The Medrash Rabbah informs us that when the Sages of Israel would travel to Rome to lobby for the needs of the Jewish People, they would first study this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, in-depth. It is the Torah portion which best illustrates the Rabbinic teaching of “the experiences of the father are an indicator of what the children will experience in the future.” Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav, according tour sages, is seen as the precursor to all encounters with the enemy.
This past week, Yaakov, the Jewish People, once again, encountered his enemy Eisav. This time Eisav did not yell Allah Akbar, this time Eisav did not write a right-wing nationalistic manifesto, this time Eisav was a Hebrew Israelite. But it’s all the same. The age-old lethal encounter between the strong and mighty Eisav and the faithful Jewish People was and is being reenacted in our times.
Like the sages in Roman times, we too can look to Yaakov’s strategies and actions as inspiration and guidance. Yakov, our Sages point out, prepared in three ways; with tributes or gifts, with prayer, and by preparing for war.
Though giving gifts to our government would be illegal, the notion of working with those in power is something we must embrace in our modern fight against anti-Semitism. For all its shortcomings, I, for one, am grateful that the President issued an executive order to protect Jewish students on college campuses. Aside from the outright violence that is taking place on college campuses, the exclusion of Jews from student government positions for simply going to Israel, the blaming of Israel for all the world’s problems, the most thinly veiled anti-Semitism that is taking place on campus has to stop, and receiving help from the government is something I welcome and am truly grateful for. And I am grateful for the many Jews and national Jewish organizations such as the Orthodox Union who took a page out of the Yakov Avinu playbook and worked together with our government.
Prayer, it goes without saying, is always appropriate, most certainly in a time of need. And it’s important that we acknowledge this time as being one of need. There are only so many anti-Semitic acts that could take place before we acknowledge that something is broken here. And as a people of faith, prayer, praying more than usual, praying with more fervor than usual, is incumbent upon each and every one of us. Not only after the next terrible attack (l’a), but today and today and the next day, in a time of distress we turn to G-d for mercy.
And lastly, like Yaakov we must prepare for war. No other time in the past two thousand years have we been able to do so like we do today. Not only ensuring that our shuls and schools are protected and that our cities and country is safe. But the fact that there is an army, one of the most sophisticated armies in the world, whose states purpose is to protect the Jewish People, not only in Israel, but anywhere they are found. We are a peace-loving people, and avoid war at all costs, but like Yaakov, we have to acknowledge the fact that there are nations who would like us dead, and having a force prepared to fight is an essential part of combatting modern anti-Semitism.
Politics, prayer, and war. That’s how Yaakov prepared for his showdown with Eisav, and that’s how we will do the same.
But the story of Yaakov and Eisav does not end there. After preparing himself in these three manners, the Torah describes Yaakov going to sleep. And then he wakes up in middle of the night. He is undoubtedly filled with fear and anxiety, uncertainty about what will be, and so he cannot sleep. (see Rav Hirsch) He wakes everyone up and continues travelling, he carries his family and belongings over the Jabbuk stream, nachal Yabbok. And of course, famously, he is left alone, and he struggles and fights with the mysterious angel.
There’s a detail there that for years I glossed over. Where is Yaakov travelling that night? The assumption we, and most commentators seem to make is that he is continuing on his journey towards Eisav. But the Rashbam says that is not the case. You know what he’s doing? You know where he’s going? He’s running away. He is afraid to encounter Eisav. He is overwhelmed by the prospect of an overpowering force that he cannot defeat. And so in the middle of the night, he changes his mind. I’m going back to Lavan. I’m running away.
Many of us can relate to Yaakov’s anxiety, to Yaakov’s feeling of overwhelmingness – we’ve done so much, and nothing seems to be changing, there are no solutions in sight. And so we run. It’s far more pleasant to focus on Lamar Jackson than on the fact that three people were shot and killed in a kosher grocery store less than 3 hours away.
And it’s not just anti-Semitism that we’re feeling overwhelmed by and running away from. We all have something we’re afraid of, something that we stick in our closet and double and triple lock with the hope that it never comes out to haunt us. We’re all running away from something.
Says the Rashbam, you know how that angel was that fought with Yaakov? It wasn’t the archangel of Eisav as many commentators interpret it to be. You know what this angel was? It was a messenger from G-d who was stopping him. It was a messenger from G-d letting him know that you cannot keep on running away. You cannot distract yourself with your job, with Netflix, and even with good deeds. You need to stop running. Face your demons. Face the evil that exists in the world. Face the evil that exists in your closet.
And Yaakov listens. He starts to struggle. He wrestles. He grapples with evil. But it’s a stalemate. He’s not able to move forward, he’s not able to change.
Right over the horizon is a new name, Yisrael, a representation of a new man, who has dealt with his demons, with his weaknesses, with his past. But right now he can’t get there. Until, vateika kaf yerech Yaakov. The angel dislodges his leg. He breaks a part of Yaakov. Something gives. The ground Yaakov stood on a moment before is no longer. And you know what that represents?
It represents the sacrifices we have to make to fight evil. To choose but one of many examples, a few weeks ago, Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took the unprecedented move of calling out the “poison” in the Labor Party in the UK. Never before has a chief rabbi waded into politics this way and Rabbi Mirvis got plenty of criticism for doing so, putting his role as a chief rabbi at risk in the process. But Rabbi Mirvis understood that for change to take place you have to sacrifice, you have to give something up.
In all of our battles, internal and external, what holds us back is not our lack of awareness that there’s a problem – nah, we’re the most self-aware generation that ever lived. What holds us back is that we want it all. We want change but we’re not willing to sacrifice anything in the process. We want better relationships but we’re not willing to make ourselves vulnerable. We want more meaning in life but we’re not willing to change our lives around. So we just struggle.
To change, the angel taught Yaakov, you have to give something up. We’re all holding onto things, and in turn those things are holding us back. It’s comfortable to stay where we are. It’s comfortable to go back to the same patterns of frustration and fights that were so accustomed to. But the angel taught Yaakov, it takes not only awareness and not only courage to change, it takes sacrifice. Leave go of that resentment, that fear, that comfort. And only then will you become a Yisrael.
We would be remiss if we didn’t read just one more verse from this invaluable section. After being injured, after being renamed, Yaakov limps off the battle-field to meet up with his family, he encounters Eisav, and then the Torah states, vayavo Yaakov shalem ir Shechem. That for all the struggle, for all the challenge, for all the sacrifice, Yaakov arrives at the next city intact.
Before those murderers attacked the kosher store, they encountered Detective Joseph Seals at a nearby cemetery and shot him dead. Immediately after the tragic news broke, an Orthodox Jewish group from Flatbush, N.Y., created a fundraiser to help Detective Seals’ family. They were hoping to raise $25,000. More than 1400 donations came in, ranging from $2 to $200 and in less than 24 hours, over $48,000 was raised. What an incredible and beautiful Kiddush Hashem.
Vayavo Yaakov Shalem Ir Shechem– we are diminished at times, we must sacrifice at times, but our essential character, will never be lost.
Politics, prayer, and war. A recognition that we can never outrun our problems. A recognition that to change, we need to be courageous, we need to sacrifice our comforts. And a firm belief in the eternal goodness of the Jewish People. Vayavo Yaakov Shalem Ir Shechem, may we, like Yaakov our father, arrive in peace at our destination, and see an end to this senseless hate.