The experiences of our ancestors can offer valuable lessons for today. What can we learn from this week’s parsha’s description of the encounter between Jacob and Esau.
Nehama Leibowitz has pointed out that our sages disagreed over whether Jacob was right in addressing Esau as his “lord.”
In Bereishit Rabba, Rav Huna and Rav Yehuda Ben Shimon said that Esau was going on his own way and that Jacob paved the way for Esau and his descendants to lord it over us by referring to himself as Esau’s “servant.” They called to mind the saying from our sages, “one who makes himself a kid will be devoured by the wolves.”
The Ramban went even further. He wrote that Jacob’s appeasement of Esau, the ancestor of the Romans, set the stage for the Hasmonean kings to invite the Romans into Israel, leading to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash – the Temple.
When we celebrate Chanukah next week, we will remember the courage of the Maccabees and their devotion to Torah. Unfortunately, their descendants did not follow in their footsteps.
The Torah was the first legal system to separate religious and secular leadership. Secular leadership is entrusted to the kings, the descendants of David. Religious leadership is the prerogative of the Kohanim – the priests, the descendants of Aaron. The Hasmonaeans were Kohanim. They usurped the role of kings. In assuming both the priesthood and the monarchy they corrupted both.
When Queen Shlomzion Alexandra died in 67 BCE, her oldest son, Hyrcanus II should have inherited the throne. But his younger brother, Aristobulus, with the support of the army deposed him. An all-out civil war ensued, destroying much of Jerusalem. The two brothers submitted their dispute to the Roman general, Pompey, who ruled in favor of Hyrcanus. Hyrcanus invited the Romans to occupy Jerusalem. Pompey entered Har Habayit – the Temple Mount, after a three-month siege in which several thousand people were killed. Judea became a Roman province, paving the way for the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.
The Diaspora that we have endured over the past two thousand years has been called Galut Edom. Rav Huna, Rav Yehuda Ben Shimon and the Ramban have said that the persecution we have suffered at the hands of Edom was a result of Jacob debasing himself to appease Esau, the ancestor of Edom.
Yet some of our greatest scholars expressed a very different point of view. Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai stated that the refusal to reach accommodation with the Romans during the Great Revolt led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. When Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai saw that the fate of Jerusalem was sealed, he tried to save what he could by meeting the Roman general and later Emperor, Vespasian. Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai greeted Vespasian as the Emperor and was successful in saving Yavne and its scholars, ensuring that Torah and the Jewish people would survive the Churban.
Rav Yehuda Hanassi, the compiler and editor of the Mishna, had a close personal relationship with the Roman Emperor, Antoninus. In his correspondence with the Emperor, Rav Yehuda Hanassi referred to himself as the emperor’s “servant.”
While we admire the righteousness of Rabbi Akiva and the courage of Bar Kochva, the revolt of 132 led to the slaughter of tens and thousands of Jews, the execution of Rabbi Akiva and other great sages, and the banning of Jews from Jerusalem. Rav Yehuda Hanassi realized that a different approach was needed. By befriending the Roman Emperor, he enabled Jewish life in the Galilee to flourish and paved the way for the compiling of the Mishna and eventually the Talmud.
Interestingly, the Mishna only mentions Chanukah a few times in passing. Rav Yehuda HaNassi worked hard to build a positive relationship with the Roman authorities. Emphasizing a holiday which commemorates a successful revolt against the leading imperial power of the day would have been a red flag to the Romans, undoing much of his work.
By pursuing positive relations with the Romans, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai, and Rav Yehuda Hanassi made it possible for Torah and the Jewish people to survive for two thousand years without a Beit Mikdash and without a land.
Rav Yonatan in the Medrash wrote that one who has to deal with kings should read the beginning of our Parsha to learn from how Jacob dealt with Esau.
When Menachem Begin was first elected Prime Minister, he was vilified by much of the American press as a Fascist and a warmonger. The leaders of a large segment of the American Jewish community predicted that Begin’s policies would lead to an estrangement between Israel and the American Jewish community. On his first trip to America as Prime Minister, Begin met with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe to seek their advice before his meeting with President Jimmy Carter. All three advised him to read about Jacob’s encounter with Esau before the meeting.
Rashi notes that Jacob prepared for his encounter with prayer, tribute, and planning for war. There are times when dealing with our enemies calls for accommodation and times when it calls for confrontation. Jacob was prepared for both.
With Iran moving ever closer to producing a nuclear weapon and Palestinian terrorism and anti-Semitism in the United States on the rise Prime Minister Designate Benjamin Netanyahu will face many challenges. At the same time, he is being pressed on all sides. The left is warning that the makeup of his government will lead to estrangement between Israel and the American Administration and American Jewry. At the same time his coalition partners are making demands for positions and ideological concessions,
As he prepares to meet the challenges from without and within he will need to be prepared for accommodation when possible and confrontation when necessary
We all have our opinions about when to accommodate and when to confront. But the people of Israel have entrusted Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues with the responsibility for making the difficult decisions that await them. What we can all do is pray.
May G-d grant Benjamin Netanyahu and his partners the wisdom to make the decisions that will lead to a brighter and more secure future for Israel and the Jewish people.