To say we live in strange times is an understatement when we consider that, just a month ago, anyone who suggested that Israel’s leading allies in the struggle against Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be France and Saudi Arabia would have been a candidate for institutionalization. The French are not exactly renowned for their war-mongering, and the Saudi’s hatred of Israel and Jews is religiously-based and implacable (Jews are still not allowed to visit Saudi Arabia under normal circumstances.) But the French, the Saudis and the Israelis – each for different reasons – do not want to live in a world where mullahs can go nuclear.
This odd twist confirms the statement attributed to John Foster Dulles, himself noted for his hostility to Israel, that “The United States of America does not have friends; it has interests.” Or, as others have said it: “Nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” Part of the current situation arises from the recognition – despite the Obama administration rhetoric – that America has retreated from its dominant role in world leadership, and that vacuum has been filled by others – especially by Russia’s Putin, whom Israel’s PM Netanyahu visited this week.
But as the world changes, there is one remaining constant, itself mindboggling.
There is no more enigmatic or consequential story in the Torah than Yaakov’s encounter and struggle with the angel of Esav. Yaakov was left alone and a “man” wrestled with him until dawn. Yet, when the two brothers finally met, Esav was docile – embracing, kissing and crying on his brother Yaakov, as one would expect from long-separated siblings. Nonetheless, our Sages debated the extent of Esav’s sincerity. Rashi (Breisheet 33:4) cites all the opinions: that Esav was genuinely touched; that Esav was faking it and meant ill; and a third opinion, as well, that it was both: “Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai stated: it is a well known halacha (law) that Esav hates Yaakov, but at this moment he was overwhelmed with compassion and kissed him with all his heart.” But what kind of law is that? How can an emotion be based on a law? And, if it is indeed so, why should it be any different here? How are we to ever know when our brother Esav means well or not?
A halacha is an immutable law. It defines a reality that cannot be changed or undone – but needs analysis. If Esav is synonymous with the major powers in the world, then this “halacha” is an historical verity, and should not at all be a surprise to us, even today. Less than seventy years after the Holocaust, the reservoir of world guilt has been completely depleted. It is still dangerous to be a Jew – in Israel, where a sleeping soldier can be stabbed to death on a public bus by a teenager who undoubtedly will be released from prison in a few short years; in Europe, in South America. Hardly a week goes by in which a Jew is not attacked in some part of the world for being or looking Jewish. A non-Jewish Swedish reporter recently donned a kipa to determine if these reports were true; he wrote that he spent that day in fear for his life.
The propriety of mila and shechita are being widely debated where they have not already been banned – and all under the cover of a higher morality. Iran boasts about developing the capability to eradicate Israel off the map – as King David wrote long ago (Tehillim 83:5) “Come, let us cut them off from being a nation and the name of Israel will be no more.” Too many others are indifferent or supportive, worried only about whether or not it will affect them.
The American President, convinced of his rhetorical abilities and showing none of the infirmity of his growing domestic unpopularity, is ready to have a signing ceremony that depends on the trustworthiness of the Iranians. Obama’s most recent offer to Iran was, essentially, “if you like your nuclear weapons program, you can keep your nuclear weapons program – as long as you say you won’t.” If and when it fails, and the Iranian bomb looms over Israel and the Middle East, he can always add: “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.” After all, that line is already in the teleprompter.
Rav Moshe Bleicher, former Rosh Yeshiva in Shavei Hevroin, wrote that Esav’s power is the antithesis of that of Yaakov, and indeed more popular than Yaakov’s. Both Esav and Yaakov believe in tikkun olam, perfecting the world – something everybody loves. Esav, the “man of the field,” knows how to develop the world. He is extremely talented in that sphere. He forms governments – stable governments – develops economies, and cultivates resources. The Talmud (Masechet Avoda Zara 2b) says of Rome (Esav) that it builds the infrastructure that makes life better and promotes the common good – bridges, markets, bathhouses, civilization, science, entertainment, and health care. Over the centuries, Esav also fashioned values that now animate Western society, and that sound very good as well – equality, rights, free expression and others. Compared to what Esav the nation brings to the world, what does Yaakov the nation offer? A few good sermons? Conscience? Comedians? Nobel Prizes?
It is no wonder that Yaakov feared their confrontation – and at the very moment when his life in exile was over (so he thought) and his existence as a nation in its own land was beginning anew. It is very hard to compete with Esav. We have lost more Jews to the words of Esav than to his sword. To many Jews, the fields of Esav are much more alluring than the tents of Yaakov, and always have been.
That is why “it is a well known halacha (law) that Esav hates Yaakov.” Esav is a counterforce to the children of Yaakov. When we stray and stumble, when we come too close to aping the world of Esav, then his hatred overflows for no discernible reason and forces us to look at ourselves. And his hatred is inexplicable, as is the world’s obsession with Israel, as is its focus on Israel’s imagined sins and its utter disregard for real massacres occurring elsewhere. In fact, there are places in the world today where Jews are hated and the haters do not even know why – places where Jews are hated and the haters have never even met a Jew.
When the brothers met after their long separation, Esav still hated Yaakov, but he had compassion when he realized that Yaakov was no threat to him. The world was his. While Esav was conquering surrounding tribes and building his empire, Yaakov was rearing children and raising sheep. Yaakov was limping, wounded, weak and submissive; there was no need for Esav’s enmity. It would take time for Yaakov’s family – his nation – to grow and develop, to internalize his ideals and to represent the G-d’s will in the world in a way that impresses people with our morality and goodness. That is when the battle will again be joined. That still hasn’t happened, and it won’t, if week after week, the world is shocked (or, by now, probably amused) by the sordid revelations in the tabloids about some sort of misconduct in the Jewish world.
That is not the reality of Jewish life, but that is a growing perception, and only we can change the perception.
Esav develops the earth – his “fields” – but only Yaakov and his sons can unite the heavens and the earth – to exalt the world so that it can become the repository of G-d’s truth and His presence. That is the ongoing struggle of Yaakov – to transform ourselves, our families, our homes, and our lives in points of holiness for the betterment of all mankind.
Thank you for your continued excellent analysis of world affairs. I’ve never really thought about Esau and Jacob’s in the modern world; thank you for opening up and expanding my understanding.
Rabbi, I went back and re-read Genesis Chapt. 25-34. Am having trouble making the connections and tying up all the loose ends you present in your blog. You sure got a lot more out of the Esau/Jacob/twins history then what was taught to us in our bible studies. Thanks for sending the blog. Very thought provoking.
Rabbi Pruzansky said:
“We have lost more Jews to the WORDS of Esav than to his SWORD.”
The letters of SWORD can be rearranged to spell WORDS.
Did Rabbi Pruzansky intend that he wrote that sentence?
@Charles A Deupree: Your troubles come from the fact that Jewish Biblical exegesis includes huge bodies of works by Jewish sages throughout the ages, as well as a complex and lengthy tradition of the meaning of each biblical passage. Normative Jewish study of the Torah always includes the wisdom of ancient scholars such as Rashi, Maimonides, and the early sages of the Talmud, who committed to paper the Oral Law. That Oral Law accompanied the Written Law when it was revealed on Mt. Sinai. Jews believe that these two compnents of the Law are integral, and equally divine. A rabbinic teacher from my college days used to say, in reference to the Torah, “without Rashi, you know nothing.”