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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayishlach, The danger of peace


When Jacob heard that Eisav was heading towards him with an army of 400 men he prayed to G'd. The Beis Halevi notes that there is a double expression of fear and prayer. The double expression is a hint to the two dangers of either fighting with Eisav or co-existing with him. G'd answered Jacob's prayer in full measure. These two types of dangers have been a constant threat throughout our exile. Friendly co-existence is a greater danger for Jewish survival than the approach of Eisav as an enemy. History has repeated itself when new found freedom brought about the assimilated Jew.

Jacob's prayer

In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, it is related how Jacob prepared for his encounter with his brother Eisav. He sent messengers to Eisav informing him that he was on his way home. The messengers returned to Jacob and told him that Eisav was heading towards him with an army of 400 men. When Jacob heard this, he prayed to G'd, as it says: (Bereishis 32:8-12) "And Jacob became very scared and it frightened him … And Jacob said, 'G'd of my father Abraham and G'd of my father Isaac … please save me from the hand of my brother, the hand of Eisav …"

Double expression of fear and prayer

The Beis Halevi notes that there is a double expression of fear and fright, as well as a double expression in Jacob's prayer of salvation from the hand of his brother and the hand of Eisav. He quotes from the Zohar that we learn from here how articulate and specific one should be when one prays. Had Jacob only said "save me from my brother" it could refer to another relative as the expression "brother" is sometimes used to refer to people other than siblings. For example, Abraham referred to Lot as his brother. Had he only mentioned "save me from Eisav" there may have been other people with the same name. The double expression "Eisav, my brother" leaves no doubt as to who he is referring to. Obviously, G'd knew who Jacob was referring to even without this double expression. But nevertheless here we are taught the lesson that our individual prayers should mention the person's name correctly.

Two dangers

However, says the Beis Halevi, this still does not explain why Jacob repeated the words "the hand". His prayer would have been just as specific had Jacob said "please save me from the hand of my brother Eisav." He suggests that there was a deeper purpose in Jacob's double expression in his prayer. Jacob knew that there would be one of two options when he would meet his brother, either he would still hate him and would try to kill him, or Eisav would be appeased and would want to live in harmony together with Jacob. It goes without saying that Jacob did not want to get into a battle with his brother as he said, (ibid 32:12) "For I fear him. He may come and strike me, mother and children." But on the other hand, he was also scared for the other option that Eisav would want to co-exist with Jacob and his family. The double expression of fear is a hint to these two dangers of either fighting with Eisav or co-existing with him. This was also the reason for the double expression in his prayer. On one hand, he prayed to be saved from the hand of his brother, which refers to co-existing in friendliness and peace. On the other hand, he prayed to be saved from the hand of Eisav who was known as a wicked killer.

Prayer fully answered

G'd answered Jacob's prayer in full measure. Initially, as Eisav approached him with his army, his intent was to kill Jacob and his family. After Jacob's efforts to appease his brother with lavish presents and his humble reception by bowing down to his brother, Eisav changed his mind and suggested (ibid 33:12): "Let us travel and go together and I will go along with you." Jacob responded that it was difficult for him to travel at a fast pace because of the small children and the flocks he was tending and suggested that Eisav go ahead of him and his family. Again, Jacob was successful as it says (ibid 33:16) "And Eisav returned on the very same day on his way back to Seir."

Constant threat

The Beis Halevi quotes our sages that whatever happened to our Patriarchs is a sign for their offspring (see Ramban in his introduction to this week's portion). On this basis he explains that these two types of dangers have been a constant threat throughout our exile. More often than not, the gentile population around us has oppressed their Jewish citizens with crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, and holocaust. As we say in the Haggadah on Seder night, "In every generation they rise against us to annihilate us and the Holy One Blessed be He [although we may bleed heavily, nevertheless He] saves us from their hand."

Greater danger

On the other hand, the Jewish people have experienced many periods of peacefulness and prosperity in their various host countries worldwide, such as the Golden Era in Spain prior to the Inquisition. In the post-Holocaust Era, the democratic values of the western world have given the Jewish citizens freedom and opportunity as equals with the rest of the population. The Beis Halevi points out that Jacob first prayed to be saved from the hand of his brother as the friendly co-existence is a greater danger for Jewish survival than the approach of Eisav as an enemy. When Eisav and his descendants attack us the Jewish body may be smitten but the spirit continues to soar to even greater heights in repentance and prayer for Divine mercy. Whereas, the friendliness of the gentile nations is a real danger to the Jewish spirit as assimilation and inter-marriage prevail and becomes a major threat to Jewish continuity. When the army of Napoleon swept over the countries of Europe, deep into Russia, the great Hassidic leader, the Baal Hatanya wrote in a letter: "If Bonaparte will be victorious, there will be affluence and freedom for the Jews as well. But they will split up and their heart will be estranged from their Father in heaven. On the other hand, if our master Alexander [the Tsar] will be victorious, although poverty will be rampant amongst the Jews, they will gather and their heart will be close to their Father in heaven."

History repeats

The emancipation that started with Napoleon ideals of egalitarian freedom and brotherhood prevailed despite Napoleon's downfall. This brought many new opportunities to the Jews of Europe as they were accepted with equal rights into the realms of higher education and society. However, the spiritual price was enormous. The newfound freedom brought about the assimilated Jew. Many abandoned the Jewish faith altogether, intermarrying with the gentile society around them. It is frightening to think about how history repeats itself. Our sages explain that when the Jews in Egypt started to assimilate and live like their Egyptian hosts, G'd saw it necessary to cause the Egyptians to hate them in order to preserve the Jewish nation. As it says in Tehillim (105:23-25) "And Israel came to Egypt and Jacob lived in the land of Chom …He turned around their heart to hate His nation and plot against his servants." The exact same pattern happened to the Jews of Spain. When the Jewish aristocracy copied the lifestyle of their Spanish neighbours, the consequence was the burning hatred of the Inquisition. And this is exactly what happened in Germany. Many years before the Holocaust, the European Rabbis warned that the reform and secularism of Jewish life in Germany would bring about a terrible consequence. As Rabbi Israel Salanter said after the Reform Movement's meeting in Brunschweig, where they decided to officially accept intermarriage: "There will come a day when the authorities will forbid a gentile to marry a Jew." Ninety years later the Nuremberg Laws were instituted. This is what the Prophet Yecheskel (20:32) warned in the name of G'd: "And what is on your mind will never be that you say we will be like the gentiles as the families of the various countries."

Spiritual holocaust

In our days, we see a sad picture of enormous assimilation, a spiritual holocaust of huge dimension. But not only do we experience secularized Jews intermarrying and being lost to the Jewish faith, with their children not being aware of their origin and background. To add insult to injury, thousands upon thousands of Christian missionaries preach and evangelize their beliefs to unaffiliated Jews worldwide. In the past, they had very little success. But lately, we unfortunately experience how they manage to convince and convert countless Jews all over the world. The Beis Halevi quotes a Midrash where Eisav suggests to Jacob that they should join together both in this world and in the world to come. They will accept G'd as the Master of the universe and take upon themselves certain basic parts of the Jewish faith, with the intent that the Jews shall forsake some of their laws and join them in their belief. This is a very serious threat that often starts with interfaith meetings, and even more so through missionary activities. This added danger is hinted at in this week's portion when Eisav suggests that he join Jacob. As the Midrash explains this is the final difficult step in our long and bitter exile, where we have been persecuted in body and spirit.

Hope of survival

We only have one hope of survival. We must follow in the footsteps of Jacob and send Eisav and his ideals far away from the Jewish home and society. We must make sure to educate our children about the beauty of Torah and its teachings and give them the strength to stand up as proud Jews in every situation. Only then can we hope and pray that as the prayer of Jacob was answered in his days, and he was saved from both hands of Eisav, so shall we today experience the salvation from any hand of Eisav and return to Israel as our father Jacob did.

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