When Jacob left Canaan he was penniless and barely escaped with his life. Now, 20 years later, he is returning very rich and with a large family. And he is more scared than ever.
The reason: Jacob’s brother Esau is coming. He has 400 men, and they seem hell-bent on war. For Jacob, the stakes are far higher than when he fled Canaan: Now, he has wives, children and beginning to build the Jewish nation.
On the face of it, Jacob’s fear in the weekly Torah portion of Vayishlach appears unfounded. He has just been told by G-d that the junior patriarch will spawn a great nation and that the One Above will be with him always. In the parlance of our times, Jacob should have just chilled.
But that’s exactly what Jacob would not do. He was a righteous man, and a righteous man never takes anything for granted — even a promise by G-d.
For the way of the righteous is to always fear.
The one who wrote this was Moses Ben Nachman, known by his Hebrew acronym, Ramban. The Ramban should have been the last to offer this axiom: He grew up in nobility in the early 13th Century. The family had money and Torah scholarship. He was brilliant at everything he touched, and became a physician so he would not have to support himself through Torah.
Unlike some of his predecessors, the Ramban revealed the secrets of Torah. He devoted most of his time to Talmud and Kabbalah. Although chief rabbi of the Spanish province of Catalonia, he kept a low profile until he was nearly 70. At that point, everything changed.
Today, Spain in the 13th Century might be remembered as the golden age of the Jews. But history speaks of pogroms, harsh decrees and relentless pressure by the Catholic Church for the Jews to abandon their faith. The church’s best weapon was those who had converted to Christianity.
One of the converts was Paulus Christians, who rose in gentile society as a baiter of Jews. Christians challenged the Jews to prove their religion was genuine. The apostate caught the ear of King James I of Aragon, who summoned the Ramban to answer.
The Ramban proved himself a devoted student of the patriarch Jacob when faced with his brother Esau. Like Esau, Christians was dangerous because he had studied Judaism and knew how to distort sources and undermine the Ramban’s arguments. Moses Ben Nachman went to the king and said he would debate Christians on one condition — the rabbi must have complete freedom to argue the case of the Jews.
For four days, the rabbi and the apostate faced off in the royal court in Barcelona. Christians rattled a slew of lies against Judaism. The Ramban refuted them all. The rabbi countered with proof that the Jews and their faith were genuine and important for the world. The church clerics in the audience were embarrassed. Their Jew had failed, and they wanted the debate to be cut short.
But King James was convinced, and he honored the Ramban by visiting his synagogue the following Shabbat. The king granted the rabbi an audience and presented him with a lavish present to demonstrate his respect.
It didn’t help. The church claimed victory over the Jews and spread vicious lies against them. The Ramban, with the king’s permission, published the proceedings of the debate, which prompted a trial by the Dominicans, the ruling clerical order. Moses was convicted of “blasphemy” and banished from Catalonia. At age 72, he was homeless.
In his commentary on Vayishlach, the Ramban explains how Jacob could be scared of Esau despite G-d’s assurances. Yes, the commentator writes, Jacob received the divine promise. But could that be sustained if Jacob sinned? It is probable that Jacob believed he had sinned numerous times, albeit inadvertently, but who’s to say that gave him immunity from punishment?
Jacob had more questions: Maybe by the time Esau was galloping toward him, Jacob’s good deeds had expired and they couldn’t protect anyone else besides him? After all, Abraham couldn’t save Sodom. Noah couldn’t save the world from the Great Flood. Perhaps, Esau will manage to kill Jacob’s family and he will have to start all over again?
And that separates the righteous from the rest: Not so much their good deeds but their humility and uncertainty over where they stand on G-d’s barometer. King Solomon knew that he must not acquire more than 18 wives or amass horses and money. His answer, however, is remarkably modern: “I can do this and still stay righteous.” He was wrong.
Today’s arguments would be no less foolish: We can have a Jewish state and not be Jewish. We can claim democracy and not guarantee civil rights. We don’t have to protect our borders and yet we will be safe. We can lie, cheat and steal and there will be no consequences.
But the biggest reason for Jacob’s anxiety was not about Esau’s lethal power. The opposite was the case. The Ramban says Jacob was concerned that he would succumb to Esau’s plea for a partnership. Esau would provide land and protection; Jacob would learn Torah. Perfect.
Jacob was determined to go it alone. His only helper would be G-d. The Ramban says this marked a lesson for succeeding generations. A righteous person might be respectful but never plays ball with evil people. That was the downfall of the Hasmonean kingdom during the Second Temple, when the leadership made a pact with Rome. That lasted 25 years and then Rome turned against its little Jewish friend. Until they were killed off by the Roman quisling Herod, the Hasmoneans — royalty, priests and sages — didn’t even notice that they were on the firing line.
The Ramban ended up making the arduous trek to the Land of Israel. When he arrived in 1267 the Jewish community was in terror, poverty and ignorance. He did not plant flowers in his garden, rather set out to rebuild the Jewish community. He established schools, refurbished synagogues and ritual baths and taught Torah to everybody. He introduced the Zohar, the hidden Kabbalah, to Europe. Indeed, the Land of Israel was where he wrote his commentary on the Torah, standard text today.
Three years after he arrived in Israel, the Ramban died at 75 and was buried in Haifa. Like Jacob, Moses Ben Nachman refused to give up, refused to give in.