“Long Division” Parashat Vayishlach 5779

Jacob prepares to meet his brother, Esav. As far as Jacob knows, Esav has spent the last twenty-two years seeking vengeance for Jacob’s “misappropriation” of his blessings. Jacob’s intelligence officer tells him that Esav is quickly approaching along with four hundred troops. Fearing for his life, Jacob makes a tactical move [Bereishit 32:8-9]: “He divided the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels into two camps. He said, ‘If Esav comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape.’”

Jacob’s tactics make sense. The fog of war is fraught with uncertainty. The enemy’s strategy is unknown. In the heat of battle, our situational awareness is significantly impaired. Jacob was trying to account for the uncertainty in the upcoming conflict by mitigating risk. Not wanting to put all of his proverbial eggs in one proverbial basket, he divided his family into two groups and sent them in opposite directions[1]. “If Esav comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape.” The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [39b] mentions a similar case of risk mitigation. Queen Jezebel has set out to murder all of the prophets[2] and Obadiah hides one hundred of his fellow prophets in two separate caves, hiding fifty prophets in each cave. “If Jezebel comes to one cave and strikes it down, the remaining cave will escape”. Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in the “Torah Temima”, brings yet another example by pointing us to the Talmud in Tractate Bava Metzia [42a] that teaches that a person should divide his wealth into three parts: He should invest one third of his wealth in agriculture, one third in business ventures, and one third he should keep in the bank. The Talmud is proposing a sound investment strategy that accounts for ups market fluctuations. “If a black swan comes to the stock market and strikes it down, the money invested in precious metals will escape”.

Let’s fast-forward a few verses to Jacob’s meeting with Esav [Bereishit 33:1]: “Jacob lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, Esav was coming, and with him were four hundred men; he divided the children with Leah and with Rachel and with the two maidservants”. Wait a minute – didn’t Jacob already divide everybody into two groups? In the next verse, things get even stranger [Bereishit 33:2]: “[Jacob] placed the maidservants and their children first and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and her Joseph last.” What are they doing standing in a line waiting to meet Esav? What happened to risk mitigation?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests[3] that between the time that Jacob divided his family into two parts and the time he met Esav, he underwent a sea change. He had spent that long night before he met his nemesis-brother locked in battle with an unknown assailant. When dawn breaks and the assailant realizes that he cannot subdue Jacob, he blesses him and changes his name from Jacob to Israel. Jacob’s destiny changes along with his name. He undergoes a metamorphosis: He is no longer “Jacob the Trickster”, constantly changing the rules to get what he needs. He is now the “Israel the Majestic”, demanding his due. Jacob no longer fears Esav. The risk that Jacob had strove to mitigate had disappeared.

Rabbi Sacks’ solution seems to contain a glaring weakness: If the risk had receded, if Jacob was not no longer fears Esav, why does he divide his family for a second time immediately before meeting Esav? The Netziv from Volozhn offers us a way ahead. He notes that the people who are divided the first time are not the same people who are divided the second time. The night before Jacob meets Esav, he divides “the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels”. He does not divide his family. He divides only his possessions – his flocks and his slaves. The Netziv argues that Jacob was never concerned for his family’s welfare because G-d had already expressly promised him that he and his family would return safely to his father’s home [Bereishit 28:15]: “Behold, I am with you[4], and I will guard you wherever you go.” The Netziv concurs with Rabbi Sacks’ hypothesis, mentioning that after Jacob had survived his unknown assailant, there was no more reason for him to be afraid. However, his solution also seems to contain a glaring weakness: if Jacob had nothing to fear, why does he divide his children among his wives immediately before meeting Esav? The Netziv answers that while Jacob did not fear that Esav would kill anyone, he was still concerned that Esav might inflict injury, so he took the precaution of making it difficult for Esav to attack everyone at once.

I would like to propose an answer that adopts (only) the first part of the Netziv’s explanation. Let us assume that the night before Jacob met Esav, he divides all of his property into two camps in order to mitigate his financial risk. Let us further assume that Jacob does not change his strategy, even after he is victorious over his unknown assailant later that evening. That is to say, he is still afraid of Esav. The next morning, immediately before Jacob makes contact with Esav, he divides his children so that they are standing together with their mothers. Rabbi David Kimchi, a medieval commentator, suggests that Jacob does this so that each mother would protect her own children with the ferocity in which a lioness protects her cubs. But perhaps there was another reason. Each of Jacob’s sons served as an archetype of a future Tribe of Israel: Judah represented leadership. Zevulun represented economic power. Yissachar represented the study of Torah. Each son had a mission to perform. Each son added a necessary ingredient into the nascent Jewish People. Jacob’s encounter with Esav is the first time that the Jewish People as a nation encounter a life-threatening situation. The strategy chosen by Jacob serves as an archetype in the way in which the Jewish People must face existential adversity: First and foremost, the family stood as one, showing that whenever the Jewish People encounter an existential threat, they must do so as one united nation. At the same time, Jacob divided his sons according to mother, showing that in order to counter Esav, each Jew must perform his own specialized mission.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch suggests that Jacob’s division of his assets into two camps is also an archetype. He suggests that G-d dispersed the Jewish People to the four corners of the earth in order to guarantee our survival: “At no time and in no place did World Jewry as a whole suffer Esav’s sword. When our blood flowed in the West, our brothers in the East lived in peace, and vice versa.” Rabbi Hirsch quotes the Talmud in Tractate Pesachim [87b]: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, performed a charitable deed for Israel in that He scattered them among the nations”. Rabbi Hirsch seems to have a point: one well-placed Iranian nuke could, Heaven forbid, eradicate half of the World’s Jewry.

I suggest that Rabbi Hirsch’s point was relevant when and where it was penned, in 19th-century Berlin. One hundred and fifty years later, however, things have changed. After two thousand years of wandering in exile, the Jewish People are returning to their homeland. There is no one more acutely aware of this than Esav[5], who is doing his darndest to staunch the flow of Jews back to Israel. Over the course of three days last week, Esav indiscriminately fired nearly 500 rockets and mortars on southern Israel, killing one and injuring more than seventy. Israelis in the south stood strong. We in the north of the country had a different mission: while we were not under fire, we offered food and lodging to those people living in the Gaza envelope who needed a respite from living in bomb shelters (there were no takers). Make no mistake, regardless of unfortunate comments made by certain government ministers, there is no difference between a rocket fired on Sderot, Moreshet, or Tel Aviv. The Jewish People face adversity in the same way we approach our destiny: as one.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] While this is not stated explicitly, it makes a tremendous amount of sense.

[2] See Kings I [18:4].

[3] See http://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5768-vayishlach-jacob-wrestling/

[4] It is unclear why the Netziv understands G-d’s promise as relating to Jacob’s family.

[5] Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik asserts that any nation that attacks the Jewish people because they are Jewish attains the title of “Amalek” – the grandson of Esav.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
Related Topics
Related Posts