Integrity (noun): the quality of being whole and complete
Unity (noun): the state of being joined together or in agreement
A Paradigm of Jewish Unity
One of the most remarkable standout Aggadic (narrative) passages in the whole of the Talmud is to be found in the tractate of Rosh HaShana, folio 19a.
The Romans had decreed that the Jews must not engage in Torah study, circumcise their sons or observe Shabbat. What did Yehuda ben Shamua and his colleagues do? They went and took advice from a Roman noblewoman. who was consulted by all the greatest politicians of Rome. She said: “[Waste no time but] go and protest tonight!” So they did so. [In a united front] they declared: Are we not your brothers! Aren’t we children of the same father [Isaac]! Aren’t we children of the same mother [Rivka]! In what way are we different from every other nation and tongue [under your dominion] that you issue harsh decrees against us? As a result of the [united] protest, the Romans abolished those decrees.
The story has a distinctly contemporary ring about it. That senior rabbis and top Roman politicians would defer to the advice of a female will gladden the hearts of equal-rights activitists everywhere, yet the Talmud sees nothing surprising about it. And the plea of the rabbis against anti-Jewish discrimination (“why are we treated differently than other minorities”) strikes a very euphonic chord with us in 2021. But what grabs me most about this story is neither of these aspects. Rather it is that the rabbis and all who joined them in the protest presented a united front and that it achieved the desired result. The clear lesson for us is that when we Jews are truly united, we can triumph over every adversary. As the Midrash remarkably expresses it: Even if Am Yisrael were to serve idols but had peace among themselves, G-D would not allow evil to touch them! (Bemidbar Raba 11:7).
How different from two centuries earlier when the rank sin’at chinam (gratuitous hate) among the warring Jewish factions such as the deviationist Sadducees and the Zealots (biryonim) led to the destruction of the Temple and the near-extinction of Judaism, rescued only by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s prudence and wisdom (Gittin 56b). As our sages declare, the Romans could never have destroyed the Bet Mikdash had we remained united!
Ramban (1194-1270) famously explains the statement of our Sages ma’aseh avot siman la-banim as meaning that the deeds of our founding fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, affect future generations in some kind of metaphysical way such that these future generations repeatedly play out aspects of the journeys, actions and conduct of our forefathers, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
The root of all Jewish encounters with Rome, and Christendom which it spawned, lies in the relationship between Jacob, alias Israel, and Esau or Edom, progenitor of the Roman empire.
Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of soup. He does so willingly. Yet we cannot erase from our minds Esau’s bitter accusation, years later, that Jacob “outsmarted” him (vayta’akveini – a play on Jacob’s name, Yaakov) with respect to the birthright as well as the primal blessing he had just lost (Gen 27:36).
Jacob, recalling how he had taken advantage of Esau’s vulnerability on that former occasion, had protested to his mother that her scheme to extract that blessing by trickery may expose him as a deceiver (ki-metatei’a). He clearly does not want to go through with it and “outsmart” Esau a second time in a less-than-honest way. He does so only because his mother commands him to do so (27:11-13).
The result is a prolonged forced exile at the home of his duplicitous uncle Lavan.
Why does Jacob stay with Lavan for 20 years? He appears not to demur when his conniving uncle and now father-in-law tells him he has to serve a second set of seven years for a wife he has already worked for. Then after fourteen years when he is about to leave with his wives and children, Lavan smarmily offers him a new shady six-year ‘contract’. Again, Jacob appears to readily agree. Why?
One cannot help but feel that Jacob is horribly conflicted about leaving to go home – and having to face his brother Esau. Despite Lavan brutally betraying Jacob’s trust at least ten times (31:6), Jacob only leaves for home at last after an angel of G-D firmly instructs him to in a dream (31:13).
And so we arrive at the opening of this week’s Sidra and the eventual encounter with Esau. Jacob prepares for war, while also importuning G-D. But his first and his last gambit is an almost grovelling appeasement which shocks us until we realise Jacob’s conflicted state of being.
Jacob has worked on his spiritual growth to an extent that he has become an ish emet, a man of uncompromising truth. By the standards he now sets himself, his former conduct towards his brother was found horribly wanting in his eyes. And his extravagant gifts, his submissiveness, his self-abasing language (“to my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob”) all point to one thing. Jacob is seeking his brother’s full pardon.
The Cosmic Battle.
The Talmud declares (Kiddushin 40a) that determining in one’s mind to perform a righteous act is considered by G-D as though done. This could be why, even in advance of the actual fraternal encounter, Jacob is visited by a challenging crypto-angelic being.
A detailed examination of this most inscrutable, though seminal, of Scriptural passages is beyond the scope of this essay. (I attempted a basic analysis in Fragments Of The Hammer to which the reader is referred.) In truth, even Jacob was not privy to the full meaning of the encounter. When, following the cosmic wrestling-match, he asks the angel “what is your name” (i.e. purpose and identity), the angel responds “Why do you ask my name?” (it is not necessary for you to know) (Gen. 32:29).
What we do know is that Jacob is given another name. The name is, in a sense, the antithesis of his original name (Yaakov = heel, the one following behind, the one who had to resort to subterfuge). The new name, Yisrael, stems from sar meaning “mastery” as well as yashar meaning “straight”.
Jacob is no longer the secondary son who has to dissemble to become primary. He has achieved self-mastery. He is no longer the “twisted” one (akev), no longer conflicted. He is yashar.
The Dignity of Jacob’s Encounter With Esau
I believe a careful reading of the subsequent reunion between the two brothers will disabuse us of the notion that Jacob somehow sacrificed his self-respect. Quite the contrary. Jacob was fully in control of his actions and consequently it was he, not his brother, who mastered the encounter.
Firstly, as Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (1849-1932) notably analyzes, as Jacob was bowing to Esau all those seven times, he determined to unconditionally eradicate all his own negative emotions “until he reached his brother” (33:3), until he succeeded in feeling nothing but brotherly love. “As water reflects a face back to a face so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another (Proverbs 27:19). Esau must have felt the vibes of Jacob’s compassion reaching him, and consequently responds with sincere love at that moment (Rashi loc. cit). They embrace as brothers.
From this point on, in order to ensure he remains in control of the brotherly encounter, Jacob makes two more resolutions: (a) Not to accept anything from Esau; (b) To separate peaceably from Esau as soon as is diplomatically feasible.
The strategy works like a dream. Esau, knowing full well that as per the terms of his father’s blessing he cannot inherit Erets Canaan, makes his way back to his fiefdom in Seir. Jacob proceeds home unmolested to (eventually) a final reunion with his father, Isaac. Both brothers have retained their self respect. Jacob submits to Esau morally (accepting that his former behaviour was not the true him). Esau submits to Jacob politically and territorially.
The New Man of Integrity
Jacob arrived whole (shalem) at the city of Shechem in the land of Canaan (Gen 33:18)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) declares that this is not just referring to Jacob’s physical healing from the angel’s body-blow. Shalem, he states, means “in full, harmonious completeness … above all morally and spiritually”.
Jacob/Israel is whole and at peace with himself. The many and variegated aspects of his personality and psyche have been refined and unified as an integrous whole.
Integrity Sought Then – Unity Needed Now!
We can now return to the remarkable Talmudic story with which we commenced.
We appreciate with new admiration the visionary words of the Ramban. There is no question that in the utterly unified and submissive approach of Yehuda ben Shamua and his colleagues to the Romans to rescind the harsh anti-Jewish decrees, they were emulating Jacob’s encounter with Esau on every level.
Quintessentially, how the Jacob-Esau encounter is played out on the macrocosmic, national level by his descendants in that seminal incident is by summoning all the diverse elements of Klal Yisrael together in an overarching integrous unity, a sheleimut (wholeness) that is more than just superficial.
Contemporary external challenges, large and larger, confront us as a nation. Sadly, these challenges, gargantuan as they are, sometimes appear to be dwarfed by the internal challenges with which Jewry appear to be beset. Many segments of our people are estranged from our true mission. Even the Jewishly committed sections among us, those committed to our survival, sometimes struggle to speak peaceably to each other, let alone understand one another. The parlous current political situation in Israel fuelled by sin’at chinam, baseless hate, almost akin to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, is but one manifestation of that.
Rabbi Yehuda ben Shamua and his followers turned that around. They found unity in desperate circumstances and were successful in their venture.
Similarly when we Jews, recognising our precarious situation in the world, are able to turn our disunity around and truly unite as a nation, nothing and nobody will be able to harm us!.