Torah Thoughts for Today
Monday, January 19, 2004
#8 Jacob and Esau: A Very Strange “Showdown”
Jacob and Esau: A Very Strange “Showdown”
(Related to the weekly Torah portion VaYishlach (“Sent Out”) read in synagogue. Genesis Chapter 32, verse 4 - Chapter 36, verse 43. English text and commentary at
http://bible.ort.org/books/pentd2.asp?ACTION=displaypage&BOOK=1&CHAPTER=32 Dedicated to my parents.)
Showdowns come in all shapes and sizes, from childish “I’ll tell my Mommy on you” to “Shoot out at the OK Corral”. Setting the record straight, getting even, and unadulterated revenge are part of a culture that has glorified duels between two consenting males who agree to a formula of “May the Best Man Win”. Never mind that the “best man” may be the first one who got himself skewered and killed after ten steps and a shot from a pistol or after conceding one en guard too many. So much seems to be left to “luck”, or “fate”, in these mortal encounters that culturally we have been left bereft of any meaningful insights into why in the first place God would want a world where people are placed in such unenviable situations where at least one of the parties concerned will be carried off dead? There has to be more to it…
Yet we learn from this week’s Torah portion that while showdowns and confrontations are indeed unavoidable and are inherently part of the human condition, they must fit into a broader scheme of things to take on any lasting significance. The tit for tat of two oafs who can’t get over some squabble about some insult to their “honor”, perhaps framed in grandiose terms of a vendetta “blood feud”, is NOT what the reunion of Esau and Jacob is about. One must strive to penetrate the clouds and see meaning in why it is that two major protagonists pray for the day when each can face off against the other and emerge the ultimate victor.
The Torah has already described Esau’s objective when: “Esau was furious at Jacob because of the blessing that his father had given him. He said to himself, ‘The days of mourning for my father will be here soon. I will then be able to kill my brother Jacob’.” (Genesis 27, vs. 39-40). And hence the crucial Oral Law teaching that “It is a fixed Law-Halachah- that Esau (always) hates Jacob” - “HALACHAH HI BEYADUA SHE’EISAV SONEIH ET YA’AKOV”. So a showdown is to be feared and in the face of raging hate, avoided then at all costs, for obvious reasons. So why doesn’t Jacob somehow find ways to head off any confrontations with his brother permanently?
The answers are complex, because when you look at how events unfold in the “showdown” between Esau and Jacob a lot of very unexpected and astonishing revelations open up before us, which will literally change the face of the Jewish world.
Just consider the basic “chronology” of events as they appear in the Torah: The birthplace of Jacob’s wives and children is Haran, where Jacob has toiled long and hard, and seen his personal fortunes improve greatly. Jacob and his father in law do not get along, so with God’s blessings, Jacob sets out to return to his birthplace, Canaan, to carry out the next part of his Divine mission of establishing a Children of Israel in the Land of Israel. Unfortunately his brother Esau lands nearby and with his troops blocks the way. Jacob sends “messengers” with tidings of peace. They come back with reports that Esau advances with hundreds of men of war:
“Jacob was very frightened and distressed. He divided the people accompanying him into two camps…He said, ‘If Esau comes and attacks one camp, at least the other camp will survive.’ Jacob prayed… ‘Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother…I am afraid of him, for he can come and kill us all, mothers and children alike…’.” (Genesis Chapter 32, verses 8-13) [*1]
He further sends retinues with livestock gifts each, and a “spokesman” declaring it a tribute to Esau. Says Jacob hopefully: “I will win him over with the gifts that are being sent ahead, and then I will face him. Hopefully he will forgive me.” (Genesis 32, verse 21).
AND NOW COMES A SHOWDOWN !
The night before the fateful encounter with the “unknown”, Jacob has a startling encounter with larger than life “stranger”, with “real-life” qualities:
“A stranger wrestled with him…he could not defeat him (Jacob), he touched the upper joint of Jacob’s thigh. Jacob’s hip joint became dislocated… ‘Let me leave said the stranger. Dawn is breaking’.” Answers Jacob: “I will not let you leave unless you bless me”. Asks the mysterious stranger: “What is your name?” Jacob answers: “Jacob.” Declares the stranger: “Your name will no longer be said to be Jacob, but ISRAEL (Yisra’el). You have become great (‘sar’) before God and man. You have won.”… “He then blessed Jacob”. (Genesis Chapter 32, vs. 25-30). [*2]
Almost anti-climactically when the two brothers subsequently then meet, Esau is strangely very conciliatory. They embrace, kiss, cry, exchange compliments, and…. each goes their own way! Jacob declines Esau’s invitation to provide armed escorts (of all things to offer… “Would you like my ‘SS Legions’ to ‘help you guys’?…some offer…), and Jacob politely promises: “I will eventually come to you, my lord, in Seir”…“Just let me remain on friendly terms with you.” (Genesis 33, verses 14-15.
Now what is going on over here? Jacob fled for his life. Based on the facts, it’s clear as daylight that Esau should have wanted to exterminate him and his entire family ASAP, so why does Jacob need to cross paths with his villainous brother at all? On the “eve of confrontation/battle” Jacob has an “EPIPHANOUS encounter” (“epiphaneia” is Greek for “manifestation”) – such as of a “superhuman being” who cripples him for life in his hip, yet Jacob comes away victorious and is renamed “ISRAEL”. Who is this mysterious nocturnal powerful being and what is the meaning of the “RENAMING” from Jacob to Israel? And then why is the “actual” showdown between Jacob and Esau so “tame” compared to Jacob’s struggle with the mysterious being the night before? What kind of “showdown” is this altogether?
A very important principle in classical Judaism is that there is no such thing as “random causality” - an oxymoron if ever there was one :- )
The universe consists of spirals within spirals of not just galaxies and solar systems, but also of Divine Acts and Forces, vast Spiritual Energy Fields, both Positive and Negative. There is NO vacuum! In the spiritual sense everything converges here on this world of ours. Things that may seem simply mundane, or the result of “historical”, “economic”, or “sociological” forces, are actually intrinsically bound up with higher spiritual activities that actually will be the ones to determine the final outcome of things down here below on Earth. Jacob, like Abraham and Isaac before him, was fully aware that he was not just “living his own life”, but that he had been chosen by God to act the leading role for the Divine Script of all History, as a kind of divine quill writing the destiny of all mankind with his own lifeblood and actions, linking the world of the spirit with the world of matter. It is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who build the actual “stage” (“All the world’s a stage”) on God’s Earth and lay out the directions of all subsequent acts of the play to follow forevermore.
For example, when a crazed Cossack, hatchet in hand, sitting on a galloping pony, and aiming to cleave a few innocent Jewish skulls in half, is “SOMEHOW” either foiled or enabled in his gruesome mission, it is not a case of “random causality”, and not a “toss of the coin” of “good” nor “bad” “luck” that hinders or enables events. Something far, far greater than the menacing crazed Cossack “acting” or the bewildered hapless Jews “reacting” is actually taking place. The prayer of one good Jew, from the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, may be enough to stop the Cossack’s sword from slicing. In Judaism there is ALWAYS, CONSTANTLY, 100% OF THE TIME, a vast universal cosmic behind the scenes drama taking place that ties even the smallest events on Earth together with how the scales are tipped up in the Celestial Abodes. It is NEVER merely “Caesar’s -Esau’s- Mortal Thumb” that may point upwards or downwards with life and death in the balance for the “hapless” victims facing the lions in the arena of life. The real drama is taking place in some other concealed “place”, in some other hidden dimension, where the “actual” “showdown” is taking place, between some primal Forces of Good encountering and repulsing the onslaught by Forces of Evil. (They say the “Matrix” movies exploit this theme).
Jacob was on such an unimaginable high spiritual level that when faced by the mortal dangers of his brutal brother, his entire being almost automatically swung to face, first and foremost, NOT the flesh and blood adversary, but rather the governing root principal source of it in the hidden dimensions. The classical rabbis therefore say that the “mysterious stranger” that Jacob faced and who wounded him, was none other than the “guardian angel” of Esau himself, “Samael” who is also the executionary grim reaper, the “Angel of Death”. Others teach that it was the archangel Michael who came to give Jacob a taste of victory. Yet, Jacob faced to confront Esau’s essence first and in a bizarre hand-to-hand duel, pins him down till dawn, and it is LIGHT itself that, that Dark Angel fears most. (A good connection with the “Light” of Hanukkah versus the Dark of night/winter/exile/death themes). Jacob’s powers are derived directly from his closeness to God, the source of absolute Light, through his prayers and following His wishes.
Having the superhuman energy to make the Angel of Darkness “see the light”, by drawing on God’s energies, is enough to draw away enough dark energy from Esau in real time, so that when the dawn of day comes, Esau has actually been “cleaned out” or “filtered” of excessive hate. Yes, he still hates his brother Jacob, but like someone coming out of a spiritual “surgery” that was “above his head” (good pun), a kind of spiritual “ ‘lobotomization’ of his urge to kill his brother” has transpired, and he is now “drowsy” and “chilled out”, from the “anesthetic” and holy medication that has somehow lowered the rate of hate in the cauldron of boiling blood in his dangerous morbid heart, and turned him, albeit temporarily, from a raging tiger into a drunken pussy-cat.
Now isn’t that a great form of “head-shrinking”?! @:- )
So the rabbis derive a crucial set of three principles from Jacob’s actions on the eve of his showdown with his brother Esau the Wicked (“Esav HaRasha”, in Hebrew), that (a) shows how Jacob was able to pave the way for the temporary pacification of his brother, and (b) how he “loaded up” on Divine “ammunition” needed to neutralize Esau, and (c) shape a policy of how to approach conflicts with Esau’s seed down the line. As mentioned in the Rashi commentary:
One, he prepared to give Esau a huge ego flattering present, the rich flocks of animals as mentioned above.
“Jacob set a pattern for future generations who would be confronted by oppression from Esau’s descendants. He sought salvation both by means of ‘doron’, an attempt to appease the enemy with gifts, and then ‘tefilah’, prayers for God’s help” [*3]. This method of “bribing your way out of trouble” has succeeded many times. There have been times though when the rabbis actually forbid such practices, as in the case of the famous Maharam Rottenburg, a great rabbi who asked NOT to be ransomed, when a local lord in Germany attempted to blackmail a Jewish community out of existence.
Two, he prayed to God.
Interestingly, the “Zohar offers that God instilled this fearful response in Jacob, so that he would be drawn to prayer, since ‘God yearns for the prayer of the righteous’.” [*4] This is the greatest “key” to unlock the mysteries of Jacob’s activities and it would require a vast in-depth analysis of the meaning and power of prayer/s, as a means of obtaining the success of even those things God Himself intends to carry out, that go way beyond the scope of this essay.
Prayer is that sublime, mysterious, inscrutable high-speed “world-wide-web-Internet” instant and constant infinite super highway SPIRITUAL CONNECTION, that links Men and Women with the ultimate sources of their bodies and souls in God their Maker. God is the ultimate “Soul-Life-Web Host and Server”; ready to provide them with anything they may need 24/7.
It’s the ultimate communications, personal emergency, crisis and “mail-order” system, available to humanity. It is Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who were the first true “end-users” of this service indispensable to human survival and existence, rooted in Monotheism.
Three, he prepared for war.
“Ramban and Rashi, citing Midrash, say that Jacob prepared himself for war. He was confident that all his posterity could NOT be destroyed by Esau, even if one camp fell, the other would certainly escape.”
In combining all three strategies, Jacob’s behavior and actions during this entire episode becomes the blueprint for all his descendants down to our own times. This is an example of the crucial principle of “MA’ASEH AVOT SIMAN LEBANIM” – “THE DEEDS OF THE FOREFATHERS BECOMES AS A ‘SIGN’ (‘FOUNDATION’) FOR THEIR SONS”. Jacob implants into the Jewish religious “body politic” the necessary anti-dotes and anti-bodies, immune systems and protective reactions that will kick in almost automatically whenever his children and children’s children face similar daunting circumstances. And so:
“ This portends the destiny of the Jewish people: Though decrees designed to exterminate the Jewish people will be promulgated in certain countries, Israel will never be exterminated entirely. Should one gentile king decree their destruction, another king will be merciful in his country, and offer them refuge. As Rabbi Hirsch writes: Never has Esau’s sword reached us all in one swoop. When we bled on the Rhein, our brethren in the Slavic lands were safe, and vice versa. ‘God acted righteously to Israel by scattering them among the nations’ (Talmud Pesachim 87b). Jacob, during his personal exile, now did the same.” [*5]
Obviously nothing is ever as “simple” as it seems, yet somehow we can’t resist asking ourselves, is there EVER a time when things are settled once and for all between Jacob and Esau? The answer is most definitely YES, and the renaming of Jacob to become Israel is the great “clue”. That’s the “good news”. The “bad news” is that it will be a job for the Jewish Messiah to settle the score once and for all whenever he arrives…
In classical Judaism, Esau is the forefather of Rome in all its meanings and stages in history. The name “Rome”, says the great rabbi the Maharal of Prague, is connected to the Hebrew word “rom”, which means “highness” or “elevated”. The nation, culture and people of Rome are distinguished by their “highness” over other nations and peoples, a true “royal highness” as they are the masters over others. From its inception, Rome was a “colossus” that towered over other nations militarily, culturally and even religiously. Its influence and power spanned the globe because ultimately, like most of its Western heirs, it functioned as a global world power imposing its will on all, the Pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome”. This, say the rabbis, is related to another principle of “Rosh Goyim Amalek”, that the nation of Amalek, one of Rome’s main ancestors, is described as also being the “Head of Nations”. All this is most befitting the crown of Esau. He was given great temporal leadership powers to lord over this world. But he has one “Achilles heal”, his little “Jewish brother” Jacob, the Hebrew name “Ya’akov” being derived from the “heal” of Esau that he was holding on to at birth. There was a time when Esau and Jacob lived apart, but for the last two thousand years their fates have been intertwined. Esau lives under that grand delusional historical illusion that he has “subdued” the little Jew Jacob, especially after Rome burnt the Jewish Temple to the ground and destroyed Jerusalem and Judea. Nevertheless, the Jews are still regarded as major “threats” to Rome’s ambitions.
However, according to classical Judaism there is a great day of reckoning coming, a showdown of showdowns that will put all other previous showdowns to shame: A time when Jacob will subdue Esau’s evil impulses and imperial world dominance. How will that be done? A very big part of it will be through the triumph of Jacob’s Biblical Values and Morality over Rome’s crass materialism and superstition. But going even deeper than that, is the notion derived from the power inherent in “Jacob” becoming “Israel”.
Jacob will ultimately wear down, out run, and inhibit Esau’s world, turning it from a world of hate and war which is what this world, the “OLAM HAZEH” is, into a world of love and peace bringing Heaven, the “OLAM HABA”, down to Earth, even though at times it may appear that Rome (via Christianity) has seized the initiative in this, yet it is only Judaism that can truly do it finally.
“Jacob” is extremely human and humane; he has very human struggles up until the point when he has to face the “reality” of overcoming his brother. At that point he is granted extra help from Up On High and is transformed into a NEW BEING called “ISRAEL”: “Your name will no longer be said to be Jacob, but Israel (Yisra’el). You have become great (‘sar’) before God and man. You have won...Jacob named the place Divine Face (‘Peniel’). He said, ‘I have seen the Divine face to face, and my soul has withstood it.’The sun rose and was shining on him as he left Penuel. He was limping because of his thigh.” (Genesis, Chapter 32, vs. 29; 31-32.)[*6]
Thus Jacob’s struggle is credited to him as if he had actually come “face to face” with the Divine. This means that he became endowed and imbibed into his inner essence a level of knowledge and awareness about how the Divine works and manifests itself in the universe. It also brings him face to face with “dark forces” that are brought into this world to TEST his will. Jacob transforms and transmutes himself into a being capable of encountering and even negating the potential flow of negative energies into this world. He is endowed with a capacity to CHANGE THE TIDES OF HISTORY. This is the power of a “YIS’RAEL”, a “SAR”, as in the word “Sir”, “Sire”, “Master” of his own fate and destiny, with Godly and God-like powers. Every Jew as a child of the first Israel is thus a “MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE !”. Hence also the Midrashic teaching that on God’s own Divine Celestial Throne, so to speak, is engraved the facial image of JACOB! Jacob’s countenance mirrors God and this is embodied in the name ISRAEL. The Children of Israel, and the Land of Israel therefore become unconquerable and indestructible entities in the ultimate sense. Neither Rome nor any other force ever has, nor will they ever be able, to obliterate that supreme entity called ISRAEL!
The ultimate Jewish prayer, said twice daily, is “HEAR O ISRAEL THE LORD IS OUR GOD THE LORD IS ONE”. (Deuteronomy Chapter 6, verse 4). The greatest declaration a Jew can ever make during life and before death is a sentence that links ISRAEL with the capacity and privilege of accepting and bonding with God’s true essence his absolute UNITY. Absolute Monotheism and belief in God’s existence epitomized and exhibited within its greatest proponents and teachers the Jews of the Children of Israel all rooted in Jacob/Israel is what will wipe Esau’s heirs off the map one day.
So whereas Esau comes armed to the teeth with hordes of select soldiers to fight against Jacob the Jew, Jacob prepares for war by undertaking a journey of personal spiritual perfection and life enhancing Torah, arming himself with spiritual energy by connecting to God in such ways as to shield and repel the avalanche of any and all evil rolling his way.
It is PRECISELY BECAUSE Jacob was in a face to face confrontation with evil in the raw that he garnered for himself vast stores and resources of those specific kind of holy Godly energies needed to conquer evil incarnate in any form. Like a snake handler who is made “immune” to the snake’s poison, because he has previously preemptively absorbed the PARADOXICAL life-giving “vaccine” that enhances and elevates his immune system to the point that he becomes “indestructible” and protectively guarded from any “poison” that a subsequent snakebite could inflict!
Not to be outdone though by any means at all, Jacob does not come away from his showdown unharmed. The Torah says that Jacob was wounded in the thigh or hip, in the sciatic nerve they say, which caused him to go away limping and become crippled. The more esoteric commentaries claim that when the mysterious angel in the dark saw that he could not over-power Jacob at that point, he reached for his private parts and actually tried to castrate or neuter Jacob so that his power to procreate, or perhaps even his “creative” spiritual powers, would be literally cut off and ended. (Isn’t that what drives anti-Semites crazy, that Jews are so “creative” in so many fields? And so they then fantasize about the “Final Solution” to imagined Jewish “control” and “superiority”? Bring about world wars, and instead the Jew-haters bring even greater misery to the world…some “final”, “solution”! And the Jews STILL live on and flourish! Go figure!)
Esau sadly “succeeded” to a degree. In one way, Jacob never had any more children after this, as his wife Rachel was already pregnant with his last son Benjamin, and that would have been the culmination of all of Jacob’s family building in any case. However, the great rabbi the Maharsha claims, that this was a kind of “prophetic” indication that even though Jacob himself was too strong to personally succumb to the damaging alluring intents of the Serpent’s ways, yet it would be Jacob’s seed later in time who would become the victims of Rome’s hedonistically seductive ways when Jews would imitate and be engulfed by latter day “sexual revolutions” that would threaten Jacob’s Children of Israel and Jewish survival no less than the burning down of the Jewish Temple.
It would therefore seem that the story is far from over, so that the “showdown/s” in different varieties will just keep on occurring till finally something will happen to settle things once and for all. Stay tuned to history `[:-}~%<<
Have a wonderful Shabbat and let me know what you think!
[*1] The Living Torah, English Translation, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, p.155.
[*3] Artscroll Genesis, Volume I (b),English commentary, p. 1426.
[*4] Ibid., p.1415.
[*5] Ibid., p.1420.
[*6] The Living Torah, pp.158-159.