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Home » Vayishlach

Vayishlach: O Brother

Submitted by on November 17, 2018 – 9:12 pmNo Comment | 1,992 views

It had been thirty-four years since Jacob escaped his brother Esau’s wrath. During this time Jacob had spent fourteen years studying Torah and twenty years building his family. He had descended to the immoral pit of his uncle Laban’s home, and emerged unaffected and even stronger for the ordeal. Esau, on the other hand, had become more vicious and more wicked than ever before.

Jacob heard that Esau was marching against him with four hundred armed men. Jacob knew that he must prepare for war, but he first offered up a prayer to G-d. “Save me please from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him.”[1] This was an odd time for Jacob to describe Esau as his brother. Esau was marching against him, intent on exacting revenge for the blessings Jacob had snatched from under his nose. Esau was not acting like a brother, yet Jacob calls him, his brother. Why?

Killing A Brother

The Torah tells us that when Jacob heard about Esau’s imminent arrival, he was afraid and distressed.[2] Our sages wondered whether Jacob’s fear was distinct from his distress or if they were the selfsame and the Torah was using a colloquial turn of phrase? They concluded that the Torah is very precise in its wording and if it tells us that Jacob was afraid and distressed, it implies two kinds of fear.

Jacob expected a battle to ensue, and only one of two outcomes was possible. He would either be killed by Esau or he would kill Esau.[3] Anything short of that was unlikely. Jacob was afraid that he might be killed by Esau, and he was distressed over the possibility that he might kill Esau. Golda Meir famously said that the day might indeed come when Arabs will lay down their weapons and the war would end. At that time, we might very possibly forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we will never forgive them for making us kill their children.

As much as Jacob feared being killed, and as much as he knew that Esau was forcing him to fight in self defense, it distressed him to know that he might kill Esau. This is the nature of the Jew. We raise our arms when necessary, but our hearts grow heavy with the spectre of war.

This brings us back to Jacob’s prayer, “save me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him.” Jacob asked G-d to save him from both possibilities. Save me from my brother for if I kill him, I will never live down the fact that I killed my brother. And save me from Esau because if I don’t kill him, he will kill me. And I fear both possibilities.

Notice that Jacob puts the fear of killing ahead of the fear of being killed. The odds are in Esau’s favor. Esau is the experienced warier and he was marching at the head of a powerful column. Indeed, when the Torah speaks of Jacob’s fear, the Torah says first that he was afraid and only then that he was distressed. His fear of dying precedes his distress about killing because the odds are heavily stacked in Esau’s favor. Yet when it comes to prayer, Jacob prays first to be saved from killing, and only then to be saved from death. He knows the odds of his triumph are low, but the very possibility filled him with more dread than the prospect of death itself.

A Deeper Perspective

There is yet another way of understanding Jacob’s fear of his brother. Jacob knew that no matter how different the two brothers were, they were still brothers. When Esau meets up with Jacob, one of two things might happen. He would either strike him as one might expect from Esau the warier, or he might embrace him as one might expect from Esau the brother. Jacob feared both possibilities.

If Esau strikes, the danger is obvious. Jacob would likely be killed on the battlefield. If Esau embraces, the embrace would come with expectations. Let’s live together and be brothers, I will adopt some of your beliefs and you adopt some of mine. I will adopt some of your practices and you adopt some of mine.

On the surface this sounds wonderful. It is the global village; the melting pot of all people. We can all celebrate our common humanity and surrender our distinctive heritages and identities. Yet, this danger is greater than the danger of war. When you go to war, you know who your enemies are, and you can protect yourself. When you embrace the melting pot, you become your own enemy. How can you protect yourself from yourself? You are privy to whatever plans you make in your own defense.

The promise of the melting pot, the reward of the globalist approach, is seductive. We convince ourselves that we are better off shedding our distinctiveness and assuming a vanilla global identity because the payoff is peace, harmony, unity and coexistence. What’s not to like?

But if we compromise on our heritage, we cease to exist as a people. What value is there to life when our identity, our self expression, is watered down to the point of extinction? Swallowed up by the greater whole, we will no longer be ourselves. The Jew was not given the Torah to surrender it on the altar of globalism. The Jew’s mandate is particularism. We are meant to stand out as the people of the book and the defenders of Divine values. We are a light unto the nations.

It is only through respect for each other’s distinctive identities that coexistence is possible. If relinquishing our identity is the price of admission, then it is not coexistence we are bargaining for, but assimilation. That, Jacob feared more than death and he prayed to be saved from this danger before he prayed to be saved from war.

We can measure up against our enemies, but we can’t measure up against ourselves. If Esau wants to befriend Jacob, Jacob is thrilled to accept, but only if Esau is prepared to respect Jacob’s identity. If the price of Esau’s embrace is that both compromise on their principles and identities to forge a middle ground that reflects neither, Jacob would rather decline.

Indeed, the Torah goes on to tell us that Esau made that very proposition to Jacob. When Jacob first arrived, Jacob bowed to him and Esau embraced him. Jacob acceded to Esau’s embrace and proceeded to introduce Esau to his family. Then Esau said, “Let us journey, and let us go, and I will go toward you.”[4] Suddenly Jacob refused and told Esau to travel on his own. Jacob willing to embrace him and to introduce him to his family, why was he not willing to travel with him?

When you take another look at the verse it will all become clear. So long as Esau offered unconditional brotherly love with no strings attached, Jacob was thrilled. But when Esau suggested that he go toward Jacob, which means he would make some compromises to match Jacob’s pace, Jacob knew that the next step would be a demand of Jacob to compromise in return. This Jacob could not accept.

The lesson for us is clear. Our mandate is particularism within a global community. We must seek unity and peace with all people, but never at the price of our heritage. That is ours and no one can take it away.[5]

[1] Genesis 32:12.

[2] Ibid., 32:8.

[3] Rashi ad loc. and Bereishis Rabbah, 75:2.

[4] Genesis, 33:12.

[5] This essay is based on Or Hachayim, Beis Halevi, and Sefas Emes (5663) on Genesis 33:12.

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