After twenty years of exile from his land and from his family, Jacob is finally returning to his home. He left like a fugitive, running away from his brother Esau, who was intent on murdering him for usurping the firstborn’s blessing. Now, he comes back to his family a wealthy man, with four wives and twelve children, servants, and many flocks of animals. But his homecoming will not be easy. His scouts report that his brother is traveling north from the land of Se’ir, accompanied by a “welcoming party” of 400 men.
Understandably, Jacob is afraid. He plans for the worst. Aside from preparing a lavish gift for Esau, as well as offering a heartfelt prayer to God for safety, he performs a third action. “…He divided the people that was with him, and the flocks, and the herds, and the camels, into two camps. He said, ‘If Esau comes to the one camp, and destroys it, then the camp which remains shall escape’ ” (Genesis 32:8-9). Jacob recognized that while it might feel better to be optimistic, the hour demanded realism instead. There was a real possibility that Esau was not coming in peace, but rather in order to exact retribution on him. In order to ensure the survival of at least half of his family, he divided them into two camps. In the end, thankfully, Esau was, indeed, coming in peace, the two brothers reconciled, and Jacob’s battle preparations were in vain.
Jacob’s actions serve as an important lesson for future generations of Jews, his descendants. The Jewish people have not been strangers to numerous persecutions, massacres, and exiles. While Jews have been expelled from many countries in which they have lived, they have also been welcomed to resettle, if even for a short while, in many countries, as well. As Ramban (R’ Moshe ben Nachman [Nachmanides], 1194-1270, Girona, Spain; Acre, Land of Israel) comments on Jacob dividing his camp, “…the children of Esau [i.e. the nations of the world] do not issue decrees against us in order to completely destroy us. Rather, they trouble a portion of us in only some of their lands. One king decrees against our wealth or against our lives, but another king takes pity on us and rescues the rest.” Indeed, Ramban’s assertion has been borne out a number of times in Jewish history:
- 1290 – Jews expelled from England, taken in by France, Holland, and Poland.
- 1492 – Jews expelled from Spain, taken in by Portugal (until the Inquisition arrived in 1536), and the Ottoman Empire (including Greece and Turkey)
- 1948 – Jews expelled from many Arab countries, taken in by Israel et al.
With the possible exception of the Purim story, the only time when all Jews, wherever they resided, were targeted for destruction, was during the Holocaust. Fortunately, the Holocaust was the exception, not the rule. In general, however, there has always been a group of Jewish survivors, a “camp which remains,” sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, which has been ready to maintain Jewish continuity.
We would be wise to take Jacob’s lesson to heart. If Jewish history has taught us anything, it is that the Jew can never feel he is totally secure. Many of the nations who initially welcomed the Jews to become a part of their countries eventually grew tired of their Jews, and sent them on their way to a new land. Jacob’s actions prior to meeting his brother remind us that no matter how many tribulations we may be forced to endure, we must ensure that there will always be a “camp which remains.” With the establishment of the State of Israel, one hopes that the cycle of expulsion and resettlement, expulsion and resettlement, has finally come to an end. May God bless the descendants of Jacob that they no longer need to prepare for more wars, that they need not offer gifts out of fear, but out of love, and that they need not offer prayers to Him for safety from their enemies, but rather only out of thanks for all the good He has bestowed upon them.
(Based on ב. יאושזון, מאוצרנו הישן – בראשית, p. 174)