How Jacob was Prepared to Risk His Soul in Confronting Esau’s Evil
The ancient Israelite nation was founded and built by many great men of impeccable character, whose devotion to God and righteousness were imbued in every fiber of their being. There was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron, to name but a few. However, only Jacob was given a second name by God himself, which was the name “Israel.” And the question arises, what was Jacob’s uniqueness among our forefathers that earned him this name? And what was it about his life and deeds that merited him to have this new name become the future appellation of the entire Israelite people? When we analyze the events of Jacob’s life, there is one theme that clearly stands out. Jacob was the first to directly engage the forces of evil and to dwell in the midst of imperfect, immoral societies, in an effort to elevate them from their degraded way of life. Our initial insight into this characteristic that would define his entire life, is seen from his actions regarding the first born blessing that his father Isaac had intended for Esau, Jacob’s wicked older brother. Here there was a great dilemma facing Jacob. Would he be willing to secretly dress himself in his sibling’s best garments, place sheep’s wool on his arms and neck to appear hairy like his brother, and try to convince his blind father that he was Esau, all in order to receive this unique blessing? Or would he sit back, let his corrupt brother be blessed with even more power, and rationalize to himself that it was really in God’s hands what would occur?
It might not seem like such a difficult or high risk decision. But in reality, Jacob had to make a potentially life threatening choice. If things went wrong, he risked being struck by a potentially unstoppable curse from a powerfully spiritual prophet, namely his father Isaac, who was not aware of the true character of Esau. Jacob also risked having this emotionally unstable, bloodthirsty brother walk in on him after having just finished a hunt, with sword and bow still in hand. Jacob knew that even if he left from his father’s presence that day unharmed, he would likely be pursued with a lifelong hatred from his now enraged, humiliated brother. Furthermore, Jacob’s plan of action would involve morally questionable activities, that when applied correctly could be justified, but when used for the wrong purposes, constituted the antithesis of God’s will. He would have to deceive his father, to tell him untruths, and to steal a blessing meant for his own brother. The easiest course would have been for Jacob to take the path of pacifism. “I will sit back, I will not act, and I will not risk any action that could compromise my present status as a moral being.” But Jacob chose the opposite. He went down a path that is not clearly defined and that is morally ambiguous. One that might invoke condemnation from his peers, and that required finely nuanced deliberations that not everyone would be privy to. It was this moral courage that Jacob summoned that made him great. And this singular quality has defined many great men throughout history.
Abraham Lincoln is known as one of our greatest presidents. Yet he embarked on a course of war that led to the deaths of nearly 600,000 Americans. If one can imagine, about 57,000 of our citizens died during the years we fought in Vietnam. And yet, in the battle of Gettysburg alone, close to that same number were casualties in three days of combat. During the civil war, General George B. McClellan was beloved by the Union men he commanded, and he showed great concern for their welfare. And yet, his fear of losing them in war led to a hesitance on his part to engage the enemy. As a result, he lost many opportunities to defeat the South in battle. After his dismissal as General in Chief of the Army of the Potomac, he later wrote to his wife that “one of these days history will I trust do me justice.” However it was Ulysses S. Grant, who showed no mercy to the Confederacy, and who was known as “the Butcher” who went down in history as one of the heroes of the Civil War. And in the end it is McClellan who became known as one of the weakest, most inept generals of that time. During wartime, McClellan ran for president against Lincoln, under a platform of ending the war early and making peace with the South. Had McClellan’s plans of pacifying the South occurred, the United States could today be two separate countries, one of which might still be perpetrating one of the most evil institutions to stain our nation’s history. It took great men to make the difficult, morally questionable decisions necessary to preserve the Union and bring freedom to all people living within it. They saw slavery for the abomination it was, and when they understood what had to be done, they committed all of the soldiers and resources at their command to eradicate it.
We find this pattern of action by great men in history repeat itself time and again. These leaders faced forces of darkness, took counsel, and made very tough decisions for the benefit of mankind. Winston Churchill required a steel resolve to fight the Nazis and to approve the orders to bomb German cities, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the process. Surprisingly, very kind hearted, brilliant men disagreed with the type of path he took, and preached a doctrine of peace and passivity. In 1929 Albert Einstein stated he would, “unconditionally refuse to do war service, direct or indirect…regardless of how the cause of the war should be judged.” Similarly, he wrote after the war that “I have always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan.” Yet it was President Harry Truman’s bold directive to use the bomb that led to an end of the war and saved many hundreds of thousands more lives than had the fighting dragged on. We find that Gandhi, for all the amazing good he accomplished, believed that the best response to the Nazi war machine would be prayer and “a calm and determined stand offered by unarmed men and women.” Had the leaders of the Allies taken the advice of Einstein or Gandhi, the Nazis would have taken over the entire world, and the Jewish people may have ceased to exist. As effective as civil disobedience and passive resistance can be, these doctrines can clearly not be applied in all situations. Even today, as much as President Obama has declared his vision of hope and peace in Afghanistan and Iraq, he understands the tenacity of the enemy being fought. He has steeply increased the number of drone attacks on Islamic terrorists, even sending hellfire missiles to assassinate US born Al Qaeda preacher Anwar al-Awlaki.
When I was visiting South Africa with my wife a number of years back, I sat in an audience of 400 people listening to a talk given on Robbins Island, by a panel discussing the topic of apartheid and reconciliation. One of the men who spoke was a former white police officer, who said that during apartheid, he had once been sent to a black township to quell a riot that had broken out. He described how he took a completely innocent mother and her children, put them in a house in view of everyone, and burned all ten of them alive. This ended the riot. Afterward, the South African justice system at that time sentenced him to seventeen years in jail for those murders. When apartheid ended, Nobel Prize winner Bishop Tutu organized a system that allowed some of those imprisoned to confess their crimes, express remorse, and be free to go. This white police officer obviously took up this offer. After being released from jail early, he now had decided to spend his time speaking and trying to encourage reconciliation between blacks and whites in South Africa. At the end of his speech, the 400 people in the audience filled the room with thunderous applause. Actually, it was 398 people applauding, for my wife and I sat there silent. When the noise had died down, I stood up, pointed at the speaker, and declared before everyone there, “You sir are a murderer!” I went on to blast this perversion of justice whereby a person could merely apologize, verbally, and thus be exculpated from spilling innocent blood, especially that of children. At that time one of the speakers in attendance replied that I must be saying this because I was Jewish, and that the Jewish religion didn’t have a well-defined concept of forgiveness. I responded to him that he was very mistaken, and that the Jewish religion has at its center the concept of forgiveness and indeed three separate words for forgiveness, selicha, mechila, and kaparah. But forgiveness must be earned, and no person has the right to absolve someone of an injustice on behalf of another person. How would they feel if someone who murdered their family was released from prison because he said he was sorry? This idea of unregulated pacifism and forgiveness, even to those who commit the most heinous of crimes, is not what the bible aims to teach us.
And yet, some Christians choose to interpret Jesus’ words to “turn the other cheek”, and “love your enemies”, as a call for total pacifism. No matter what occurs, they feel one should not fight back, and that “vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.” However it is clear from the bible itself that all the great heroes of the ancient Israelites who believed in and served the Lord God, personally led large armies. They reluctantly engaged in combat so as to eradicate their tenacious enemies who sought conquest of evil over good. At the same time, one of the greatest blessings that God promises in return for complete devotion to the path of righteousness is peace. Throughout the bible, peace is the most sought after state of affairs, held up as the ideal way of life for the entire world. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, made an interesting observation in this regard. He explained that when the ancient Israelites had their own land, and when one of their cities was attacked and captured—the women and children abused and sent into slavery—the Israelites would have to go to war. This required them to invade, vanquish their enemies, lay waste to enemy strongholds, and do everything required to ensure they would never be attacked again. This was the course that had to be taken to survive. Yet it was so painful for a people whose religious upbringing, daily prayers, and holy books, consistently lauded the value of peace and love, predicting the day when all men would live side by side as brothers. Rabbi Kook explained that when the Jewish people were exiled from the land, and became a persecuted minority living in the Diaspora, in some ways they felt relieved. Although they would face untold hardships and suffering at the hands of their host nations, they now were free from any moral ambiguity. From then on, they were clearly the innocent, oppressed victims, and their persecutors were unquestionably the villainous purveyors of tyranny. abbi Kook believed that the objections to the idea of a modern Jewish state, coming from many of the Jewish people themselves, stemmed from a deeply unconscious fear that they would have to return to a way of life that could entail war and difficult decisions in the realm of morality.
Yet our forefather Jacob taught us that only by challenging evil and standing up for what is good, can peace be brought to the world. Abraham and Isaac worked diligently to disseminate the knowledge of God, and yet to a large degree they still lived apart from the uncivilized masses. Once he arrived in Canaan, Abraham spent a brief time in Egypt and the territory of the Philistines. Yet overall he kept his distance from the corrupting outside culture. He would pray for Sodom and Gomorrah from afar, but would not dare live there. Isaac, even more so, secluded himself from the outside impure world. In fact he never left the borders of the future land of Israel his entire life. It was only Jacob who was required to leave Canaan and live in a foreign land for an extended period of time. First he dwelt in Aram Naharaim with his wicked uncle Laban for twenty years. He then returned and chose to dwell in the fields of Shechem adjacent to the natives in the land. And finally, he lived the last seventeen years of his life in Egypt. Jacob’s consistent willingness to put everything on the line for the future welfare of the Jewish nation, and his very direct confrontation with evil, gave him the privilege of God’s chosen nation being named after him. We might be tempted to think that by staying on the sidelines we are somehow keeping ourselves safe and maintaining the moral high ground. But we see this is not the case from the book of Esther. In this story, we learn how Mordecai gives counsel to the young queen Esther, who now finds herself commissioned with the task of risking her life in an attempt to save the Jewish people. Mordecai tells her, “If you remain silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s household shall perish.” Any injustice that we have the possibility to prevent, and yet we refrain from action, we too are morally culpable for its occurrence. Jacob’s actions in regard to the birthright teach us about our indispensable need to arise and challenge cruelty or oppression whenever we see that we are in a position to stop it. Our holy forebears and the great heroes throughout history risked everything for the path of righteousness and justice. If we can learn from these achievements of the past, then we are likely to repeat them.
Written in memory of Machla Dabakarov a”h, the mother of a dear friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who passed away earlier this year.