Living With Threat

Yaakov sends Esav the message that despite having lived with Lavan, he has managed to keep the commandments and learned to stand up to powerful figures.

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R. Moshe Alsheich (16th century Torah scholar) explains that Jacob’s words contain an even subtler subliminal message: When you last knew me, Jacob intends to say, I was a person easily influenced by my surroundings, unable to stand up for myself. At first, I could not stand up to Laban, either.  But, I have always known what was important--the mitzvot. And know, that I have become strong--I lived with Laban for twenty years, and his idolatry did not affect my compliance with mitzvot. So, be prepared for a new Jacob, one who can stand up to you, too.

Much has happened to Jacob in the past years, and his contacts with Laban have had a deleterious effect on Jacob’s outlook on life. Where once he dreamed of angels traveling between heaven and earth, eventually his dreams became filled with “striped, spotted and blotched sheep”--increased material accomplishments. So, he was fortunate that Hashem guided him to leave Laban before the situation would worsen. Nevertheless, throughout everything--taryag mitzvot shamarti.

Threat to Spirituality

Jacob’s upcoming confrontation and reconciliation with Esau will also threaten Jacob’s spirituality. This, says the Ramban (Nachmanides), is the message implicit in his wrestling with the angel, the saro shel Esav (Esau’s ministering angel), which will leave him limping: he will survive the clash of ideologies, but it will bring him to the brink of destruction. Yet, throughout, Jacob will be strong, because taryag mitzvot shamarti.

We don’t know when Esau’s belligerence changed to acceptance, nor do we know what brought about the transformation. Surely, Jacob’s triple strategy of “offering, prayer and war-readiness” facilitated the change. But we cannot discount the effectiveness of Jacob’s first subliminal message--saying that he will be able to confront Esau, because he has remained true to the will of Hashem.

There will be many forces that will threaten Jacob. Some will be openly hostile, like Esau; others will present an amiable veneer, like Laban. What all of them have in common is that they endanger Jacob’s relationship with Hashem. Alsheich’s comment is a kal vachomer (an argument from a less stringent to a more stringent case): one who can resist the Labans of the world can certainly stand up to the Esaus.

There are many forces in the world antagonistic to the values of Torah. Some are openly contentious, while others are more devious. Some may be foreign, while others are so similar that they look like a twin.  

The poet, E.E. Cummings wrote, “to be nobody--but yourself--in a world that is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else--means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”

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Rabbi Avraham Fischer

Avraham Fischer is a rabbi at Darche Noam Institutions.