This week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, opens with our forefather Yaakov's
preparations to engage his evil brother Esav. After he received the report
that Esav was coming to confront him with an army of 400 men, Yaakov took
three steps: he divided his camp in half, prayed, and sent gifts to pacify
Esav; in effect: prepared for war, related to G-d, and tried to preempt the
war by creating an atmosphere of peace. According to Rashi (referring to
Beraishis/Genesis 32:11) he utilized prayer as it was to be used: as an
opportunity to reflect upon one's acts and deeds and contemplate his
relationship with the Master of the Universe. It was not simply a chance to
implore G-d for what he needs. Our forefather Yaakov was not the proverbial
"atheist in the foxhole."
Why is the Jewish tradition one of forging a relationship with G-d in times
of crisis? Why do we reflect on our service of our Creator in times of need?
The Jewish people are known as B'nai Yisrael, Yisrael being our forefather
Yaakov. The western world is often identified as a remnant, a continuum of
the Roman Empire, the grandfather of which was Yaakov's, brother Esav. Two
weeks ago, in the portion of Toldos, we read about the blessings given to
these brothers. After Yaakov took the primary blessing, Esav begged his
father for a blessing, but Yitzchak (Isaac) told him there were none
available. Further cajoled, Isaac formulated a blessing that seems to be the
mirror of Yaakov's. What are the differences between the blessings? Even
stranger, after that whole episode, before Yaakov's departure, he got an
additional blessing. Why couldn't this blessing have gone to Esav?
There are two main differences. First, both received a blessing for
prosperity - but they are reversed: Yaakov was blessed with the "dew of the
heavens and the fatness of the earth (27,28)," while Esav will get "fatness
of the earth...and of the dew of the heavens from above (27,39)."
Additionally, Yaakov was told he will be "a lord to your brothers (27,29),"
contrasting Esav who was told he will be subservient but "when you will be
aggrieved, you may remove his yoke from upon your neck (27,40)." Why was the
reversal necessary on the blessing for prosperity? And when will Esav throw
off his albatross named Yaakov?
Kli Yakar (R' Shlomo Ephraim Lunshitz; Lemburg and Prague; 1550-1619; one of
the leading Polish Rabbis of his era) explained the reversal: Yaakov's
blessing started with the dew from the heaven because he was a man of faith
in G-d and G-d's providence as provider of sustenance in the world; Esav's
blessing focused on the fat of the land because Esav focused his faith on
himself, not G-d; on his ability to bring forth the fat of the land,
ignoring G-d's role. When can Esav overpower Yaakov? Malbim (Rabbi Meir
Leibush ben Yechiel Michel; Germany, Romania and Russia; 1809-1879;
preeminent Bible commentator of modern times) explained there is a
contingency: if Yaakov is involved in Torah study and the service of G-d,
then Esav will subservient, but if Yaakov is lax in service of G-d then Esav
will be the rod and the strap to smite and afflict him.
Esav's blessing also emphasized that Esav will live by the sword. Ha'amek
Davar (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin; Rosh Yeshiva/dean of the Yeshiva in
Volozhin, Russia; 1817-1893) explained the sword is not merely a source of
livelihood. Rather, Esav's entire meaning in life, his entire essence is
drawn from the sword. The essence of Yaakov, as noted above, is drawn from
faith in G-d, service of G-d and Torah study. With these assets, Yaakov,
and we, his children, are the dominant force; without them, we are where we
have been for the last 2000 years, in exile, looking over our shoulders.
Furthermore, Yaakov's later blessing (28,3-4) was not on the table for Esav
to take. Whereas the first blessings were for abundance in the physical
realm, the later blessing was for greatness in the spiritual. Yitzchak not
only conferred G-d's promise of a multitudinous nation in the land of
Israel, but also extended the "Blessing of Avraham." Rashi elaborated this
blessing of Avraham has the components of becoming a great nation, first
promised when G-d told Avraham to travel to the land of Canaan (12,2), and
the nations blessing themselves by his offspring, promised after the binding
of Isaac (22,18) and reiterated to Isaac himself soon after he married
(26,4). But this blessing, too, was qualified (26,5 and Rashi ibid.). The
blessing was given to Avraham because of his commitment to the word of G-d
and the way of the Torah. The Torah reiterated that a lack of commitment in
these areas will spawn a Jewish nation devoid of blessing.
Yaakov was fully aware that his preparations for peace and war were
necessary action steps, but his ultimate success was grounded in his
relationship with G-d. Thus, Yaakov in his confrontation with Esav,
revisited this bond, as Rashi (32:11) noted, concerned for the strength of
his merits and the sully of his sins.
The Jewish World today finds itself challenged by the forces of evil
generated by another of Avraham's progeny. Regardless of where you stand in
your own observance, there are mitzvos to perform and Torah learning
opportunities to take advantage of. The people of the book cannot allow
itself to become the people of the checkbook. Yes, tzedaka is an essential
mitzvah, but it does not fully discharge our obligation. Chessed, reaching
out, doing for others is also important, but that is not all. Judaism is and
always has been an issue of maintaining G-d consciousness, through Torah
study, through mitzvos, through prayer.
The story is told of a man leaving the Synagogue one day, and as always the
Rabbi was standing at the door shaking hands as the congregation departed.
He grabbed the man by the hand and pulled him aside. The Rabbi said to him,
"You need to join the Army of G-d!" The man replied, "I'm already in the
Army of G-d, Rabbi." The Rabbi questioned, "How come I don't see you, except
for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?" He whispered back, "I'm in the secret
G-d wants us in the PUBLIC service. We have to join His army, His Campaign
Enduring Freedom. Our success depends on it.