Vayishlach - Preparing For War

Torah Observations
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Yaakov returns to his native land.  Here, he will meet with his twin brother Eisav—and Yaakov has every reason to believe that Eisav wants to kill him.

The parashah of Vayishlach (“[Yaakov] Sent”) begins with the story of how Yaakov prepared himself to encounter his estranged brother.  He did three things: He prepared a gift, prayed to G-d, and equipped himself for war.  These three actions all had deep meaning.  Let’s start with the third. Yaakov divided his entire entourage, as well as all his livestock and camels, into two groups. His calculation was as follows: If one detachment is massacred, at least the second will be spared. 

Yaakov’s action teaches us that we must never concentrate everything in one place. Later in Jewish history, when the evil Queen Izevel (Jezebel) persecuted the Prophets, the Prophet Ovadyah hid one hundred people in two caves, fifty in each, secretly delivering bread and water to each.  Now, it would seem safer to have to sneak into one place than two—but if that hiding place were to be found, everyone in it would be gone. So, Ovadyah followed the lead of Yaakov.

The Talmud tells us that this rule also applies to financial matters: You must not invest all of your capital in the purchase of real estate or stocks. I know of a case of a very rich man going broke because he spent all of his money—millions of dollars—buying land. Now, he is in debt. I also remember a sad case of the same kind happening back in the Soviet Union; it was connected with bonds. And so, considering potential failure, part of your money should be invested in one business and part in another, but another part of it must be kept with you.

Now, why was Yaakov afraid of Eisav?  After all, G-d had promised him: “And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land.”

We find the answer in Yaakov’s second act, in his prayer: “…for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav, for I am afraid of him, lest he come and strike me, [and strike] a mother with children” (Bereishit 32:11-12).  While Yaakov was not afraid for himself, he had no guarantee about his wives and children.

And now about the gift: Still hoping to appease his brother and avoid combat, Yaakov sends Eisav 200 female and 20 male goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 camels, 40 cows with ten bulls, 20 female and ten male donkeys—a very large gift.  What’s more, Yaakov orders his staff to present this gift not all at once but rather, to “saturate Eisav’s eyes.” On approaching Eisav, they were to keep their distance from one another in three groups; the second group would only appear once the first was fully in front of Eisav. This way, they’d all appear gradually—first one, then the second, and only then the third.

Here we find “an indicator for the sons”—meaning, a life lesson for Jews from the Patriarchs. More than once in Jewish history, the Jews were saved by financial gifts to various powers, from individual police officers to dukes and beyond. While six million died, quite a few were in fact saved this way during the Second World War—and hundreds of thousands could have been saved if the Jews had walked the path of the Torah, remembering Yaakov’s lesson, and not following any other considerations.

Now back to our parashah. The night before encountering his brother, Yaakov transferred his wives and children across the Yabok River. The Torah (Bereishit 32:25-29) then tells us: “And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not prevail against him, he touched the socket of his hip, and the socket of Yaakov’s hip had become dislocated as he wrestled with him.  And he [the angel] said, ‘Let me go, for dawn is breaking,’ but he [Yaakov] said, ‘I will not let you go unless you have blessed me.’ So, he said to him, “What is your name?’ and he said, ‘Yaakov.’  And he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov but Yisroel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] G-d and with men, and you have prevailed.’”  What does “Yisroel” mean? Sar is an important, respected person, and also a nobleman, a minister; thus, Sarel means a big man before the Lord.

We have already said that Yaakov, coming out of his mother’s womb after Eisav, held onto Eisav’s heel—which is why he got his name.  But the word Yaakov also means to bypass or outwit—that is, Yaakov’s name contains an allusion to the fact that he cunningly won the rights of the firstborn.  Now no one will say that Yaakov was blessed through cunning.

Why did the angel (according to the Talmudic Sages, Yaakov’s opponent was the patron angel of Eisav) had to fight with Yaakov, the father of the Jewish Nation, and dislocate his hip? And when the angel, feeling defeated, wants to stop the struggle and leave, why does Yaakov not let him and asks for a blessing—and from the one who dislocated his hip?

To understand the meaning of the story about Yaakov’s struggle with the angel, let us again recall the rule of “The actions of the fathers are an indicator for the sons.”

So, Yaakov escapes the persecution of his brother Eisav—and we have already said that the descendants of Eisav are the Romans. But Eisav’s descendants are also the Germans. When Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany, visited Jerusalem in 1898, all the Jews of the city came out to greet him, except for two: Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and the tzadik Rabbi Tzvi Shapiro. Why not? They later explained that they had heard from Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin of Brisk (the Brisker Rav) that some Germanic tribes were descendants of our worst enemy Amalek. (The Brisker Rav in turn said he heard it in the name of the Vilna Gaon.) And Amalek, like Tzefo, the ancestor of the Romans, is also the grandson of Eisav, so the rabbis did not want to honor Amalek. The sign of Amalek’s descendants is an outer gloss covering a deep inner hatred of Jews and Judaism.  They didn’t just kill, they killed sadistically, with torture; the name Amalek consists of two words: “Am,’ or nation , and lek, or lapping, a reference to a lust for blood.

Eisav thus is a symbol of forces trying to lead Jews from the path of Torah and destroy their faith in the Creator.  So before the start of this struggle, “Yaakov was left alone.” Rashi comments that that night, having transferred all of his children to the other side of the river, Yaakov returned to collect any remaining small utensils—at which point “a man wrestled with him until dawn.”  As soon as a Jew is attracted by material goods while remaining in a non-Jewish environment, Eisav will immediately begin to fight with him. And that struggle goes on continuously, “all night”—that is, all the time, until the exile ends, until the “day” of Mashiach rises.

The root of the word “vayei’aveik” (“and [a man] wrestled”) is close to the word “avak,” or dust. The Talmud tells us that during the struggle between Yaakov and the angel, the dust that was kicked up “rose all the way to the throne of the Almighty.”

But what does that mean?  As we have already said, Eisav symbolizes the non-Jewish environment trying to lead the Jews away from the path of Judaism. Eisav appears under various masks and tries with all of his might to put the dust in Yaakov’s eyes so that he does not see the “throne of the Almighty”—not seeing that G-d is the King of the Universe, that He rules over the world and that there are no accidents in His world.

The Talmud also records two opinions about how the angel fighting with him appeared to Yaakov. According to one version, the angel came in the form of a great sage—but according to another, he looked like a dastardly criminal. 

Now, these are two manifestations of Eisav. In one, Eisav tries to physically destroy the Jews, as done by some of the Roman Emperors like Hadrian and Titus, as well as the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusaders, and the marauding hordes of Bogdan Khmelnytsky in 1648, Symon Petliura in the late 1910s and the Nazis in WWII. 

But, Eisav then sees that it’s impossible to destroy them all—so Eisav dons the mask of the sage to “prove” that Judaism is a deception and delusion that the Jews borrowed from the Egyptians, the Babylonians, from anywhere, for their own benefit, and that we must get rid of it. Such was done across the millennia by this “enlightened” edition of Eisav, from the ancient Greek Hellenists to the French materialists.  Critics of the Tanach have been shamed in our day by the results of archaeological research; today, the absurdity of statements that the Tanach was written later than when Jewish tradition says so is obvious. The Marxists and other “bearers of progress” acted in the same way. 

In his book, “From the Vilna Ghetto to Nuremberg: Memoir and Testimony,” Yiddishist poet Avraham Sutzkever (1913-2010) recounts how the same Germans who called themselves friends of the Jews and studied Judaica at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1930s, were sent to Vilna in 1941 to hunt for ancient manuscripts and Torah scrolls—rare books of outstanding rabbis, writers, and figures of Jewish culture-to destroy them. By the way, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the Armed Forces High Command of Nazi Germany, was also the son of notorious Bible critic Carl Keitel.