By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
The parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis are meant to impart lessons that, if properly understood, provide us with badly needed direction in our personal lives, as well as in the broader arena of communal and world affairs. These lessons are not always self-evident or applicable to every situation. They require serious study and guidance from Torah giants in when and how they can be implemented.
The beginning of this week’s parsha is replete with lessons of this sort. Not only have they guided Jewish communities of yesteryear, but they have a great deal to say to us regarding situations the Jewish people are facing today.
How are we to deal with evil people who want to harm us? How are we supposed to react when we have been wronged?
Eisav, the brother and arch-enemy of Yaakov Avinu, sought to kill him after Yaakov received the immortal blessings from their father Yitzchok. Despite his moral depravity and the illegitimate life he led, Eisav desperately wanted the tzaddik’s blessings. When he couldn’t attain them, he decided to take revenge on Yaakov and end his life.
Interestingly enough, Yaakov didn’t fight back. Why not? Why did Rivkah and Yitzchok advise Yaakov to run away from his brother? Why didn’t Yaakov attempt to justify himself to Eisav, or failing that, meet him on his own turf in battle if necessary, as we find him doing in next week’s parsha of Vayishlach?
When confronted with evil, one of two responses normally prevail-fight or flight. In our world, when confronted by someone with harmful or sinister intentions, people tend reflexively to jump into battle mode. That’s considered the manly approach. Yet that response might not always be the proper one.
The Medrash Tanchumah Hakadum in this week’s parsha, explains Yaakov’s inaction by stating that when the midas hadin is dominant, a person under attack should back off and wait for the midas hadin to retreat.
The Medrash tells of several people who utilized that tactic, eventually emerging victorious. The Medrash cites as examples: Avrohom when he escaped from Nimrod; Yitzchok when he left Eretz Plishtim without a fight; Yosef who didn’t protest against his brothers when they sold him into servitude; Moshe when he ran away from Paroh to the land of Midyan; and Dovid when he slipped away from Shaul.
The Medrash Rabba in Devorim [1, 18] advises: “If you see that Eisav is looking to fight with you, don’t stand up to him, rather hide until his day passes.”
Similarly, in Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, at the end of perek 29, it is written that when the wicked Izevel wanted to kill Eliyahu, Hashem told him to run away much the same as Yaakov, Moshe and Dovid ran away from their would-be killers, and were thus saved.
Though we are commanded to hate sheker – falsehood and corruption – we have to recognize that not always is it in our hands to successfully combat it. There are times when we have to swallow very hard and restrain ourselves, to wait for the proper moment.
In the first chapter of his sefer, Yemei Chanukah, Rav Dovid Cohen, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, quotes Rav Elchonon Wasserman regarding the difference between the Yomim Tovim of Chanukah and Purim. Antiyochus and the Greeks were battling the soul of the Jewish people. Had the Jewish people been willing to forsake their religion, the Greeks would have removed the decree. Haman, on the other hand, sought their physical destruction; he wanted all Jews dead.
T o combat Haman and his plans, the megillah states that the Jews fasted, prayed and repented. There was no attempt to engage in a physical battle to save themselves. During the period of the neis of Chanukah, though the Jews surely engaged in tefillah and teshuvah, they also took up arms and fought their tormentors, the Greeks.
Rav Elchonon explains that there are times when the midas hadin is so strong that the Soton is given a free hand, so to speak. During times like that, the only way to prevail is by being prepared to die al kiddush Hashem. Tefillah and teshuvah alone will not suffice.
When the edict targets the physical body of the Jew, Rav Elchonon says, the gezeirah is min haShomayim; Hashem is sending the Jews a message to repent and return to the Torah. But when the decree is one that threatens spiritual destruction, that is a sign that the peril is caused by the Soton; thus tefillah and teshuvah cannot overcome him. The Jews have to be prepared to risk their lives in battle, thus sanctifying the name of G-d.
This helps us understand Yaakov’s apparent inaction in the face of Eisav. Since Eisav sought to physically murder his brother, Yaakov understood that he was being punished for his sins. He therefore knew that he could not defeat Eisav until his sins were forgiven.
While it is unclear what Yaakov’s sins were, the Medrash Yalkut M’ein Ganim states that Chazal derive from the words “Vayeitzei Yaakov… vayeilech Charanah” that going into exile cleanses one of sins, since Yaakov left his land (Vayeitzei), the anger of Hashem (Charanah) departed from him.
Yaakov also engaged in tefillah, as the Gemara in Brachos (26b) derives from the posuk of “Vayifgah bamakom,” meaning that Yaakov instituted the prayer of Maariv. It is interesting to note that Tosafos in Brachos (ibid) points out that Yaakov actually davened Maariv while it was still daylight. Nevertheless, Chazal derive that he davened Maariv there, not Minchah. For Yaakov was instituting a prayer for Jews in the darkness of exile. He was foretelling that Hashem will hear our prayers wherever we find oursleves in golus, even from the depths of America, as long as we trust in Him and dedicate ourselves to His service.
It was only after he had gone into exile to cleanse himself of sin, engaged in tefillah, and spent 14 years fortifying himself with Torah in the yeshiva of Sheim and Ever, that Yaakov felt that he would be able to vanquish the evil Eisav.
He could have immediately seized the offensive. He could have engaged Eisav in debate to prove that the brachos were rightfully his, and that he, Yaakov, was justified in orchestrating things so that he would receive them. He could have shown his brother how the latter’s acts of murder and treachery rendered him unfit to be the progenitor of the avos. But had he done that, Yaakov might not have won, for the time wasn’t ripe and he wasn’t sufficiently prepared spiritually.
People may insult and demean us. They tend to twist our words and read ulterior motives into our actions. They stab us in the back and badmouth us, and inside we are churning. Our urge is to lash back and make them feel ashamed. “How can you say that?!” we want to shout.
Yet, if we heed the example that Yaakov Avinu set, we will restrain ourselves. Yaakov demonstrated that the way of a ben Torah is to ensure that our conduct and motives are pure before rushing off into war and revenge.
This does not imply that we should submit to evil-doers and engage in chanifas resha’im. It means that the measures we take have to be carefully weighed so that they are consistent with the rulings of the Torah, with the Yitzchoks and Rivkahs of our day.
It means that before we run out into the streets with banners blazing, declaring war on those who vilify us and our way of life, we must purify our hearts and souls.
There are undoubtedly times when Jews must battle to protect their interests, and to maintain deterrence in a degenerate world where aggression and corruption threaten us. But this action must be accompanied by tefillah and teshuvah, in line with the tradition established by Yaakov Avinu when he finally confronted Eisav and prepared himself for battle.
We live in scary times. Across the globe, our enemies make no secret of their animosity toward the am hanivchar. Jews are targeted on their own turf in country after country. Eretz Yisroel is besieged by terrorist groups and hostile governments. Far from disheartening us, that should send us an encouraging message. Since these haters seek our physical harm, which indicates that we are being sent a Heavenly message to awaken, similar to the message to the Jews of Shushan. Teshuvah and tefillah can bring about our salvation.
Let us heed that message and pray and repent before it is too late. Let us gird ourselves with a renewed fidelity to each other and to Torah.
Our forefather Yaakov went into exile to repent for his sins. We are already in an exile that has dragged on for two millennia. Yaakov showed us the path to remove Hashem’s anger through Torah and tefillah. Let us live by his example and teachings so that we may merit the redemption.