Vayetze - Gideon Sylvester
On Jacob's journey back to Canaan he passes through the territory controlled by Esau and seeks a reconciliation. The night before the meeting 'someone' comes to Jacob and wrestles with him, wrenching Jacob's thigh in the struggle. Dina is raped by Shechem, a Canaanite, and Simeon and Levi rise up in retaliation. Rachel gives birth to Benjamin and Isaac dies at the age of 180.
Gideon Sylvester, is adviser on Diaspora Affairs to Rabbi Michael Melchior at the Office of the Prime Minister and Rabbi of Tribe Israel.
Wherever we live in the world, we are faced by the dilemmas of the war on terror. How do we defend the norms of our society and eliminate the threat of attack, whilst showing respect to other cultures and maximising their sense of kinship with us? Our Sedra presents a story of warring brothers and it offers a sensitive exposition of the dilemmas of conflict resolution.
The scene is set as Jacob prepares to meet Esau who is approaching with four hundred armed men. Apparently Esau is determined to avenge himself and kill his twin brother who took his birthright and seized his father's blessings.
As Jacob prepared for the worst, the Torah tells us that he was "afraid and he was distressed" (Bereishit 32: 8). Rashi (11th century commentator) explains that he was afraid that would be killed and distressed lest he be forced to kill his own brother. It is a poignant description of a leader who is torn between his responsibility to protect his own life and his wish not to hurt another. It is reflected in the anxiety of every politician who must decide how to respond to the threat of terror, and every soldier charged with carrying out orders, particularly when that involves confronting terrorists who are scattered amongst a civilian population.
Jacob was a great man with such a strong connection to God, but he was still alarmed by the danger. The rabbis explain that Jacob was concerned that any sins that he may have committed would undermine any merit he had earned and so reduce the chances of divine protection. The Ramban (13th century commentator) points out that is a fundamental lesson of the Sedra. God helped to save Jacob, but like our forefather, none of us should rely on their own righteousness. When faced with attack, we are duty bound to acknowledge our situation and prepare our defences.
So Jacob had to deal with the conflict and find an appropriate way to respond to his war-mongering brother. Rashi observes that Jacob prepared for every eventuality. He prayed to God, sent gifts to Esau and armed himself for battle. The rabbis approved of this multifaceted approach. The Netziv (19th century commentator) suggests that Jacob's willingness to preempt the war by tracking down his brother and bowing before him won over Esau. It was a small concession for the sake of peace. Others were less convinced. The Ramban argued that his submissive approach was premature. He was yielding in the face of aggression. This forged a pattern of weakness in the Jewish people throughout history. He argues that Jews should be proud of their beliefs and willing to stand firm in the face of attack.
In the short term, Jacob's strategy paid off. Esau left him and his entourage in peace. But as Rav Hirsch (19th century commentator) points out, this was only a partial accomplishment. It is not too difficult to force a warrior to respect another warrior. The challenge of the Jewish people is to teach the powerful to respect the weak. When this happens, we will have established a fundamental ethical change in humanity leading to the day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).
This week's haftarah (taken for Ashkenazim from the book of Hosea) has been sponsored by a well-known national airline. It starts as follows:
"And my people are in suspense about returning to Me: and though they call them upwards (in the original 'El-Al'), none at all will lift himself up".
Why not? Is it because "Chicken or Beef?" is too limiting, perhaps?