Yosef Merves
Yosef Merves
Forging New Perspectives on Jewish Identity

Ya’acov and Esau: The Eternal Struggle

As we enter Shabbat this week, the tragedy in Jersey City looms large in my mind, a local community and the larger Jewish community once again afflicted with senseless tragedy and loss. I want to share some Torah thoughts and possible parallels in memory of those killed in Jersey City: Detective Joe Seals, 40; Mindel Ferencz, 33; Moshe Deutsch, 24; and Miguel Douglas Rodriguez, 49.

At the opening of Parsha Vayislach, Ya’acov and his family are on the border of Esau’s territory.  Although they are brothers, they are diametrically opposed.  Ya’acov represents Torah, spiritual greatness, self-perfection and truth. Esau lives by hunting and pillaging and is the forerunner of Rome and by extension, all Western civilization. Ya’acov’s actions when preparing for the confrontation are considered examples for us today for how to deal with conflict, especially with non-Jewish neighbors.

The first step is prayer. He prays to Hashem for salvation, he fully believes that everything that happens in his life comes directly from Hashem, and he doesn’t rely on his past actions and merits, nor does he expect that because Hashem has helped him in the past that Hashem will help him again now, he prays sincerely and whole-heartedly.

The second step is appeasement, mainly through communication and diplomacy.  This could take the form of self-effacement, as when Ya’acov refers to Esau as “my lord” and calls himself “your servant”. It’s important to note that he uses these terms when speaking to his own servants, out of Esau’s presence to signify that even when a person isn’t in front of you, you should still treat them and speak of them with respect.  He knows that Esau resents him for taking his birthright, so Ya’acov shows Esau the honor customarily due to the firstborn in hopes of soothing Esau’s anger.  Ya’acov also sends lavish gifts to Esau, groups of animals with the optimal male to female ratio for procreation.  He wants to increase Esau’s goodwill towards him, but he also sees his possessions not as “his,” but only loaned to them from Hashem as tools for him to use to achieve his mission of bringing spirituality into the world.  Inviting someone to share in your good fortune is a great way of currying their favor.

The third step, only as a last resort, is to prepare for battle. Ya’acov was frightened that Esau would attack him, but he was more distressed at the idea of hurting others in self-defense.  He splits his family and his possessions into two camps, and he would have armed his servants with weapons for war. There is no large physical battle that actually took place, only the spiritual battle of Ya’acov wrestling with Esau’s angel. Esau’s angel injures Ya’acov’s hip, but only temporarily, signifying that Esau will have momentary victories, but will be defeated in the long run.

How can we relate these messages to our lives? How we can grapple with our emotions in the face of senseless tragedies, increasing in frequency? The more that the world struggles to uproot Judaism, to express anger and hatred towards its’ practitioners and banish Judaism to the fringes of society, the more Judaism is needed, the more vital the preservation efforts become.  At its’ heart and its’ peak performance level, Judaism speaks of an ethical, moral society.  When living among non-Jewish neighbors, it’s important to go out of the way to treat them with kindness and respect, finding common ground between us, and becoming a Kiddush Hashem as much as possible.  It’s true that there’s a certain wariness of becoming too friendly, and setting boundaries is important, as demonstrated when Ya’acov declines Esau’s invitation to travel together, but overall our mission as Jews involves being citizens of the world since Hashem created the world for the purpose of our inhabiting it.  I can’t speak to why these victims were killed, but I hope it brings us closer together and unites us around our similarities rather than our differences.  Shabbat Shalom!

About the Author
Born and raised in a Modern Orthodox/Conservadox home in Miami, FL, Yosef first started to increase his Jewish knowledge while learning at Boston University. Afterward, he lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side for several years and was an active member of several shuls, including Manhattan Jewish Experience where he completed the Fellowship program. He spent the last two years studying full-time at Machon Shlomo in Har Nof, Jerusalem and now resides in New Jersey. He always had a strong Jewish identity and wants to encourage others to build and strengthen theirs as well.
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