Parshat Vayishlach 5783: Distinguishing When Diplomacy or Military Decisiveness is Appropriate

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua Vayishlach is being sponsored by Tzvi and Shari Gherman and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh in honor of Vayishlach being Tzvi’s Bar Mitzvah Parsha. To the Gherman family, many thanks for your sponsorship and your continued kindnesses.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

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Moshe Burt
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Parshat Vayishlach 5783: Distinguishing When Diplomacy or Military Decisiveness is Appropriate

By Moshe Burt

As an introduction to our Parshat Vayishlach, this author has, in previous years, discussed Yaakov’s fight with the moloch, his preparations for, and his confrontation with his estranged brother Eisev. This Parsha always seems to bring to mind that old Four Tops tune: “If you bite My neck, I’ll turn to Stone…”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin notes, in his sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Breish’t on our Parsha Vayishlach (page 191) that the meeting of the two (Yaakov and Eisev) was “a reunion which, according to the Rabbis, is actually more discordant than appears on the surface.”

Indeed, Rabbi Moshe Weissman brings this commentary from his sefer, “The Midrash Says,” Sefer Breish’t (page 319):

[As Yaakov and his wives and offspring approached Eisev] Yaakov himself marched in front of all four groups, saying, “If Eisev will strike, let him strike me first. (Rabbi Weissman citing Breish’t Rabba 78:11)

As soon as Yaakov saw Eisev. he ran towards him and bowed down seven times.

To the ordinary onlooker, it seemed that Yaakov was bowing to Eisev. However, Yaakov, the chosen one of our forefathers, never bowed to Eisev. He bowed in fact to the Shechina. (Rabbi Weissman citing Zohar Hodesh 171, Breish’t Rabbah 78:11)

Yaakov’s conduct must be understood on a dual level. Although, from a superficial viewpoint, his bowing to Eisev seemed to be the act of the weaker succumbing to the physically superior. In reality Yaakov rose above this external view. He never saw the physical oppressor in front of him. He saw the Shechina instead — he bowed to the will of the Shechina, perceiving that it was Hashem who had him placed in this situation of distress. (Rabbi Weissman citing Michtav MiEliyahu Perek 2, page 155)

Eisev’s heart was full of malice. “Rather than shooting Yaakov with my bow,” he thought, “I shall let him come close, bite him, and suck the blood out of his body!” They met and embraced.

Eisev sank his teeth into Yaakov’s neck to bite him, but Yaakov’s neck miraculously converted into solid marble. Eisev’s teeth cracked. Both wept, Yaakov because his neck hurt… from the bite and Eisev for his broken teeth. (Rabbi Weissman citing Breish’t Rabbah 78:12)

This episode was to be a sign for the future. Just as Eisev’s attempt to kill Yaakov had failed, so would Hashem protect his children from the onslaught in the future.

Rabbi Goldin provides a summary regarding the meeting with Eisev (ibid, page 175):

Yaakov introduces his family to Eisev, implores Eisev to accept his gifts, and refuses to receive any gifts in return. Then, in spite of the apparent harmony of the meeting and in spite of Eisev’s arguments to the contrary, the two brothers go their separate ways.

There seems, however, to be a another question regarding Yaakov’s meeting with Eisev, which Rabbi Goldin gets into as he discusses “To Appease or not to Appease.” That question is whether or not Yaakov’s putting himself and his family in possible harms way was avoidable. Consider the opening posuk of our Parsha:

“And [Then] Yaakov sent angels ahead of him to Eisev his brother in the land of Seir, the field of Edom.” (Sefer Breish’t, Perek 32, posuk 4 as rendered to English in both The Sapirstein Edition, “The Torah: with Rashi’s Commentary” and The Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash)

The Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash provides a commentary on the posuk:

According to the Zohar, Yaakov took the initiative in seeking a reconciliation while Yitzchak was still alive, because, given Eisev’s great respect for his father, it seemed logical that he would make peace with Yaakov to avoid saddening their father. Ramban notes that Yaakov could not avoid this potentially dangerous confrontation because the direct route to his parents’ home in the south of the Land took him through Eisev’s habitat of Edom. (The Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash, page 170)

But Rabbi Goldin cites numerous commentaries critical of Yaakov’s initiative toward his brother, several sources indicating possible future consequences to B’nei Yisrael regarding Kingship, the Mishkan, both Batei Mikdashim and more (sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text”, Sefer Breish’t on our Parsha, pages 177-181):

Yaakov adopts a subservient attitude towards Eisev both prior to and during their… reunion. He initiates communication with his brother, repeated refers to Eisev as “my lord,” plies his brother with gifts, bows down to him again and again, in general, diminishes himself before his older brother. (Rabbi Goldin summarizing Sefer Breish’t, Perek 32, posuk 4 through Perek 33, posuk 17)

One source in the Midrash… contends that Yaakov’s plan was flawed from the very outset: “Rav Huna applied the following verse: ‘One who passes by and meddles in strife that is not his own can be compared to an individual who takes a dog by the ears’… (Rabbi Goldin citing Mishlei 26:17) Hashem said to Yaakov: ‘[Eisev] was going on his way and you dispatch a delegation?” (Rabbi Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Breish’t 75:2)

Rav Huna maintains that Yaakov was unnecessarily asking for trouble simply by initiating contact with Eisev. He should have quietly slipped back into Eretz Yisrael without alerting his brother.

…The Ramban claims that the destructive potential of Yaakov’s behavior becomes tragically evident centuries later in the history of the Jews. During the Second Temple period, the Hasmonean kings of Yehudah repeat Yaakov’s mistakes when they willingly enter into a covenant with the Roman Empire. The Ramban contends that this invites the Romans into our lives, opens the door to Roman domination of Yehudah and directly leads to the… downfall of the Second Commonwealth of the Jews and the nation’s exile from Eretz Yisrael. (Rabbi Goldin citing Ramban on Sefer Breish’t, Perek 32, posuk 4)

The Ramban’s remarks acquire… greater poignancy in light of the rabbinic tradition which identifies the Roman Empire as the spiritual heir to Eisev. The Talmud, Midrash and… other sources, including the Ramban…, often refer to Rome as “Edom”, the biblical nation descended from Eisev.

Another Midrashic source goes… further in its condemnation of Yaakov’s behavior. (Rabbi Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah Breish’t 75:11) …Yaakov refers to… Eisev by the title of “my lord” no less than eight times. The rabbis state: “At the moment when Yaakov referred to Eisev by the title of ‘my lord.’ Hashem proclaimed: ‘You have debased yourself and called Eisev “my lord” eight times. By your life! I will establish from his descendants eight kings who will rule over their nation before even one king rules over your children.’ As the Torah states: ‘And these are the kings who ruled in the land of Edom before a king ruled over the B’nei Yisrael.'” (Rabbi Goldin rendering to English Sefer Breish’t, Perek 36, posuk 31)

The Midrash Hagadol connects “Yaakov’s… bow[ing] to Eisev seven times, therefore seven [cherished locations/institutions] were forcibly taken from his [Yaakov’s] children: the Mishkan, Gilgal, Shilo, Nov, Givon, Beit HaMikdash Rishon and Sheini.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Midrash Hagadol Breish’t 33:3)

These sources and others not only condemn Yaakov’s behavior but see within that behavior seeds of disaster and tragedy that will affect his children across the ages.

Rabbi Goldin will now proceed to present “the opposite side of the spectrum” regarding Yaakov’s actions vis-a-vis Eisev (ibid, pages 179-181):

At the the opposite side of the spectrum are rabbinic authorities who do not only defend Yaakov’s conciliatory approach to Eisev but believe that he sets a powerful example of diplomacy which we are meant to follow.

…Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi, editor of the Mishna and leader of the Jews in the Holy Land during the second century of the Common Era… developed a friendship with the Roman Emperor, Antoninus.

Using Yaakov’s behavior toward Eisev as a model, Rabbi Yehudah eschewed his own personal honor in his dealings with the Roman monarch. Through diplomacy and discretion, Rabbi Yehudah maintained good relations with the Roman authorities and was able to protect the interests of the Jews… under Roman rule.

Another Midrashic authority… suggest[s] that Yaakov’s approach to his… brother serve[s] as a model of appropriate behavior towards authority: “Rabbi Yonatan said: Anyone who wishes to placate a king or ruler but is unfamiliar with his ways and tactics should place this chapter [the chapter chronicling the encounter between Yaakov and Eisev] before him and learn… the arts of conciliation and appeasement.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Pesikta Zutrata on Breish’t, Perek 32, posuk 40)

…Sforno underscores approval of Yaakov’s behavior…. A reed survives by bending in the wind while a cedar stands firm and is uprooted. (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 20a) Yaakov’s example teaches us, says the Sforno, that we must be flexible enough to bend — to humble ourselves in order to escape the sword of Eisev’s descendants.

Finally, the Talmud… frames the concept of diplomacy in halachic terms by… stating: “It is permissible to offer false flattery to evildoers in this world.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Sota 41b) Reish Lakish traces the source of this legal ruling directly to Yaakov’s behavior towards Eisev. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Talmud Bavli Sota 41b)

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 181):

What is the correct approach to be taken in the face of hostility? Will conciliation avoid further conflict or be interpreted as weakness on our part and lead to increased danger? How far can diplomacy go in ensuring our safety?

….Each situation calls for its own response and, even then, we can never be certain we are on the right path. Constant ongoing assessment of the circumstances facing us, careful application of both the principles of strength and diplomacy… will… be necessary if we are to meet the challenges of our day.

It seems to this author that the bottom line is that the leaders of the Jews needed to follow the Yaakov/Eisev paradigm when dealing with authority while under the dominion or domination of the nations in order to attempt to maintain favorable relations and see to the protection and security of the Jews. As this author views regarding the Yaakov/Eisev paradigm as applied to Israel, as a sovereign nation of the Jews, the question can be seen either as far more simple or far more complicated. Is diplomacy by a sovereign Israel seen as appeasement, translated by our adversaries as a show of weakness? When must Israel flex its muscles for real and act militarily and decisively in defense of Am Yisrael regarding Hamas in Gaza, sprawling illegal Arab construction in the Negev, Yehudah and Shomron, Hezbollah in Lebanon — the tool of Iran, in Syria — against Iranian troops and weaponry, and against Iran itself, with diplomacy put to side, regardless of what Israel’s “mainstream media” or the world says, including the United States?

As to whether or not the Yaakov/Eisev meeting was avoidable, Ramban’s point (above in Artscroll Stone Chumash commentary, page 170) regarding the direct route to his parents’ home causing Yaakov and his family to travel through Edomite territory would seem to this author to carry very much weight.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now in his second year at home in Eretz Yisrael and embarking on a new chapter in his life. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her spirit and memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of eight years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.