Vayishlach – 3 ways of dealing with adversaries

It is a tradition amongst the rabbis that the way in which Jacob prepared to meet his brother Esau is the model for Jews to deal with adversaries throughout history: through prayer, gifts and battle, or prayer, appeasement and battle – Tefila, doron, milchama. Jacob is coming back after 20 years, and is afraid to see his brother Esau again, as Esau had threatened to kill him for taking his blessing. Several commentators explain that the huge gift of livestock that Jacob presents to Esau is actually Jacob giving back the blessing of material wealth that was Esau’s blessing he had taken unjustly. Jacob says: please take my bracha. He calls him “Adoni”, my lord. So Jacob gives his twin brother back the firstborn rights, as Jacob knows he himself has received the blessing from G-d that matters most to him: the covenant of Abraham, the patriarchy of the Jewish people and the right to the Land of Israel.

The night before the big encounter, Jacob experiences the famously mystical big encounter with a man – “ish” – who wrestles him until daybreak, where he dislocates Jacob’s hip, and then blesses him, changing his name to Israel. The fact that the man is in a hurry at day break makes one think he’s an angel. (It’s similar to the English folk poem and Steeleye Span song ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’, where the ghosts of the woman’s dead children must depart as the cock is crowing.)

After they meet up, exchanging a kiss and hug, Esau says: let’s go on together. Jacob makes excuses, “well, you see, my kids are slow walkers, and my sheep are delicate..” This must be the origin of the Australian expression: “see you later”, which does not mean see you later. Jacob and Esau never meet again in the text. Esau moves to a new home at Mount Seir, later called Edom, while Jacob settles down in Eretz Canaan/Israel.

Commentators say that Edom and Esau represent the Roman Empire and the Christian world in general. They use the model of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who flattered Vespasian and received Yavneh as a centre for rebuilding Jewish life, while the Jewish extremists were busy taunting Rome and burning each other’s food stores, thus leading to the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman siege and battery.

In the same parsha is the disturbing story of the abduction and rape of Jacob’s daughter Dina, followed by the massacre of Shechem by Shimon and Levi. They wanted respect from the Canaanites. “Shall our sister be treated as a harlot, and we do nothing?” they ask their father. But Jacob tells them off, and again on his deathbed.

Sometimes it’s time to use the sword, or we are sitting ducks. The recent operation in Gaza was an obligation on the Israeli government to protect its citizens. Yet the attacks were pinpointed against special targets. In a week when the Palestinians get what they want at the UN, Israel builds more houses. In Australian shules we read in the prayer for the Queen and her representatives in Australia: ‘May He put the spirit of wisdom and understanding into … the hearts of all her counsellors, that they deal kindly and truly with all Israel’. Our current foreign minister is not dealing truly, and it does not augur well for the future. Maybe he is one of the ‘goodists’ as referred to on a recent article featured on this blog. What is Jacob to do? Let’s pray for his wisdom and understanding.

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