Parshat Vayishlach 2018
We know Yaacov was strong. With Esau as a brother we can assume that he learned to defend himself as a child. We know that it paid off when he came to Haran and by himself managed to roll a stone off a well, one that three shepherds couldn’t do together. He wasn’t a nerd.
That’s why today’s parsha raises so many questions. Why does Yaacov grovel and appease Esau, calling him “master” and comparing him to God himself? Has the cat got his backbone? During an interval in the story he fights an angel, for his life or soul, and wins. A man who can do that should be able to deal with a mere mortal!
The pieces don’t fit together so let’s separate them. Yaacov the fighter is strong – when it is only his own own personal safety (the angel) or desires (Rachel at the well) at stake. Then he is unbeatable.
The meeting with Esau falls into a different category. The rabbis go to great lengths to explain that before meeting Esau, Yaacov didn’t want to kill or to be killed. He had enough strength to take on Esau in hand to hand combat but, the rabbis say, what if some of Esau’s soldiers who were not really part of the argument were killed. Being killed or killing another were two non-options.
To avoid them, he undertook a three-pronged defense. First, he sent gifts to Esau. Softening up your enemy with one or two or seven boxes of chocolates is a good idea. Here comes the first. Before Esau can get over the generosity, there’s a second one, and a third, and a fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh!
The second prong was worst-case scenario contingency. The gifts didn’t work, Esau came and killed. So he divided his camp into two – at least one could get away. And third, he prayed. Come on, God, you’re the one who told me to come back, that it would be OK. Well?????
But the real story is what each brother says, and doesn’t say. Over the 22 years they have been apart, each brother has grown into himself. Yaacov’s obeisance says: I accept that YOU are the ruler. These children – they are God’s sign that He has forgiven me – so you can forgive me too. Take these gifts. To which Esau says, I really don’t need them because I have everything I need. I don’t have to be jealous of you. You received the blessing but I have what I wanted. The past is off limits.
And because they are satisfied with what they have, they can kiss and make up, and then go on their own ways, to meet again only once, to bury their father Yitzhak. A bittersweet ending to a bitter rivalry.
But there’s another story. Yaacov’s daughter Dina is abducted and raped by Prince Shechem, who then wants to do the right thing and marry her. In the face of this defilement of his daughter Yaacov is silent. The plan of action his sons formulate is particularly bloody. They slaughter the whole town. And when Yaacov reprimands them and says, But what about the people of the land? We’re so few and they’re so many! they reply, Would you have them make a whore of our sister?
From their words a far-out and barely plausible explanation is offered for Yaacov’s paralysis in the face of the rape of Dina. This theory says that Dina was Leah’s daughter so he didn’t care for her as much as for Rachel’s children. And indeed, the avengers Shimon and Levi were also Leah’s children.
As I said – far-out. Yaacov says he was afraid of retribution from the neighboring tribes but considering the consequences of pandering to the locals (all of his daughters would become targets) how could he let the rape go unpunished? The brothers’ murder of the whole city was overkill, and Yaacov held it against Shimon and Levi to his deathbed, so why didn’t he offer some alternative?
Perhaps Yaacov thought that restraint was the best tactic, that the whole matter would dissipate with time. Perhaps the near-catastrophic meeting with Esau had taken the wind out of Yaacov’s fighting spirit. We don’t know. It just seems somewhat out of character that Yaacov would show such weakness as to threaten his future security.
How fitting that this past week, local political events replayed Yaacov’s conundrum. We were also treated to an example of political maneuvering that deserves a special chapter in any textbook on Machiavellian strategy. An ultimatum allegedly triggered by a lack of sufficiently strong reactions to dangerous provocations by our enemy threatened to bring down the government. In a brilliant maneuver, this threat was transformed into a boomerang with the potential to destroy the one who aired that ultimatum.
Both then and now, the issue was security. Shimon and Levi said, you have to use deterrent force or others will step all over you. That’s what Bennett said last week. Our prime minister turned this threat on its head by admonishing him for trying to weaken a government when unity was necessary for security (Yaacov was silent). We need to stay together and be strong (said Netanyahu), and if it means restraining ourselves for the moment (which seems to have been Yaacov’s approach), it will serve us well in and for our future. Because you don’t know what else is coming.
Whether one likes or dislikes the present prime minister, we all have to take off our hats to a masterly, brilliant Machiavellian move. Let’s hope that in the long run our strength and preparation and belief will help us as they helped Yaacov.