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And Ya'akov lifted up his eyes and saw and behold, Eisav was coming with four hundred men... And he prostrated himself on the ground seven times until he came near to his brother. (Bereishis 33:1,3)
Based on a lecture by R. Yerucham Levovitz (mashgiach of the Mir Yeshivah in Poland).
When Ya'akov Avinu returned to Eretz Yisrael after his sojourn with Lavan, he employed several tactics to try and make peace with Eisav. He sent emissaries bearing gifts and messages of peace in an attempt to mollify him. In order to satisfy Eisav's lust for glory and honor, he humbled himself, referring to Eisav as "my master," and himself as "your servant." When Eisav confronted him with a force of 400 soldiers, Ya'akov bowed down to him eight times. His strategy worked, and Eisav did him no harm.
Yet the Sages seem to take a dim view of Ya'akov's conduct in this episode. The Midrash states (Bereishis Rabbah 75:2): "As a muddied spring and a ruined well, [so is] a tzaddik who bows to a wicked man [Mishlei 25:26]." [The interpretation of this verse is as follows:] Just as it is impossible for a flowing spring to be permanently muddied or its source to become blocked, likewise a tzaddik should not bow down before a wicked person.
The Midrash then goes on to cite what the Almighty said to Ya'akov:
Eisav was going his own way, and you sent word to him, saying: "Thus says your servant Ya'akov"!
Further on the Midrash says:
At the moment that Ya'akov called Eisav "my master," the Almighty said to him, "You humbled yourself and called Eisav 'my master' eight times. [I give you my word that] I will establish eight kings from his offspring who will rule before your sons, as it says: 'And these are the kings who ruled in the land of Edom before any king ruled the Children of Israel [Bereishis 36:31].'"
What harsh censure! What a bitter and terrible punishment! The entire course of Jewish history (and by extension, that of the rest of the world as well) was altered by the strength Edom gained during the rule of those eight kings. If the Israelites would have been worthy to develop their own strength earlier, our people might have escaped untold suffering. Moreover, such severe censure is in vivid contrast to other statements made by Chazal, which present this episode as a paradigm for conducting relations with the Nations. Indeed, the Sages employed the lessons of this parashah as a guide in our dealings with the various manifestations of Edom - Rome and the subsequent European powers - which have dominated world history for most of our past.
R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi once told R. A'fes, "Write a letter in my name to my master the Emperor Antoninus." He wrote in the letter: "From Yehudah the Prince to my master the Emperor Antoninus." Upon reading this, R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi ripped it up and said to R. A'fes, "Write this: 'From your servant Yehudah to my master the Emperor Antoninus.'" Startled, R. A'fes asked him, "Rabi, why are you degrading your honor?" He replied, "Am I better than my grandfather? Didn't he call himself 'your servant Ya'akov'?" (Bereishis Rabbah 75:6)
R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi understood that adopting a humble stance is proper protocol when dealing with heads of state, dignitaries, etc. - and he derived his approach through studying Ya'akov's encounter with Eisav. This whole parashah has been labeled parashas ha-galus (the parashah of exile). As the Ramban writes (see the beginning of parashas Vayishlach): The whole section [that describes Ya'akov's meeting with Eisav] is an allusion to future history, from which we learn that everything which happened to the patriarch will be repeated in our contacts with Eisav's descendants (the nations of Europe). Therefore, it is proper for us to follow the path of that holy tzaddik and prepare ourselves with the three strategies he employed: Offering prayer, giving gifts, and then taking action through either fighting or fleeing. It is evident that Chazal considered this episode of Ya'akov's life an important lesson for the generations that would live in exile, and they taught that we should always act in accordance with this chapter of our history.
The disparity between these two outlooks on Ya'akov Avinu's behavior is quite perplexing. How can he be criticized if he acted correctly?!
In order to resolve this contradiction, we must say that Ya'akov's behavior was indeed the proper response for the situation. Flattering a wicked person who has the power to harm you is a sound strategy. However, drawing attention to oneself unnecessarily together with excessive pandering is forbidden! This was the complaint of the Midrash: "You invited Eisav's attention and then groveled before him!" You muddied the waters of the spring and made the wicked person the head. It is important to realize that Edom's domination is not a punishment, but rather a natural consequence of our actions. By unnecessarily subjugating ourselves to the wicked person, we make him our master. The Ramban (commentary on Bereishis 32:4) writes:
In my opinion, this is also a hint that we precipitated our own downfall at the hands of Edom when the kings of the Second Temple period made treaties with the Romans and sent delegations to Rome. This was the cause of our eventual downfall at their hands.
This is a frightening lesson: perhaps the current exile - Galus Edom - was caused by "the tzaddik (the Jewish nation) lowering himself to a rasha!" Can there be a clearer picture? The "punishment" is merely the natural order of things: lower yourself to another, and you've made him the head.
When we look at Avraham Avinu's entreaty to the Hittites (to sell him the cave of Machpelah) and all of the diplomatic and ingratiating protocol that was necessary on his part, we never once find him calling them "my masters." In fact, it was they who paid obeisance to him, calling him "a divine prince in our midst." Fortunate is he who does not demean himself before the wicked; he is the triumphant one! Yet we act in the exact opposite manner, and almost instinctively regard the nations of the world as our masters - when in reality it is we who have made ourselves their slaves.
The Alter of Novardok in Madreigos Ha-Adam recounts a very pertinent incident which relates to the above-mentioned point: The Jewish community of Hamburg needed a new Rav. The selection committee searched long and hard, and finally found a relatively young talmid chacham who was suitable for the position. The day he arrived to take up his appointment, a woman approached him and urgently requested that he adjudicate a din Torah between her and a certain wealthy businessman who was one of the more prominent residents of the city. Exhausted from his long journey and occupied with getting settled in his new home, the young Rav asked if the case could be put off for a day or two until he rested up. However, the woman was adamant , and gave several reasons why it was impossible to put things off.
"Very well," sighed the young Rav. He called in the shamash and told him, "Please inform so-and-so that he has been summoned to appear before the Rav for a din Torah with this woman." Upon hearing that he had to confront the wealthy, powerful man with such a demand, the shamash became rooted to the spot in fear. He thought to himself anxiously, "How can I have the audacity to deliver this message to such a prominent and honored individual, summoning him immediately to a din Torah with no forewarning whatsoever?" However, the Rav was persistent in his demand, and the shamash reluctantly departed on his mission, trembling and weak-kneed.
When he arrived at the man's house, he was so overcome with fright that he couldn't bring himself to knock on the door. He paced back and forth in front of the house, hoping that the owner would come out on his own. Heaven pitied him, and that is exactly what happened. The master of the house stepped out of his door, saw the shamash standing in the yard, and asked him to explain his presence there. After much hemming and hawing, the shamash managed to stutter out the Rav's message. The rich man's reaction was not long in coming: "You can tell the Rav that I'll come when I get a chance!"
The shamash returned to the Rav and informed him of the man's response to the summons. The Rav asked the woman once again if she would agree to postpone the proceedings, but she would not consent to this. He then instructed the shamash, "Go tell him that the woman does not consent to a delay, and therefore I demand that he present himself immediately."
When the shamash heard that he had to confront the rich man a second time, he lost his composure completely. He knew very well that the rich and powerful simply don't stand for such demands - and this was true especially in this case, where a respected member of the community is degraded by being summoned to a din Torah like some commoner in the street! However, left with no alternative, the unfortunate shamash returned to the mansion. Just like the first time, he was at a loss for words, until the master of the house impatiently asked him, "Well, what did the Rav say?" The shamash replied in a subdued mumble, "The woman does not consent to a postponement, and your honor is bidden to appear at the Rav's house without delay." The wealthy man was filled with rage at the Rav, and he arrogantly told the shamash, "Go tell that young whippersnapper that I'm one of the wealthiest men in Hamburg and he's still a guest who doesn't know how things work around here. I am a man of my word, and if I say that I will come when I'm able to, I mean it!"
The shamash went back to the Rav and reported the rich man's reply. Now it was the Rav's turn to be angry. He rose to his full height and told the shamash, "Go straight back and inform him that he could be the richest man in the world for all I care! I have ordered him to come today, and he is obligated to come today. I may not have any police under my command to bring him by force, but I still have other methods at my disposal. Tell him that if he refuses my summons one more time, I will proclaim a cheirem (communal ban) against him!" The shamash shuddered with dread upon hearing these harsh words, and he pleaded with the Rav to send someone else. The Rav, however, was in no mood for nonsense, and he insisted that his assistant should go himself - and quickly!
The shamash saw that he had no choice in the matter. Fortifying himself with what little courage he had left, he set out for the magnate's house for the third time. With great difficulty, the rich man managed to extract the Rav's message from the hapless attendant, whose head was lowered in embarrassment and fright. His task complete, the pitiful shamash fled from the rich man's house even before receiving an answer.
Shortly after the shamash returned, the rich man appeared at the Rav's house. He extended his hand to the Rav and joyfully exclaimed, "Mazal tov, mazal tov! You are truly worthy to be the Rav of our city. Please allow me to explain what's been going on. In truth, I am not a defendant and the woman is not a plaintiff. It was all a test. You see, the communal leaders were quite concerned about hiring such a young Rav. They were afraid that you might not be able to stand up to the wealthy and tough businessmen we have here. Therefore, I proposed that we test your mettle by presenting you with a difficult situation on your very first day here - a mock din Torah. Now we see that the Rav isn't shaken in the face of any difficulties or unpleasantness, and that you perform your duties courageously, as the Torah dictates - and therefore you are truly worthy of being our Rav!"
[Author's note: This story illustrates a very important point: An Orthodox Jew - and especially a ben Torah - must not lower himself in the face of anyone or anything. He must be aware of his special status and retain his dignity under all circumstances. There are many times when a Torah student finds himself outside the walls of the yeshivah: either temporarily, during a visit home, or permanently, after he gets married and must shoulder the responsibility of providing for his family. In the world at large he encounters attitudes and opinions which contrast markedly with a Torah perspective. Unfortunately, he is likely to find that many people (especially his fellow Jews) have a low opinion of the Torah-observant Jew.
His contacts with these people must be handled with diplomacy and tact. Sadly, a large number of our fellow Jews were not privileged to receive a proper Torah education. As a result, they never acquired a proper appreciation for the heart of the Jewish nation - the holy Torah. On the one hand, one must not derisively dismiss them. Equally important, however, one must not demean himself and timidly accept abuse from others. It is vital that we always remember who we are. To be dazzled by the sophistication of the so-called worldly people around us and to debase ourselves in their eyes is not only a degradation of our own honor, it is an abasement of the Torah as well.
Along similar lines, HaGaon Harav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, shlita, has often pointed out that although Jewish law permits a talmid chacham to forgo his honor, in our times it is wrong for one to do so. A distinguished Torah scholar, upon entering a shul, should be seated in front of the mizrach (against the eastern wall, where communal notables are traditionally seated), and it is prohibited for him to decline this honor. We must demonstrate what is truly important, and let our fellow Jews see the eminence of the Torah and those who study it. Yes, we must be diplomatic, but we are forbidden to degrade ourselves. Only if we retain our dignity will others learn to honor the Torah properly.]
Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!
© Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Yeshiva Shaare Chaim.
Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop ? Lakewood).
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