By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Every account and detail of the avos and their travels is replete with life-lessons and directives. Parshas Vayishlach, in particular, is a guide-book in relations with the umos ha’olam. Chazal tell us that the chachomim who traveled to Rome to meet with their overlords would carefully study this week’s parsha prior to setting out on their precarious journeys.
In order to succeed in their missions on behalf of the Jewish people ruled by the Romans, they studied this week’s exchange between Yaakov and Eisov.
The opening to Parshas Vayishlach tells us about the malochim sent by Yaakov. Rashi teaches that the messengers sent by Yaakov to scout his brother were malochim mamesh, angels. What was it about this mission that could not be carried out by men and required angels to fulfill the task?
Additionally, we must understand why Yaakov immediately assumed that there was malice in the heart of his approaching brother. How did he know that Eisov intended to harm him? Perhaps upon hearing that his brother was returning home after having done well, he wanted to greet him and express his love.
The Baal Haturim in Parshas Toldos (25:25) states that the numerical equivalent of Eisov is shalom, peace. He writes that the Kallah Rabbosi explains that if his name weren’t shalom, he would destroy the world with his wickedness.
Perhaps we can understand the significance of this gematriah differently. Eisov always presents himself as a man of peace. He seeks peace and walks in peace, and all of his actions appear to be motivated by his desire to spread peace and brotherhood in the world.
Yaakov feared that if he would send a human being to explore his brother’s intentions, the messenger would be taken in by Eisov’s outward appearance and would be comforted with the knowledge that he seeks a peaceful existence with Yaakov.
Yaakov was attempting to influence his brother not to harm him. He sent malochim in a bid to temper Eisov’s wickedness and to probe his intentions.
As soon as he heard that Eisov was on his way to him, Yaakov sensed that he was in danger. The Torah doesn’t recount that the malochim warned Yaakov that Eisov was planning to do battle, only that he was on his way. But Yaakov understood that if Eisov was coming towards him, it could only mean trouble.
The Ramban writes in his introduction to this week’s parsha that it “contains a hint for future generations, for all that transpired between our forefather Yaakov and Eisov will happen to us with Eisov’s children, and it is fitting for us to go in the path of the tzaddik (Yaakov).”
Later in the parsha, we read of Sh’chem’s desire to take Dinah as a wife. He and his ruling father, Chamor, sought to convince their people to agree to the terms set by the shevotim. To secure their agreement, they told their constituents that the Jews were good businessmen, and if they agree to perform milah, they would gain access to the Jews’ possessions and flocks (Bereishis 34:23).
And so it has been throughout the ages. We convince ourselves that the nations of the world care about us, like us, and have our best interests at heart. We forget the admonishment of Chazal [Pirkei Avos 2, 3] that “Hevu zehirin barashus she’ein mikorvin lo l’adam eloh letzorech atzmon.” We hobnob with politicians, deluding ourselves into thinking that they are actually interested in our issues. We forget the lessons Yaakov Avinu taught about how to deal with governments.
We look at Eisov with respect and high regard, as if he is concerned about us and our welfare. We are impressed when he expresses his interests in living with us in peace and are stunned when we read of increasing anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews. We are incredulous when Eisov turns on us.
We read the news of the ongoing talks with Iran and find it hard to believe that America is admonishing Israel for daring to interfere with their mission to reach a peace deal with Iran, to solve the nuclear crisis that Israel’s prime minister created when he warned of Iran’s evil intentions.
Current administration officials are more careful with their language, but a former one wasn’t as diplomatic: Nicholas Burns, formerly a senior State Department official, said that Binyomin Netanyahu had no business publicly calling on the nations of the world not to capitulate to Iran.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu’s public outburst was unfortunate and ill-advised,” said Burns, now a professor in Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It has gone down very badly in the U.S.”
The nations of the world want peace, but the Jew gets in the way.
Secretary of State John Kerry was in Israel last week, prodding along his doomed peace talks between the murderous Palestinians and Israel. Apparently, the secret talks are not advancing as planned, and Kerry is upset.
He threatened Israel with international isolation and renewed violence if his peace efforts failed. He also said that the construction of apartments in areas such as Kiryat Sefer and Ramat Shlomo raises questions about whether Israel is really interested in peace.
The nations of the world want peace, but the Jew gets in the way.
The wicked among us also adopt the posture of Eisov, portraying themselves as poor victims, whose only desire is to achieve peace and harmony. As they thrash about, promoting their agendas, they claim that the heirs of Yaakov are guilty of deviating from some imagined gospel. They smile and we weep. They are smug and we fret. They are calm and intellectual, while we are erratic and frightful.
Under the banner of peace, using niceties and catch-phrases, a new generation of diplomats seeks to destroy the lone lamb amongst seventy wolves. While we fear what plans New York’s new mayor has for the legality of milah, to our north, the premier of Quebec announced her new charter of values last week.
She says that the intention of the plan is to make minorities feel welcome and respected in the province, yet there is much to fear. Officially tabled as Bill 60, the law forbids the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols,” such as yarmulkas, for anyone in a public position. This includes doctors, clerks, politicians and postal workers. No visible signs of Jewishness will be permitted. The bill also includes a provision forbidding religious day-care centers, which receive government subsidies, from discussing Shabbos or Yom Tov. It also bans distinctive religious foods, such as hamantashen, challah and maybe even latkes. The songs our children come home singing, such as “Eisov is coming with four hundred men,” will be verboten in Montreal day-care centers.
The middah of Eisov is alive and ever-present. It is rare for anyone to publicly proclaim, “We don’t like you. We detest your beanies, beards and long coats. You make us nervous and we are determined to make you feel uncomfortable.” Instead, they say, “We embrace you and welcome you. We only want to make you feel comfortable. This is an exercise in making you fit in, nothing more.”
Eisov is begematria shalom, for that is the garb he uses to gain entry into our camp and upend us.
Great men, descendants of Yaakov, have always opted for the emes of Yaakov, stating the facts as they are and accepting the ramifications.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, once felt it necessary to speak out against a prominent Jewish leader. Rav Hutner called the person and asked for an appointment to see him.
“I will come to the rosh yeshiva,” said the gentleman.
Rav Hutner turned down the offer and traveled to meet him.
“I just wanted to tell you,” said the rosh yeshiva, “that I will be speaking against you to my talmidim. I don’t agree with the ideas you have been expressing of late and I feel an obligation to protest them.”
Rav Hutner then picked himself up and left, leaving the man on the opposite end of the desk astounded. He later related that although he was upset, he was impressed by the courage and confidence of the rosh yeshiva.
A rov was delivering a shiur to professionals, when one of the participants asked a question. “Rabbi, it seems that your chareidi rabbis are always fighting and arguing between themselves. The rabbis from my world seem to get along much better. In fact, they have a weekly golf game where they enjoy each other’s friendship. Why can’t your guys get along?”
“I’m sure you noticed,” responded the rov, “that sometimes you walk into a shivah house and the mourners are sitting together in a huddle, reminiscing and sharing stories. Other times, however, the mourners are unfortunately spread out, in different homes or different parts of the room, rarely exchanging words with each other.
“That phenomenon usually occurs when there is a large inheritance at stake to be probated. The children are tense about the impeding battle, and with the lines already drawn, the tension prevents them from being able to sit together. When there is no major inheritance in the way and no coveted items to be divided between themselves, goodwill can prevail and they can sit and mourn together.”
The rov concluded: “Our rabbis see themselves as heirs to a very serious inheritance, a mesorah they consider life itself. Thus, differences of opinion are inevitable. Your rabbis, to whom the mesorah means little, have no reason to fight. There’s nothing worth fighting over.”
The wisdom of the answer reflects a truth about shalom. Yes, the ultimate goal is to rejoice in each other, to work together to enhance the common good. Too often, shalom is the easiest option, rather than confronting penetrating truths and realities.
Yaakov Avinu also wanted shalom, but he wasn’t prepared to sell out for that ideal. The posuk (ibid. 32:8) relates, “Vayira Yaakov meod.” He feared he’d get killed. He worried about killing someone. Nevertheless, capitulation to Eisov was not an option.
Rav Aharon Kotler was an indefatigable activist for communal causes, often working with other rabbonim and roshei yeshivos achieving historic accomplishments. He knew how to apply the middah of shalom, but that didn’t prevent him from saying what he felt needed to be said.
He was present at a rabbinic gathering when a gadol made a suggestion that a rabbi then shrugged off from the podium, saying that he didn’t understand the logic of it. Rav Aharon turned to him, his blue eyes aflame. “Un ah Tosafos farshteitz du yoh? And a Tosafos you do understand?”
Shalom is only an attribute when it is within the framework of emes.
The novi Michah said (7:20), “Titein emes l’Yaakov.” Yaakov Avinu, the fountain of emes, sent malochim to Eisov to gauge his positions. Yaakov yearned for shalom, but his primary concern was that it be within the context of emes.
He sent malochim mamesh, who could discern the truth of Eisov’s intentions. Yaakov was sending a message: “If you speak of peace, but under your smile lies a dagger, I will have no choice but to kill or be killed. I will not compromise on the emes. I won’t change and will not adapt it to conform to your evil path.”
We seek peace and we seek to harm no one, but the pursuit of the truth is our primary motivator. As our forefather Yaakov did (Rashi 32:9), we prepare ourselves with doron, tefillah and milchomoh. We offer peace, we daven for success, and when all else fails, we prepare to battle. Peace is important. It is way up there on the list of what we seek. But emes trumps it.
Let us endeavor to inculcate a desire for emes and shalom. Let us hope and pray that peace will reign supreme in our camp, and that a united desire for truth leads to calm and harmony. Let us all seek to bring about a truthful truce wherever Jews disagree.
We look forward to the day of which the novi Ovadiah speaks in this week’s haftorah: “Ve’olu moshi’im beHar Tzion lishpot es har Eisov.” The era will soon arrive when Am Yisroel will exact punishment on Eisov for his guile. May it be soon.