How often does the weekly Torah reading illuminate our current events ? Just about every week, and none more so than this week.
In Parshat Vayishlach, the Torah relates that as Yaakov prepared for his fateful encounter with his estranged brother Esav, “Yaakov (Jacob) became very frightened, and it distressed him” (Breisheet 32:8). What petrified him ? Rashi (11th century) comments: He was “very frightened,” lest Esav kill him, and “distressed,” lest he have to kill others. Leaving aside the obvious fear that Esav would kill Yaakov, notwithstanding G-d’s promise to protect Yaakov from all harm (perhaps that did not apply to Yaakov’s family), why would Yaakov be distressed lest he have to kill others ? The Torah posits, and Jewish law prescribes (Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a), that “if one comes to kill you, arise preemptively and kill him first” ? If Yaakov successfully repulsed his attackers, even struck them before they could attack him, he has followed the Torah’s dictates precisely. Why should that be cause for distress ? It sounds almost …liberal, reminiscent, in fact, of Golda Meir’s lament that she can forgive the Arabs for killing our soldiers, but not forgive them for forcing our soldiers to kill them. Was she right ?
Rav Yaakov Ariel, esteemed Chief Rabbi of Ramat Gan, cited the opinions of two commentators who lived less than a century apart, whose wisdom transcends their generation. The Maharal (Prague, 16-17th centuries) explains that Yaakov was aggrieved that he might have to kill others – either combatants forced into this struggle against their will or non-combatants that are unfortunately killed in every war. These are people who bad fortune causes them to be situated too close to the hostilities. Yaakov was troubled that he would be forced to do this.
R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (Turkey, 16-17th centuries) suggests that Yaakov was anxious for another reason. Granted that the Torah permits – even mandates – self-defense in the face of an aggressor. But this only applies to the victim himself. Regarding the threat to the lives of others – his family, for example – the Torah deems the aggressor a rodef, a pursuer who can be stopped at the cost of his life. But, Jewish law dictates that if it is possible to deter such a rodef through merely injuring him, then it is forbidden to kill him. What distressed Yaakov was that he might be guilty of using “excessive force” in battle, and killing pursuers that he could have stopped through less drastic means.
How interesting ! The twin arguments used primarily against Israel in order to induce guilt in the exercise of their natural right of self-defense – “the death of innocent civilians and the use of excessive force,” both staples of the Goldstone Report and every contrived reaction to any act of self-defense on Israel’s part – were both foreshadowed by biblical commentators half a millennium ago and augured in Yaakov’s encounter with Esav 3½ millennia ago. Yaakov shared these same concerns that confront his descendants today. And how did he respond, notwithstanding these concerns ? He prepared for war, engaged in diplomacy, and prayed to G-d.
The fact that innocent (or not-so-innocent) civilians would be killed in battle or that Yaakov might have to employ “excessive force” to defend his family left him feeling distressed – a natural and most human reaction of an ethical person – but did not at all inhibit his preparations for war, and his conduct of that war (if he had been called on to fight). Yaakov recognized the sad but inevitable reality that people die in war, even innocent people, and that the victor usually uses excessive force (that is why he prevails). We can be distressed by it – but that is the nature of war, and the greater immorality is to be defeated by evildoers because our ethical misgivings about the conduct of war. The enemy, of course, recognizes that, exploits it, and would love to have us wallow in our sensitivities (as in Golda Meir’s statement above). It is a case of “sorry, but we have no choice.”
The Torah portion also describes Yaakov’s preparations to meet his brother, in an effort to mollify him, involving acts of obeisance that were often utilized by subsequent generations in dealing with our adversaries. But at least Yaakov knew with whom he was dealing; do we ?
That is to say, when will Secretary of State Hillary Clinton get the “Jim Baker” treatment ? Baker, who served as President Bush’s (41) Secretary of State, was lambasted – properly so – as a Jew hater and worse for his contemptuous treatment of Israel and American Jews, famously (and publicly) telling the former to call the White House operator when they are “serious about peace,” and suggesting the latter perform an anatomically impossible act because “they don’t vote for us anyway.” But at least Baker had the decency not to hide his contempt.
Hillary Clinton – female, liberal Democrat that she is – has somehow dodged these accusations, even though she – and her boss – have publicly humiliated Israel’s Prime Minister on several occasions and continues to treat him as if he heads a banana republic (which, to his eternal shame, he seems to enjoy). The threats, the demands, the public opposition to Israel’s building in YESHA and the lack of sympathy for Israel’s security concerns likely exceed anything Baker ever said or did – but Hillary gets a free ride. When will Jews wake up ? Hillary Clinton is a faithful servant of her president, and her own husband’s repudiation of Netanyahu in the prime minister’s first term in office does not herald well for US-Israel relations in the near future. Clearly, she is pursuing a similar policy goal as did Bill Clinton – get Netanyahu out of power so a more malleable leader can take over – and clearly Netanyahu is repeating the same mistakes, thinking he can sweet-talk Americans and deceive Israelis at the same time.
Yaakov’s deference to Esav was calculated, as he had certain policy goals in mind that he wished to achieve – survival and then separation. He was successful, because for Yaakov, obsequiousness was a tactic and not a personality. Does Netanyahu have articulated policy goals in mind, or he is being seduced by empty promises that will not at all benefit Israel in the long or short term ?
We can only pray – as Yaakov also did – for a return of Jewish sense and pride, honesty in evaluating who are friends and who are adversaries, courage and knowledge. And for that guidance, we are blessed with our Torah, eternally holy and eternally relevant.