevertheless, Lavan deceives Ya’akov 100 times (midrash Berayshiet 73). On the background of the saying, “If you deceive me once – shame on you; if you deceive me twice – shame on me”, how does Ya’akov permit himself to be repeatedly duped?

I suggest:

Ya’akov Avinu returns home triumphantly, as Chazal say “spiritually, physically and materially whole.” But a dark cloud hovers as he learns that waiting to greet him in Eretz Yisrael is his brother, Eisav, accompanied by 400 “armed to the teeth” cohorts.

Ya’akov prepares for the fateful meeting, not only of two alienated brothers, but of the collision of two ways of life, both of which will influence humanity until the end of time.

Ya’akov is gripped with fear. He devises a three-pronged strategy: to appease Eisav with gifts, to pray, and to prepare for battle. And just to make sure, if these should fail, Ya’akov divides his loved ones and material possessions into two camps, so that in the event Eisav destroys one, the other will have an opportunity to survive.

Ya’akov is desperate. On this day, his destiny, and that of the Jewish nation hangs in the balance, and tomorrow it will be resolved in the life and death struggle between him and his brother.

In view of Yaakov’s pessimism, we cannot escape the seemingly unexplainable change of heart on the part of Yaakov. At the height of the drama, just before Ya’akov is about to meet his brother, he unites the two camps into one. The Torah even relates by name the order in which the family stood at the approach of Eisav: Bilhah and Zilpah with their children first, Leah and her children second, and Yosef and Rachel last.

How did his fear dissipate?

The answer is in the strange episode which separates the opening pesukim describing Ya’akov’s fears and preparations and the meeting with Eisav – the all-night wrestling match between Ya’akov and the angel.

The mystery lies not only with a man physically fighting an angel and winning, but the pesukim are contradictory. In chapter 32:25, the Torah says: “And Ya’akov remained alone – and a man began wrestling with him until daylight”. Now, if Ya’akov was “alone”, how did he wrestle with a man?

I believe that Ya’akov was indeed alone; the only man who was present was Ya’akov himself. It was he who was wrestling and struggling with himself – with a desperate spiritual dilemma: “God promised that He would bring me home safely, so why am I terrified at the very thought of meeting my brother? What can Eisav do to me or to my family in light of God’s promise? But the fact is, my heart is filled with terror. Does this mean that I do not believe in God’s promise? Who am I? Am I a believing Jew who does not relate to the “reality” of life, but to the reality that God is the master of all things; or am I so superficial that I am unable to overcome the tests that God puts in my path?”

All night, Ya’akov struggles with his spirituality, of which Eisav is also a part, for they are twins not only in body, but also in soul. Ya’akov agonizes with the greatest struggle that has ever crossed his path: “Is there still a part of Eisav within me, or did I succeed in exorcising it?” Ya’akov agonizes in this struggle during the night of his life, when the truth is imperceptible.

But at the first rays of morning light, the light of clarity, Ya’akov resolves his perplexing spiritual dilemma, declaring, “I am a totally believing Jew. No more compromise. No gifts for Eisav. No more division into two camps. Rather reliance on the promise that God has chosen me and my descendants for all time.” (we will deal with why Ya’akov ended the night with a crippled right foot another time, be”h).

Ya’akov returns to his family and merges the two camps into one, fully confident in his inner strength, which he now projects to the family, and all are prepared to face the antagonist of all that is holy to Am Yisrael.

Standing tall, confident in God’s promise, they now see Eisav running towards Ya’akov. However, at the dramatic crescendo of that moment Ya’akov falls to the ground, prostrating himself not just once, but as the pasuk (33:3) relates, seven times with his face in the mud! But not only does Ya’akov bow before Eisav, he imposes this act of capitulation upon his family as well.

The promise inherent in the name “Yisrael – you have fought with an angel and with men, and have won” – reverts back to Yaakov, the brother who hangs on to the heel of Eisav, the heel which is destined to trample Ya’akov and his children.

But this was to exact a far reaching response from two of his sons.

When arriving at Shechem, Yaakov’s daughter Dina, was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by one of its leading citizens. Upon learning of this, Dina’s brothers, Shimon and Levi, when seeing that their father was not planning to punish the perpetrator, stormed the city and killed all its inhabitants.

The brothers’ conduct was a reaction to Yaakov’s endless submission to Lavan’s deceptions and to the threat from Eisav; for this is the way of Ya’akov in the galut, where the maximum hope of a Jew is to “survive”. Whether it was the hosts in those lands, who, like Lavan, coveted our possessions, or before the murderous Eisavs, Am Yisrael had no choice but to stoop in silence and wait for Hashem’s compassion.

But the family was now in Eretz Yisrael. Shimon and Levi believed that here we stand with pride as Jews. The city of Shechem, Chevron, or Azza cannot violate our honor without appropriate retribution.

You and I, the descendants of Ya’akov, have lived through the dark night of our galut, when our status as God’s chosen people has been put to the test so many times. At the new dawn of our history, God has returned us to Eretz Yisrael, from where we can be healed from the wounds inflicted upon us by the Eisavs of the generations. We have built one of the strongest and smartest armies in the world, whose weaponry and daring far exceed anything the world knows. We are nearly six million Jews who live, grow and develop in the midst of hundreds of millions of sworn suicidal enemies who are unable to uproot us. This is “hat’chal’ta de’ge’ula” (the beginnings of the redemption), when miracles happen on a daily basis; but still, our leaders prostrate themselves, cowering in fear of what the “world” will say.

Ya’akov was blessed with the name Yisrael. The “Yaakovs” of the world will always find rationalizations for bowing down, for compromise, for retreating. The true “Bnei Yisrael” (of whom there are unfortunately not many) do not include these words in their lexicon; it is they who know what must be done at this time.

A true Torah leader would begin with a declaration that we are God’s “Chosen People”, who have been returned by God to the Holy Land and whoever disagrees is in violation of the Bible.

That same day, the area of Eretz Yisrael that was liberated in the Six Day War, would be declared as part of Medinat Yisrael. All residents of the land would be required to sign a declaration recognizing the Jewish nation as sole sovereign over the land, with failure to do so leading to immediate expulsion.

This is just the beginning of what would be done if we had a leadership with Yir’at Shamayim. But, alas, Jewish leadership the world over prefers the status of Ya’akov; for to be Yisrael requires sacrifice, fortitude, and great emunah (faith).

Shabbat Shalom, Nachman Kahana

Rabbi Kahana is the rabbi of the Young Israel of the Old City in Jerusalem, Israel.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.