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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayishlach, The danger of co-existence


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 fright. The double expression is a hint to two types of dangers, one of fighting with Eisav, and the other of 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 the new found freedom brought about an assimilated Jew.

Jacob's prayer

In the beginning of this week's parasha the Torah relates how Jacob prepared for his encounter with his brother Eisav. He first sent messengers to Eisav, informing him that he was on his way home. When the messengers returned and told Jacob that Eisav was heading towards him with an army of 400 men, Jacob got scared and 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 the Torah uses a double expression of fear and fright to describe how scared Jacob was. Jacob himself also expressed a double request for salvation, and said "please save me from the hand of my brother and the hand of Eisav." The Beis Halevi quotes from the Zohar that from here we learn how articulate and specific we should be when we pray. Had Jacob only said "save me from my brother" it could refer to someone else, as the expression "brother" is sometimes used in regards to other people. For example, Abraham referred to Lot as his brother. On the other hand, 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. However, G'd also knows what we need, even if we do not pray for it. Nevertheless, we must utilize the opportunity to pray to G'd for all our needs. And here the Torah teaches us that we must be as specific and articulate as possible when we pray.

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 answers that there was a deeper purpose in Jacob's double expression. Jacob knew that there were two options when he would meet Eisav; either Eisav would still hate him and would try to kill him, or he 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." He was also scared for the negative influence in case Eisav wanted to co-exist with Jacob and his family. The double expression of fear is a hint to these two dangers. Jacob was scared both of fighting with Eisav and of co-existing with him. This is also the deeper meaning of the double expression in his prayer. On the one hand, he prayed to be saved from the hand of his brother, in case Eisav wanted to co-exist in friendliness and peace. On the other hand, he prayed to be saved from the hand of Eisav, the dangerous and wicked killer.

Prayer fully answered

G'd answered Jacob's prayer in full measure. Initially, Eisav approached Jacob with the intent to kill him and his family. After Jacob made efforts to appease him with lavish presents and humbled himself 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 did not want to be together with Eisav. He therefore responded that it was difficult for him to travel at a fast pace, because of the small children and the flocks he was tending. He therefore 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 from our sages that whatever happened to our Patriarchs is a sign for their offspring (see also Ramban in his introduction to this week's parasha). On this basis he explains that the two types of dangers that frightened Jacob 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, holocaust and intifada. 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, we have experienced many periods of peacefulness and prosperity in our 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 brought about that the Jewish citizens enjoy 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 our spirit continues to soar to even greater heights in repentance and prayer for Divine mercy. However, 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 that many Jews assimilated. Quite a few 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 people. 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 Spaniards responded with 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 reoccurrence of enormous assimilation, a spiritual holocaust of huge dimension. 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 from the Midrash that Eisav suggested to Jacob that they should join together both in this world and in the world to come. Eisav and his descendants would accept G'd as the Master of the universe and take upon themselves certain basic parts of the Jewish faith. On the other hand, Eisav wanted Jacob and his offspring to forsake some of our laws and join the gentiles in their belief. This is a very serious threat that often starts with interfaith meetings, and even more so through shrewd missionary activities. It is this added danger that the Torah hints at in this week's parasha when Eisav suggests that he join Jacob. As the Midrash explains, this is the final difficult step in our long and bitter exile, throughout which we have been persecuted in both body and spirit.

Hope of survival

We only have one hope for 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 and teach them about the beauty of Torah and its lifestyle. In this way, we give them the strength to stand up as proud Jews in every situation. Only if we take action can we hope and pray that G'd will secure and protect us. And just as Jacob's prayer was answered, and G'd saved him from both hands of Eisav, so shall we experience the salvation from the hands of Eisav and live in peace in the land of Israel as our Patriarch Jacob did.

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

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel