Parshat Vayishlah: Jacob’s strategy — A model for Jewish leadership?

While the Sages have told us that the events of all of Jewish history are “repeats,” they have taught us that the stories of the Patriarchs are precursors for what will happen to their descendants.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
The old adage “history repeats itself” refers to its cyclical nature. This phenomenon is important to students of the Book of Genesis, which is read in the synagogue every Shabbat during this time of year.
While the Sages have told us that the events of all of Jewish history are “repeats” of the narratives we are currently reading and studying, they have taught us that “ma’aseh avot siman l’banim” – the stories of the Patriarchs are precursors for what will happen to their descendants.
This week, we read of Jacob’s return to Canaan, but not before he must deal with the unavoidable encounter with his hostile sibling. How does Jacob prepare for this frightening encounter? The Torah tells us that he prepares in several ways: he readies himself for battle, he sends gifts ahead to try to mollify Esau and he prays to the Almighty. Additionally, we learn that he divided the people with him into two camps, reasoning that “if Esau comes to one and attacks it, the other may yet escape.”
We then learn that Esau approaches Jacob and his camp, accompanied by a small army of 400 men.
At this point, Jacob humbles himself extremely. “He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times, until he was near his brother.”
Esau greets him, embraces him, kisses him and weeps with him. But that does not bring the bowing to an end. The maids and their children bow low, as do Leah and her children, and even Joseph and Rachel “came forward and bowed low.”
Jacob begs Esau to accept his gifts, and repeatedly refers to him as “my lord.” He does not merely humble himself; he subjugates himself and demeans himself before his brother. The fact that Esau has apparently relinquished his enmity and seems ready to restore brotherly relations does not convince Jacob to cease his abject behavior.
Eventually, Esau and Jacob take leave of each other.
Esau offers, “Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.” Esau seems ready to offer Jacob equality. But Jacob refuses Esau’s offer and, consistently referring to him as “my lord,” he says, “Let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly.” Jacob seems to prefer a subsidiary status.
What does all of this mean for future relationships between the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Esau? If one is to take the phrase “ma’aseh avot siman l’banim” seriously, one must consider Jacob’s behavior as a blueprint for the Jews’ relationship with other nations for all future time.
Is this the prescribed policy for the Jewish nation’s dealings with other nations throughout our history? Are we to bow and beg forever, ignoring the conciliatory behaviors that other nations demonstrate toward us? Are we to also reject offers of equality and insist upon subsidiary status? These questions call to mind the numerous occasions in our history when they were very relevant to Jewish policy-makers. Even today there are those who, on religious grounds, insist that we must not assert ourselves in the international arena. We must avoid confrontation, even if it means forgoing rights and privileges. We must follow Jacob’s example, they argue.
Others vehemently disagree. They see this passive behavior as surrender. For them, this behavior was a nearly fatal flaw that has haunted us throughout the many centuries of our exile.
It is here that we are advised to carefully examine the words of those commentators who have explored these issues in terms of the story of Jacob and Esau’s confrontation. Chief among them is Ramban (Nahmanides himself, who criticizes Jacob for humbling himself before Esau and referring to himself as “your servant Jacob.”
In fact, Midrash Raba goes even further and states: “The moment that Jacob referred to Esau as ‘my lord,’ the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘You have lowered yourself and designated him as your master eight times. I swear that I will install eight kings from among his descendants before your descendants ascend to positions of royalty.”
How telling is the passage in Midrash Raba, not on the Book of Genesis, but on the Book of Esther, which teaches us that Mordecai was chosen to be the hero of the Purim story because, as a descendant of Benjamin, he could courageously and successfully defy Haman. Benjamin was the only one of Jacob’s children who did not bow before Esau. Benjamin was not yet born at the time of the story of Jacob’s encounter with Esau.
These passages in the writings and teachings of our Sages do not see Jacob’s behavior as the perfect model for future relationships between the Jews and their enemies.
They find Jacob’s behavior weak and ultimately ineffective. Instead, they glorify Mordecai and Mattathias, heroes of the stories of Purim and Hanukka. Can it be just a coincidence that in little more than a week, we will recall and joyously celebrate the Hanukka story and Mattathias’s courageous leadership? The medieval commentary authored by Jacob ben Asher, also known as Ba’al Haturim, puts it this harshly: “Jacob’s fear of Esau, addressing him as ‘my lord,’ caused his descendants to become exiles among the other nations.” Another commentary reminds us of an ancient proverb: “He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.”
The Midrash Lekah Tov suggests that all Jewish leaders who find themselves dealing with the leaders of other nations are to study this week’s Torah portion and to learn from it strategies of appeasement and compromise. The 16th century Jewish Italian commentator Rabbi Obadiah Sforno also adopts this position and lauds Jacob’s tactics.
There are no easy answers to the dilemmas of leadership.
But the leaders of today are well advised to study this week’s parasha well, with all of its diverse interpretations, and decide for themselves which tactics to choose at today’s crucial juncture of world history.
The writer is a rabbi and doctor of psychotherapy. He is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union of North America. This column originally appeared on