In last week’s Torah portion, we witnessed one of the most breathtaking conflicts in Biblical history.
In last week’s Torah portion, we witnessed one of the most breathtaking conflicts in Biblical history. Jacob and his small family finally return from the cruel and deceptive atmosphere of Laban, only to discover that they are about to encounter a troop of Esau’s commandos. In fact, awaiting them is a veritable army of ruthless warriors led by the vindictive and bloodthirsty Esau, who will seemingly settle for nothing less than having the pleasure of slitting his back-stabbing brother’s neck. Yet, Jacob somehow manages to elude this precarious assault, and in this week’s Torah portion returns to the land of Israel unharmed and ready to settle down. How was Jacob able to successfully evade this deadly foe? In addition, since the commentaries say that all of our forefathers’ actions have eminent significance for our lives and are symbolic of our future experiences, how can we adapt this victory over Esau so that we can overcome our present exile, which is an extension of the exile of Esau/Rome?
The Midrash, commenting at the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion, provides an explanation of how Jacob was able to overcome his brother in this dangerous meeting. The sages explain, based on a verse in Isaiah (57:13), that when you (Israel) gather together as a group and form an alliance, Hashem will save you (singular), and the forces of Esau will all (plural) be scattered to the wind. What exactly is this uniting described by the Midrash, and how was it so incredibly powerful to defeat such a scurrilous foe? Also, why are the forces of Israel referred to in singular tense, while Esau’s are referred to in plural?
The Beis HaLevi, a great 19th century Torah scholar, explains the Midrash as follows: In those days, when a nation prepared itself for a military encounter, the most effective strategy was to gather as many strong and skillful warriors as possible from its various provinces. Then, when attacking the enemy, it would spread those forces out and, by attacking on as many fronts of the enemy line as physically possible, a breach would eventually be formed. The warriors could then flank the enemy, divide the enemy’s camp, and thoroughly decimate them. But, imagine if the entire army gathered into one group and attacked a single warrior, or if every archer aimed his piercing arrow at the same warrior. That individual might be defeated, but his comrades would overtake the attacking nation from every other direction.
However, despite the obvious advantages of these strategic tactics, Jacob did not obey standard martial conduct in his confrontation with Esau, and instead brought his forces together into one group. On the contrary, this strategy was Jacob’s only possible means for attaining victory. When the Jewish people are faced with conflict, the Beis HaLevi explains, their only chance for victory is by uniting into one unit filled with love and concern for each other and, subsequently, praying to Hashem. Only by forming one inseparable loving whole will we attain Hashem’s favor and be granted victory over our enemies. As the Midrash states, before one prays with a congregation, one should remind himself of the crucial command to love one’s fellow Jew, and in that merit our prayers will be answered. Esau’s troops, on the other hand, follow standard procedure, both on the physical and spiritual fronts. Even when Esau’s forces join to fight a war, they are all motivated by their own selfish desires and have only come together on the solitary issue of destroying the Jewish people. Therefore, he spreads his forces out physically, mirroring their spiritual divisiveness. For this reason, the Midrash refers to Jacob’s forces in the singular, while the forces of Esau are described in the plural. Since Jacob forms one whole, united both by purpose and brotherly love, his pleas are answered by Hashem and Esau is denied dominion over him.
The Sfas Emes, a great 19th century Torah scholar and leader, elucidates the Midrash in a slightly different fashion. He explains that the power of Jacob’s uniting of forces refers to his ability to gather together his various experiences and encounters, find the point of holiness in them, and henceforth serve Hashem with that new-found holiness. Conversely, he explains that although Esau had dwelt with his righteous father Isaac for many years and had the opportunity to constantly grow from this close contact, our last vision of Esau is of him leaving the land of Canaan to go to less holy places (Genesis 36:6). Despite the showering of holiness from Isaac’s presence, Esau uses everything he has learned only so that he can spread to the far corners of the earth and fulfill his evil desires. Therefore, the Midrash refers to Esau’s troops in the plural. Since they are not united by one higher purpose, but rather each for his own perverse reasons, their formation as a group is, by its very nature, divided.
Conversely, Jacob has been away from home for more than twenty years, surrounded by multiple forms of evil constantly seeking to destroy him, and is now returning to Canaan where he hopes to finally settle down and focus on his family’s spiritual growth. He has wandered virtually everywhere, even to the spiritual desolation of Laban and Shechem, gathering whatever holiness exists in these places and then centralizing what he has learned to grow even closer to Hashem. Therefore, after his encounter with Esau, Jacob is described as returning to Canaan, in sharp contradistinction to Esau’s exiting the land. Despite the appearance of evil in this world, Jacob realizes that in everything there is a spark of holiness, a glimmer of the Divine that must be extracted and used for one’s own spiritual growth.
In a similar fashion, says the Sfas Emes, one must take the spiritual sparks out of the weekday and concentrate on their development on Shabbat. It was this power of gathering together the holiness of the earth – like diamonds etched from walls of granite – and continually growing from his difficult experiences that was the uniting of Jacob, and subsequently made him worthy of Divine salvation.
With these elucidating commentaries, perhaps we can understand a puzzling law that comes up countless times in halachic texts: The greater the number of Jews gathering together to perform a mitzvah, especially in the context of prayer, the greater the honor of Hashem, and the greater the chances of a positive Divine response. The explanation is twofold: Firstly, as the Beis HaLevi explains, when more people gather together for prayer, and they do so with complete love for each other, their loving unity is a source of great joy for Hashem, and He responds in kind by uniting with love with His people and fulfilling their needs. Secondly, it is evident that in every person there is something special and different from any other person on the face of the earth. Oftentimes, this ingrained uniqueness creates conflict, because each person has his own very different desires and needs, and it is often difficult to understand the perspectives of others. However, when all of these apparently disparaging forces unite in agreement and proclaim as a congregation that despite their differences, the most crucial focus in life is attaining closeness to Hashem and basking in His goodness, how much greater the honor of Hashem is increased! And subsequently, how much more favorable His stance towards us becomes. As the Sfas Emes explains, we have successfully dug up the spiritual and unique gems in each person and united them in the service of Hashem.
So, the next time when we join as a congregation to pray to our loving Master, let us look about at the different and yet fascinating people around us. Let us focus on developing a feeling of love for each other despite our differences because, after all, we are all beloved sons and daughters of Hashem. Consequently, that love will be a source of tremendous joy for Hashem and spur His loving unity with us. Also, let us realize that by uniting into one unit, despite our notable differences, and praying to one Source with fervent devotion, we are showing how wholeheartedly we believe in the love and kindness of Hashem, that He is the One thing we can agree upon completely. Thus, by bringing together our individual sparks of holiness and beseeching Hashem, we will be meriting of a speedy Divine redemption.
Ranon Cortell, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, writes from Silver Springs, Maryland.
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