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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayishalch, (Enemy) salutations and (other) solutions


Jacob prepared himself in three ways for his encounter with Eisav. This provides guidance in dealings with the descendants of Eisav. Rabbi Yannai barely escaped the murder. Every detail told to us by the Torah has an important message for generations to come. Jacob appeased Eisav by using salutations. Jacob split the bribe into groups. Rabbi Soloveitchik used a bribe to melt away the animosity of a Russian minister. There is no problem that does not have its solution in the Torah.

Encounter with Eisav

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob is on the way back from Charan with his family. He decides to send some messengers to appease his brother Eisav. The messengers return and tell Jacob that he is going to be met by Eisav with an army of four hundred soldiers. Obviously, Jacob was worried and prepared himself for his encounter with his brother. Our sages point out that Jacob prepared himself in three ways: 1) he sent presents to Eisav to bribe and appease him; (2) he prepared for war in case Eisav would nevertheless attack; and (3) he prayed to G’d with the conviction that ultimately everything is in the hands of G’d.

Encounters with Eisav’s descendants

In his introduction to this Torah portion, the Ramban explains that the events that took place between Jacob, our forefather, when he met his brother, Eisav, offer guidance to help us deal with future encounters with the descendants of Eisav. It is proper for us to follow in our forefathers footsteps to prepare ourselves with prayer to G’d, with presents to bribe the enemy, and escape plans if necessary in case of war.

Bribing the Romans

The Ramban quotes the Midrash Rabba (78:15) telling us that whenever our sages would travel to Rome, they would first sit down to study Parashas Vayishlach before meeting with the descendants of Eisav. Once Rabbi Yannai traveled to Rome without having reviewed this Torah portion. After the rabbi had finished his mission and was about to leave the city, the Romans offered him an escort of soldiers to accompany him home. He accepted their offer. On the way, the soldiers turned against him and tried to kill him. He barely escaped the murders’ hands by selling his horse and all his belongings and used the money to bribe them to free himself.

Jacob refuses escort

Had Rabbi Yannai studied this Parasha he would have noticed that after Jacob refused to travel together with his brother, Eisav then offered an escort to Jacob. As it says, (Bereishis 33:15) “Let me assign some of the people that are with me”. But Jacob refused. We see that every detail told to us by the Torah has an important message for generations to come.

Correct salutations

Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi once had to send a letter to the Emperor Antoninus. At first, he instructed Rabbi Afes to start the letter addressed to “his majesty the Emperor Antoninus” from “Yehudah the Count”. Later, he told him to tear up the letter and address it to “his majesty the Emperor” from “your servant Yehudah.” Rabbi Afes questioned why Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi appeared to be putting himself to shame. The Rabbi answered that he was no better than his forefather Jacob who said (Bereishis 32:5) “to my master Eisav” from “your servant Jacob” (Yalkut Shimoni 32). Jacob appeased his brother by using these forms of salutations.

Seeking guidance

Throughout the generations, whenever the rabbinic leaders of the Jewish people had to deal with issues from various officials who were trying to interfere with Jewish practice and education, they looked for guidance in this Torah portion and sought counsel from our forefather Jacob on how to deal with these difficult situations. They were often dealing with corrupt officials and their only means of solving the problem would be through bribery.

Many smaller bribes

Once there was a meeting to discuss how to present a certain corrupt official with a large sum of money. It was decided to present the bribe in smaller amounts rather than one large amount. This we learn from Jacob who did not send the whole present to Eisav at once, but rather split it up into groups, one proceeding after another. When Jacob sent the messengers to greet Eisav, he instructed them to present gifts of each flock of animals separately. He said to his servants, (Bereishis 32:17) “Go ahead in front of me and leave space between one flock and another”. Rashi points out that in this way the present or gift would appear larger and more impressive than if the gifts came all at the same time.

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk

Once the Jewish community in Russia had a serious problem with an education minister who was interfering with the curriculum at the Jewish schools. It was well known that this particular minister would not accept any bribes. Anyone who tried to bribe him would be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The Jewish leaders were at a quandary of what to do. They knew it would serve no purpose to try to reason with the minister as he was not kindly disposed towards the Jewish people. The illustrious Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk told them not to worry. He instructed them to collect money and give it to him and he would take care of the rest. The communal leaders were aghast. They said that they were not prepared to involve the Rabbi and risk him going to jail. They suggested that it would be better to send a lay person in his place. The Rabbi smiled and assured them that he would not risk having himself thrown into jail. The Rabbi said that with G’d’s help he would find a way to persuade the minister. The leaders were not convinced. They told the Rabbi that they had investigated every means to persuade the minister and he was too hard and devoted to his principles for anyone to affect him. They did not believe that there was any way for the Rabbi to succeed. The Rabbi assured them that with G’d’s assistance he would say the right words and succeed.

With no other option, the leaders reluctantly handed over the large bundle of money to the Rabbi. Despite that it was a hot summer day, the Rabbi put on his fur coat and went to the office of the minister and requested a meeting. When the minister heard that the venerable Rabbi was requesting an audience, he sent a message that there was no way that he was willing to change his mind. He hinted that the Rabbi should not try any of the old tactics. When Rabbi Soloveitchik entered the office the minister was surprised to see him in a fur coat, sweating profusely. “What’s going on”, asked the minister. “Are you sick?” “Oh, no”, said the Rabbi. “I am as hot as Your Honour. As a matter of fact I am even hotter than Your Honour because I am wearing heavy winter clothing and you are wearing light summer clothes.” The minister questioned why the Rabbi was wearing a heavy winter coat on a hot summer’s day. “Let me explain to Your Honour”, said the Rabbi. “Last night I had a dream that today there is going to be a huge snowstorm and that it soon will be freezing cold. When I woke up the dream was so vivid in my memory that I could still hear the shrieks of the storm. I could still see the heavy snowfall and I was shivering from the cold. So as this dream is still very real in my memory, I want to be prepared for the worst.” The minister started laughing and said mockingly, “does the Rabbi, who is known to be such a great scholar, really believe such an unrealistic dream? Look up at the sky. There are no clouds in sight. In no way will there be such a thing as a snowstorm in the middle of the summer. This is a ridiculous dream, totally unrealistic. Why are you, Rabbi, conducting yourself as if it were real?” The Rabbi got up and said, “Is the honourable minister so sure that this dream will not turn into reality, and there’s no reason to worry about it and to wear a fur coat?” “For sure”, said the minister. “Is Your Honour willing to make a bet on this?”, asked the Rabbi who suggested that they bet the amount of money that he had in his pocket. “I’m so sure of my dream”, said the Rabbi, “that I will not hesitate to bet this amount.” ”I’m more than ready”, said the minister. “If there is going to be a snowstorm I will pay. But if not, I will demand full payment from you without any excuses.” They agreed to meet the next day at which time the loser of the bet would pay the other.

The minister was very surprised at the Rabbi’s certainty. The Rabbi was famous for his wisdom and cleverness. How could he be so foolish to make this silly bet that he could not possibly win? On the other hand, maybe the dream was true? Maybe something unbelievable would happen? With an uneasy feeling the minister waited anxiously for the day to end. The sun continued to burn hot that day. As the sun was going down, the minister smiled to himself at the ridiculous behaviour of the Rabbi in losing the bet. The minister was resolved not to accept any excuses for the Rabbi not to pay. He would even send the police after him if he did not show up, or refused to pay.

The next day at the appointed time, Rabbi Soloveitchik presented himself at the minister’s office in his regular summer clothes. The Rabbi entered the minister’s office with a long face and said, “My dream cheated me and the honourable minister has indeed won our bet.” A victorious smile swept over the minister’s face. He expected the Rabbi to make some excuse not to pay the bet. To his great surprise, the Rabbi put his hand in his pocket, pulled out the huge some of money, counted it out loud and handed it to the minister.

As Rabbi Soloveitchik came out of the minister’s office, the leaders of the community were eagerly awaiting his report. After the Rabbi told them the events, the leaders were not impressed. The Rabbi said to them, “Don’t worry, he has accepted the money.” So strong was the belief of this great scholar, that in the same way as the gifts sent by Jacob to Eisav melted his heart and appeased him enough to leave Jacob and his family alone, the Rabbi managed to present to the minister, a descendant of Eisav, a bribe that would melt away his animosity and make him change what he had instigated against the education of Jewish children in Russia.

The Torah solution

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman used to say from the Holy Chofetz Chaim, there is no problem that does not have its solution in the Torah. But it takes a real Torah scholar to find the source in the Torah where the solution is mentioned.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel