The moment of unimaginable fear during which Jacob would vulnerably confront his brother Esau after years of escape, was quickly and dreadfully approaching. For Jacob everything and everyone was at risk. In moving words, Jacob prayed to God ‘Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him […]’ (Gen 32:12).
The nineteenth century sage, Rabbi Yosef Dov Sloveitchik (1820 – 1892), in his commentary on the Torah ‘Beis Halevi’, explores the seemingly strange choice of words in Jacob’s prayer. Jacob did not ask ‘Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother Esau […]’. Instead, Jacob prays for rescue from two hands, the hand of his brother and the hand of Esau. Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that in his appeal, Jacob shrewdly identified two separate threats. One danger would emerge as the hand of Esau. A second danger could arise as a hand of a brother. Thus, Jacob hoped for deliverance from each threatening ‘hand’. Indeed, when Jacob’s fear is described earlier in the text, two adjectives are used, ‘Jacob became very frightened, and it distressed him’ (Gen 32:8). These two images of fear might correspond to the two sources of danger.
The hand of Esau is a physical assault on Jacob and his family. The hand of a brother, however, is a cultural threat in which Esau approaches Jacob as a friendly sibling, thereby attracting and inviting Jacob and his family to adopt Esau’s lifestyle. Jacob’s existence is thus endangered in both scenarios. Jacob, therefore, responded by addressing each threat separately in his prayer.
Esau greeted Jacob with four hundred men (Gen 32:7), a possible indication of the violent confrontation Esau might have originally planned. However, after abandoning his aggressive strategy, Esau employed the second option. ‘And he [Esau] said, “Travel on and let us go – I will proceed alongside you”’ (Gen 33:12). Esau encouraged Jacob to journey together as brothers thereby enabling a cultural merge which would ultimately undermine Jacob’s identity. However, as Jacob hoped and prayed for, the meeting led to no physical violence or cultural cohesion. On that same day, the Torah emphasizes, Esau and Jacob separated (Gen 33:16 – 17).
Our sages consistently read the biblical accounts of the founding fathers and mothers of our nation as a model to later events in Jewish history. Jacob’s twofold level of vulnerability emerging from two radically different types of threat, teaches us of the two sources which potentially endanger Jewish existence. The enemies of the Jewish people have often adopted the strategic ‘hand of Esau’ to literally kill us. In other times, we were threatened not by bloodshed but by the voluntary abandonment of Jewish identity in response to a friendly invitation extended by the ‘hand of a brother’ to assimilate. The only two non-biblical annual Jewish festivals celebrate Jewish continuity in defiance of one of these two threats. Purim celebrates our victory over the danger of physical annihilation. Chanukah remembers our religious resilience and determination to maintain our Jewish identity despite an almost irresistible Hellenistic campaign.
Last century, our people endured the horrific abuse of both the hand of Esau and the hand of a brother. Nazi Germany planned the complete physical extermination of our nation leading to the murder of millions, and communist Russia mercilessly banned all religious activity, thereby erasing Jewish identity from the millions of Jews living within her borders. Our generation has witnessed the consequential devastation which these threats impose as well as the greatness of our nation in our ability to endure, build, and thrive.