HEAD OVER SWORD
When deploying troops, a commander wants the elite regiment to see the most critical action. Even in our modern times of mechanized and nuclear warfare, many special units are assigned the task of securing the front.
When deploying troops, a commander wants the elite regiment to see the most critical action. Even in our modern times of mechanized and nuclear warfare, many special units are assigned the task of securing the front. Our sages seemingly depict Jacob’s son Joseph as one of these "crack shots," as the Talmud describes (Tractate Baba Batra 123b): Jacob saw that Esau’s descendants were only given into the hands of Joseph’s descendants, as the verse says in this week’s haftorah, "And the house of Jacob will be a fire and the house of Joseph a spark – and the house of Esau like straw. . .there will be no survivor of the house of Esau" (Obadiah 1:18).
The Ramban, a classic commentator on the Torah, explains that in preparation for the impending confrontation with Esau, Jacob divided his family into two camps in this week’s Torah portion in order to minimize casualties. He knew that by doing so Esau could not possibly murder all of his children, and he hoped that if the front camp came under attack, the rear camp could flee to safety. Notably, when the Torah describes Jacob’s splitting of the groups, it emphasizes Joseph’s position in the rear (Genesis 33:2). In light of the sages’ description of Joseph, this placement seems inappropriate. Surely he should have been placed up front in an effort to facilitate maximum survival?
Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, a contemporary Jewish philosopher, explains based on the Zohar that Joseph’s domination of Esau is not at all physical. It is not the spark of the machine gun that defeats Esau; rather the spark of Torah, and by keeping a distance from Esau, Joseph is able to maintain intense Torah study. When this strategy is employed, it becomes apparent that the head is truly mightier than the sword, and Esau remains incapable of causing any harm.
Special thanks to Rabbi Nosson Weiss for his assistance with this article.
Avi Wagner, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C.
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