In Parsha Vayishlach, Jacob leaves the house of his uncle Laban and journeys back to his home in Canaan (what we call Palestine/Israel in case anyone was questioning the Jewish historical claim to the land), knowing full well that he will encounter his brother, Esav. In the 22+ years that Jacob has been gone, Esav has gone from strength to strength. He remains furious at Jacob for stealing his birthright and is now traveling toward him with an army of 400 soldiers with the sole intent of fratricide. The midrash explains that Jacob does three things to get ready for the oncoming battle.
- He prepares militarily.
- He prays to G-d.
- He prepares gifts for his brother.
It is the order of his preparation that is so interesting. In the face of overwhelming odds, Jacob does not first pray to G-d. Nor does he think about how to placate Jacob. No. His first responsibility is to prepare militarily. Jacob knows that ultimately his survival requires him to ready for battle. Of course, G-d runs the world, but unless Jacob does his histadlus (his part), G-d cannot help him. In this case, his part is not just giving gifts to mollify his brother. The first order of his part is to be strong. It seems that G-d’s blessing is only relevant when Jacob’s own strength and readiness is in place. It doesn’t change the overwhelming odds against him; nevertheless, Jacob is ready for the worst.
Finally, once he has prepared for the fight and prayed to G-d, only then does he prepare his gifts and acts of conciliation. There is an odd logic to this. If he had a plan to appease his brother, why not start with that? The Torah goes into great detail about Jacob’s gifts: how he divided his wealth and sent multiple groups of gifts ahead of him with the direct intent of adulation. Jacob knows his brother and has a clear idea how to still his rage and pacify his indignity. Why not do that right away? The Torah is telling us that there is no substitute for strength.
If Jacob is strong and he has G-d’s blessing, why even give such a large portion of his wealth away? It seems like avoiding bloodshed is the primary directive. Jacob sends his gifts, and he sends them in a way that placates Esav and is able to avoid the oncoming battle. But it is only after Jacob is strong and has G-d’s blessing that he even tries.
The parallels are obvious. In fact, it is in this parsha that Jacob is renamed as Israel. Israel, the country, equally must be strong in order to have G-d’s blessing and for any negotiations to work. And yet, Israel is criticized for its strength. The UN (and it would seem that the rest of the world) is focused on Israel giving away territory and making conciliatory acts. Israel is chided for being strong. The only thing her detractors are focused on are the gifts and making Israel smaller… which leads very nicely to the next military lesson in Vayishlach.
Later in his journey, when Jacob is traveling through Schem he hides his daughter Dina because she is beautiful and he fears the people of Schem will desire her. Nevertheless, Dina is found, abducted and raped. How is it possible that such a violation can happen to Jacob, the man who is called perfect in his ways? Rashi explains that Jacob’s error was in not trusting G-d. In this situation he did exactly the opposite of what he did with Esav. With Esav, he made himself strong, big, even defiant. But in the face of this much lesser enemy, Jacob made himself small and did not trust in Hashem. The result was abduction and rape.
It is always an easier choice to become small. Hiding Dina was easier than staying strong militarily and being big. After fighting for so long and being ready for an intimidating enemy like Esav, perhaps Jacob was tired and just wanted to hide Dina and let his guard down a bit. I’m sure we can all relate.
Again, the parallel to the present situation in Israel is obvious. Nothing good will come from Israel making itself small and weak. The world chastises Israel for its strength, even calling for a ceasefire while the enemy holds more than 100 hostages. Israel cannot make itself small – for if it does there will be more rape and pillage. One can argue that the dissension in Israel this past year over judicial reform was a form of making itself small. Placating and negotiating with people who want to kill you on their terms is a form of making oneself small. And clearly, the country is tired of fighting and wants to just get on with peace (who can blame them). But the lesson is crystal clear, you can never let your guard down, ever.
I pray that the Jewish people heed these lessons:
- Always be strong.
- Don’t hide, apologize, or make yourself smaller.
- Never let your guard down – ever.
The only successful negotiation will come from a place of absolute strength.