Applying the wisdom of Torah to contemporary challenges is never simple; it is exceptionally challenging when it comes to Jewish foreign affairs. Our Sages taught us that Parshas Vayishlach contains the template for how Jews should conduct themselves with foreign entities, containing as it does the reunion of Yaakov and Eisav, and the conflict with the people of Shechem. In fact the Midrash (78:15; see Ramban 33:15) relates that it was common practice for Jewish leaders to review this Parsha in anticipation of their own visits and interactions with the leadership of the Roman Empire. In our own time, Menachem Begin studied this Parsha before his first visit with President Jimmy Carter.
Current events clearly require the vigorous engagement of the Jewish community in Israel and across the world in response to the threats that we face. They also serve as a clear warning that when your enemies are actively planning their next attack is not the time to avoid confrontation. They should, however, not lead us to forget one of the core lessons of Vayishlach, that there are other times when we should be less frontal, that not every problem calls for immediate resolution, and that some challenges need not be immediately met.
While that may not sound courageous, it may be wise.
Our parsha begins with Yaakov’s return to Eretz Yisrael following an absence of 20 years. He had left after infuriating Eisav to the point that it was a mortal danger for Yaakov to remain nearby. Now, 20 years later, as he was about to return, he reaches out to Eisav to make peace. Yaakov’s words are humble and conciliatory, shared in a way that would make Eisav feel that Yaakov had not and would not cause him any real harm.
The overture to Eisav was a fiasco, stirring up the old anger instead of producing a resolution. Eisav promptly gathered his 400 men and set off to fight Yaakov.
The Midrash Rabba (quoted by Ramban in his introduction to Vayishlach) considers this a negative lesson to be learned from Yaakov. While Yaakov’s approach to the second phase of the confrontation—appeasement, prayer, and warfare—serves as a model for how we are to prepare for conflict, his initial engagement was deemed a failure, an example of how not to do things.
Yaakov, notes the Midrash, “grabbed the ears of the dog” (per Mishlei 26:17), when he really should have “let sleeping dogs lie.” Eisav would have let things go indefinitely had Yaakov practiced avoidance rather than sought resolution.
Yaakov survived the initial encounter with Eisav and learned his own lesson. Though he had apparently succeeded for the moment in winning over Eisav, who hugged and kissed him when they did finally meet, Yaakov understood that true resolution had not been achieved. Thus, when Eisav proposed the two of them staying together long-term, Yaakov responded by avoidance, suggesting that Eisav go ahead until Yaakov would catch up with him, something he had no intention to do until the end of days.
In our complex world, there are many problems and challenges that we must confront and attempt to quickly resolve. But not all. Patience, wisdom, and the guidance of Parshas Vayishlach are critical tools to help us identify the issues and situations we need to avoid until their ultimate resolution.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.