Vayishlach: Bowing to the Enemy, Then and Now

What would the Ramban have said had he seen the modern rulers of Israel's obsequiousness before the rulers of modern-day Rome, Turkey, and the Arabs?! And how will future generations rationalize how they brought the enemies of Israel into Israel?!

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Parashat Vayishlach opens with Jacob, returning home after 34 years, sending emissaries ahead of himself and his entourage on a reconnaissance mission to see what his twin brother Esau was doing.

Whether these emissaries human agents (following Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonatan to Genesis 32:4, and as Rashbam seems to imply) or angels (following Rashi, the Kli Yakar, and Midrash Tanhuma, Vayishlach 2, Mishpatim 19), the results of Jacob’s conciliatory message to his twin brother reverberate through Jewish history.

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) writes in his introduction to Parashat Vayishlach: “This section was written to show how G-d rescued His servant and ‘saved him from a power stronger than himself’ (Jeremiah 31:10) by sending an angel who would rescue him. It also teaches us that he did not trust to his own righteousness, and did all he could to save himself. And it also contains an omen for all generations, because everything that happened to our forefather with Esau his brother continues to happen to us throughout the generations with Esau’s descendants. So it behoves us to cling to the way of the tzaddik (righteous man, ed.) by preparing ourselves in the three ways that he prepared himself: prayer, gifts, and saving himself by fighting or by fleeing”.

To be sure, conciliation has its place; but Jacob, out of fear of his violent brother, became overly servile. Calling him “my lord” eight times (Genesis 32:5, 6, 19, 33:8, 13, 14, 15) was surely inappropriate – particularly after Esau had relinquished his birthright to his younger twin.

Jacob instructed his emissaries to explain his absence to Esau with the words “I have dwelt with Laban, and I delayed until now” (32:5). The S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) comments that his phrase “I delayed until now” (32:5) was intended to placate Esau still further: “Therefore I did not come to bow down to you until now”. Jacob hereby implies that he would have bowed down to Esau sooner, if only he would have had the opportunity.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) notes that the word garti (“I have dwelt”) occurs only twice in the entire Tanakh: here (“I have dwelt with Laban”), and when King David laments, “Woe unto me, that garti, I have dwelt in Meshech, that I have resided among the tents of Kedar” (Psalms 120:5); and he explains: “Because Jacob feared Esau and called him ‘my lord’, even though G-d had already promised him that ‘I shall protect you wherever you go’ (Genesis 28:15), he caused his descendants to be wanderers throughout the nations”.

Hence it is appropriate that Jacob’s choice of words – garti, “I have dwelt” – would centuries later be echoed by King David, in his prophetic lament for the woes of exile.

Significantly and ominously, King David in the 120th Psalm echoes Jacob’s words when he laments the exile among Meshech and Kedar. Meshech was one of the sons of Japheth, and by extension the founder of one of the seventy nations of the world (Genesis 10:2). The Talmud (Yoma 10a) states that Meshech is Musia, a region in Asia Minor – that is, the vicinity of modern-day Turkey. And indeed, both the Targum Yonatan and the Targum Yerushalmi (Genesis 10:2) equate Meshech with Turkey.

The Ibn Ezra, commenting on Psalms 120:5, quotes Yosef Ben Gurion (Josephus Flavius) that “Meshech are the people of Tushkana” – likely a reference to Tuscany, in the heart of modern Italy, the primordial ancestor of Rome, who originated in Turkey. And Kedar, one of the sons of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13), refers to the Arabs.

So King David prophetically laments the distress caused by the joint persecution of Rome, Turkey, and the Arabs, and epitomises it with his heart-rending words, “For too long my soul has dwelt with haters of peace. I am peace; but when I speak, they are for war” (Psalms 120:6-7).

All this suffering is the echo of Jacob’s servile posturing before his unworthy brother Esau, renamed Edom, the primordial ancestor of Rome. Did he really have to go out of his way to humble himself before his brother who in his younger years had sold his birthright so casually?

Indeed according to the Midrash, “When Jacob called Esau ‘my lord’, G-d said to him: You humiliated yourself by calling Esau ‘my lord’ eight times. By your life! I will raise from his descendants eight kings before your descendants, as it says ‘And these are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king from the Children of Israel reigned’ (Genesis 36:31)” (Bereishit Rabbah 75:11)

The Midrash quotes Rabbi Huna’s teaching: “‘One who grabs a dog by the ears is like a passer-by who interferes in a fight that is not his’ (Proverbs 26:17)… G-d said to Jacob: Esau was going on his way, and you sent [these messengers] to him saying ‘Thus says your servant Jacob…’.

Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Siymon opened his discourse with the verse, ‘What will you say when He punishes you?! You yourself have taught them to rule over you!’ (Jeremiah 13:21). G-d said to Jacob: Esau was going on his way, and you sent [these messengers] to him saying ‘Thus says your servant Jacob…’ (Bereishit Rabbah 75:3).

The Ramban quotes this midrash in his commentary to the first verse in our Parashah: “Because the Negev [the south] of the Land of Israel is next to Edom, and [Jacob’s] father ‘dwelt in the Negev [the southland]’ (Genesis 24:62), he had to pass through Edom, or close by there, which is why he was afraid lest Esau should hear of it. So he pre-empted this by sending messengers to Esau’s land. But the Sages castigated him for this in Bereishit Rabbah”.

The Ramban then quotes the above midrash, and expounds upon it: “In my opinion, this was also a portent that we would be the initiators of our own conquest at the hands of Edom [i.e. Rome]; because the [Hasmonean] kings of the Second Temple period entered into a treaty with the Romans, some of them even going to Rome – and this was the reason that they eventually fell into Rome’s hands. This is mentioned in the words of our Rabbis [Avodah Zarah 8b], and is well known from [secular] books [the historical works of Josephus Flavius]”.

The implications for our own day are truly terrifying. The Ramban, writing almost three-quarters of a millennium ago, followed the direct line from Jacob’s sycophantic servility before Esau to the kings of Israel in the Second Temple era, who brought their own enemies upon themselves and gave them dominion over themselves. What would the Ramban have said had he seen the modern rulers of Israel and their obsequiousness before the rulers of modern-day Rome, Turkey, and the Arabs?!

And how will future generations, when they look back with historical hindsight at the period through which we are living today, rationalize how those who rule Israel today brought the enemies of Israel into Israel?!

And how familiar – how ominously and chillingly and hideously familiar – Jeremiah’s prophetic words ring today: “What will you say when He punishes you?! You yourself have taught them to rule over you!”.

But the corollary is equally powerful, and infinitely more inspiring: just as Jacob was eventually able to rise above his fear, just as Jacob was able to fight with man, with an angel, and with G-d Himself and prevail, and thereby to rise above himself and to become Israel – so to we, in our day, have the ability to rise above our present weaknesses and pleading before our enemies.

Like our ancestor Jacob/Israel, it is within our grasp to defeat all that the nations of the world may throw against us – even to overcome the punishments that G-d Himself holds in store for us – and to become the true Israel that is our pre-determined destiny in this world.