Vayishlach: The Master of Politics
Rabbi Israel Chait
Transcribed by students
Chazal say that from parshat Vayishlach, specifically Yaakov's interactions with Eisav, we can learn how to deal with the other nations of the world, and we can gain an understanding of the concepts underlying anti-Semitism. The gemara emphasizes this point by noting that one of the Tanaaim would carefully study this parsha before visiting Rome and meeting with the Caesar. Vayishlach is a parsha of political insight conveying the narrative of Eisav's hatred for Yaakov, carefully describing how Yaakov precisely calculated how to confront his brother's hatred, avoiding contention and potential destruction by the great army of Eisav.
Yaakov was a true master of politics; this is made clear from his dealings with Lavan. Even from the first encounter with Lavan's household, Yaakov demonstrates his political savvy as Genesis 29:12 reads: "Yaakov told Rachel that he was a relative of her father..." whereupon Rashi comments that the Midrashic interpretation of this verse is that Yaakov's implication was: "If he [Lavan] intends to be deceitful then I, too, am his brother in deception..."
In this light, let us examine Yaakov's message to Eisav at the beginning of Vayishlach: "Yaakov sent messengers ahead of him to Eisav, his brother, to the and of Seir, to the field of Edom. He commanded them saying, this is what you should say to my master, Eisav. 'Your servant Yaakov says, with Lavan I lived, and was delayed until now” (Gen. 32:4-5). Rashi, commenting on the words "with Lavan I lived,” states that Yaakov was implying to Eisav that “he did not become an officer or anyone of importance but remained solely a transient guest. It is not worthy of you to hate me on account of your father's blessings, 'Be master over your brother for it has not been fulfilled in me..." Rashi is emphasizing the extent to which Yaakov acted to avoid battle with his brother. Yaakov diminished his own stature, allowing Eisav to feel superior, to foster peace.
While there is much to be discussed regarding this type of political strategy, surely we can see the logic behind this approach, especially when it comes to saving Jewish lives. What is more difficult to understand is the second interpretation of Rashi regarding the words "with Lavan I lived." Rashi writes: "the gimatria [numerical value] of garti [lived] is 613; as if to say, I have resided with the wicked Lavan and yet have kept the 613 commandments and have not learnt from his wicked deeds." What does Eisav, the wicked, the rejecter of Torah values, care if Yaakov kept the 613 commandments while he lived with Lavan? Furthermore, it seems this message could only antagonize Eisav.
Chazal, quoting the Rambam in his Igeret Teyman, say that the reason the mountain from which the Torah was given was called Sinai, was because from this same mountain came down sinah [hatred] to the other nations of the world. Meaning to say that the very source of the hatred that the other nations harbor toward the Jews is the Torah itself. What then did Yaakov intend to accomplish by implying to Eisav that he kept the Torah, when this very Torah was the source of Eisav's hatred for Yaakov?
Before answering these questions, a psychological principle of hatred must be understood; a distinction must be made between the cause of an individual's hatred, and the action of expressing that hatred. The gemara (Pesachim 48b) tells us that the hatred of an ignorant Jew toward the Torah scholar is greater than the hatred the idolaters have for the Jewish nation. This is indeed a perplexing gemara and must be understood in its own light. For the purposes of our discussion, however, it is interesting to note that these same ignorant Jews, whose hatred for the Torah scholar, according to Chazal, is greater than the hatred of an Eisav for Yaakov, are very often the greatest Torah supporters. The emotion of hate is powerful and complex and is disguises itself in many ways. One part of an individual's psyche may possess great hatred for the Torah scholar while another part of an individual's nature causes him to overcome this hatred and be the Torah scholar's greatest ally. Thus we see that the cause of an individual's hatred for another person does not translate into that individual acting upon that hatred. The question remains, however, why the expression of hatred might at times remains dormant, kept at bay in the unconscious of the human psyche, and why in other instances hatred will manifest itself in its full assertion.
There is one further principle underlying the emotion of hatred, namely, that the aggressive expression of one's hatred toward another person always seeks out a justification from reality. The Koran, which expresses great hatred toward the Jews on numerous occasions, often points out that the Jews transgressed their commandments and are therefore lowly people. Sura 2:63 writes: "And well you know there were those among you that transgressed the Sabbath, and We said to them, "Be you apes, miserable slinking!' And we made it a punishment exemplary for all the former times and for the latter, and an admonition to such as are God-fearing." The Koran claims that the Jews did not adhere to the tenets of their own law and thus according to their Torah the Jews are despicable people. In this way Mohammed tried to justify the expression of his hatred toward the Jews in the Koran. We can now begin to understand Yaakov's implied message to Eisav. While the source of Eisav's hatred was the Torah itself, this did not mean that Yaakov's adherence to the Torah would antagonize Eisav to destroy Yaakov. As explained, the cause of an individual's hatred does not directly translate into the action of expressing that hatred. Furthermore, by Yaakov's implication to Eisav that he merely lived with Lavan and, rather than learning from his evil ways, that he kept the 613 commandments, Yaakov would not permit Eisav the justification to act upon his anger and destroy Yaakov. Yaakov did not afford Eisav the opportunity to find fault with him and in this way Eisav could in no way assuage his guilt and justify acting upon his hatred toward his brother.
There is an amazing Rashi in support of this idea in Toldos regarding the blessing Yitzchak gave to Eisav. Genesis 27:38-40 says: "Yitzchak, his [Eisav's] father replied and said to him...you shall live by your sword, and you shall serve your brother. When you have cause to be grieved, you will throw off his yoke from your neck." And on the words "when you have caused to be grieved," Rashi writes, "...meaning to say, when the Israelites will transgress the Torah and you will have justification to grieve over the blessings which he took, [then] you will throw off his yoke." And so in parshat Vayishlach Yaakov makes it very clear to Eisav, his brother and enemy, that this time had yet to come.