April 16, 2024
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Vayishlach: Yaakov’s Historical Roadmap

Toward the end of the first century, at least two delegations of Jewish leaders traveled to Rome to plead the case of the weakened Jewish nation. Jerusalem had been gutted and the Roman empire issued harsh decrees against the remaining feeble Jewish presence. Rabbi Akiva participated in the second delegation in 96 AD and reviewed Parshat Vayishlach to orient himself before negotiating with Roman authorities who clearly possessed leverage and enjoyed the “upper hand” over the defeated Jews. Parshat Vayishlach encrypts codes to help navigate during grim moments of Jewish history. Though we live in our renewed state, we are still struggling with the final vestiges of a 1,900-year exile. Ideally, this parsha should illuminate several important parameters for our condition:

1.Caution along with confidence.

Rashi cites a midrash that highlights Yaakov’s multi-layered preparation for this frightening encounter: prayer, conciliatory gestures and military tactics. Under general conditions, when facing uncertainty, we are meant to carefully calibrate between unconditional faith and practical measures. Ein somchin al hanes (don’t rely upon supernatural intervention) is a doctrine that encourages a delicate balance between bitachon and hishtadlut (human efforts). Maintaining this balance becomes even more difficult when operating under conditions of “prophetic assurances.” The gemara in Brachot showcases Yaakov and David Hamelech as two personalities who exercised extreme caution and were consistently worried about potential threats. Each enjoyed direct Divine prophecies ensuring their safety and success, yet despite these pledges they understood how delicate their conditions were, exercised great caution and, at least in Yaakov’s circumstance, didn’t act irresponsibly based on unrealistic confidences. Living through the euphoria of the last 70 years in Israel and watching our fledgling state prosper in so many sectors, we sometimes become giddy over the fulfillment of Divine prophecies and become overconfident in the assured and inevitable success in our future. Sometimes this deludes us into believing that our trajectory is meteoric, our growth invincible and our decisions bullet-proof. Yaakov’s cautionary behavior and his multiple practical steps to placate his sworn enemy and prepare militarily provide important templates for our own struggle and our own ability to advance in a cautionary fashion. Exercising caution and pragmatism cannot be interpreted as less faithful or less pious!

2. Elusive Serenity

It is easy to imagine Yaakov’s exasperation upon arriving in Israel and receiving intel about Eisav’s 400-man guerrilla force rapidly approaching. He had just survived 20-plus years with a swindling father-in-law who ultimately sought his assassination. Yaakov barely escaped Lavan’s assault and presumably was anticipating a long-awaited-for and rightfully earned period of calm. Immediately, he is plunged into a confrontation with Eisav. Deftly escaping his brother’s murderous claws, he is then thrust into a full-scale and alarming military conflict with the inhabitants of Shechem. Finally, as the tumult of our parsha concludes, he understandably anticipates calm and peace. Yet, as Rashi comments in the opening section of Vayeishev: “Y’akov coveted tranquility, but immediately the tempest of Yosef erupted.” Life in general provides a series of struggles, and after overcoming one spate we unrealistically expect quiet and calm; in reality, after overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges, we often face new tests. What is true in general is even more true for the Chosen People and even more exaggerated when attempting to settle the land of history. In the:and of Israel, time proceeds at an accelerated pace and even more so during periods of historical shift. The pace is breakneck, and often, seeking respite, we merely uncover additional adversaries and challenges. It takes great stamina to live through this “turnstile,” but Yaakov’s perseverance mandates that we demonstrate equivalent endurance.

3. Diverse Enemies

Yaakov faces no fewer than three existential threats in the two sections of Vayeitzei and Vayishlach. It is difficult to identify a common thread or common agenda among his adversaries. Lavan is driven by greed and jealousy, Eisav by revenge and historical struggle, and the locals in Shechem are motivated by the seemingly justified perception of having been deceived and exploited. The only common denominator is their unified hostility to Yaakov, which apparently is a very popular platform at the point of history that Jewish peoplehood is gelling.

It is quite bizarre—but instructive—that anti-Semitism in the U.S. is associated primarily with white supremacist groups who portray the Jews as part of a globalist conspiracy and feel threatened by a perception that Jews are actively compromising the purity of their naturalist country. Right across the ocean, anti-Semitism is fueled by hyper-left-wing liberalism championing the plight of the underdog and casting the Jews and their state as racist-nationalists who tread upon shared humanist values while advancing their tribal agenda. How can we be guilty of mutually exclusive agendas? It is reminiscent of the first part of the 20th century where Jews along the Russian and German front were routinely accused by Germans of communist sympathies while simultaneously being alleged by Russians of capitalist inclinations. It is impossible to imagine European anti-Semites
sitting at the same table as U.S.-based Jew-haters. Such is the nature of anti-Semitism that, as a human plague, it manifests in vastly different pathologies and it crosses ideological fault lines.

4. Stages” of the Historical Process

The drama of this face-off between Yaakov and Eisav suggests that a final resolution—one way or another—will be swiftly achieved. Yet the resolution feels more like a “tie” or an armistice rather than a triumph. Eisav offers to escort Yaakov, who postpones “ad ki yavo hayom,” until the “day” arrives. Our Chazal interpret this deferral as a reference to the end of history. Though this confrontation was dramatic, it wasn’t final or decisive; finality will only arrive at the end of history when the Edom descendants of Eisav are held accountable for their treatment of Yaakov’s Jewish grandchildren.

Our generation has been empowered to participate in shaping the conclusion of history. This empowerment sometimes raises unrealistic expectations of finality and decisiveness. History doesn’t always follow these impulsive expectations or the simple timelines of the human imagination. More often, history unfolds in waves—oftentimes separated by decades and oftentimes threaded with pauses and even regressions. We should be grateful to be part of a “process” but must also realize that it is a development that could evolve over hundreds of years. There may be several complications, both foreign and domestic, that can’t be solved in our generation but must be managed or deferred for later periods. Expecting immediate and decisive solutions is naïve and may encourage poor decisions based on hopes of immediate resolution rather than long-term evolution.

Rabbi Akiva decoded the intricate roadmap of history embedded in Parshat Vayishlach. Are we equally proficient?

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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