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Formula for Survival

Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43 )


Jacob’s message for Jews today living in exile.

Jacob's strategy for his reunion with his brother Esau was to divide his family: "If Esau comes to the one camp and strikes it down, then the remaining camp shall survive."[1] Jacob's foresight was meant to save at least part of his family in case Esau attacked.

Thus, Jacob laid the foundation for one of the principles that would ensure Jewish survival during our turbulent, painful years of exile. We see the pattern of sunset and sunrise throughout our history; following are just two examples for us to ponder:

As the First Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the great Jewish community of Babylon (where the Talmud was arranged) was born. Many centuries later, as the sun set upon European Jewry, it rose in America and Israel. Our forefather Jacob laid the foundation well, for no matter what our enemies sought to do, their plans came to naught. Am Yisrael Chai! - The Jewish nation lives! "Al tira - Do not fear sudden terror or the holocaust of the wicked when it comes."[2] "Plan a conspiracy and it will be annulled; speak your piece and it shall not stand, for God is with us."[3]


Every occurrence, every word in the Torah is a message to us today. It is written, "Maaseh Avos siman l'banim." Indeed, the Torah is the blueprint of the future, so if we wish to understand our contemporary world and know how we may best respond to the many challenges that confront us, we need only delve into the parashah.

Jacob is the Patriarch who foreshadows the exile. The pain and the extraordinary suffering that we have endured throughout the millennia in all the lands of our dispersion were all experienced by him. Jacob taught us how to respond to the terror of the night when we are overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness and fear. It was not by coincidence that Jacob is the composer of Maariv (the evening prayer service). He showed us how to illuminate the darkness with words that emanate from our hearts. He taught us that even in the most difficult moments, when all appears to be lost, we are never to give up, but we must turn to God in heartfelt prayer.

The Patriarch Jacob prayed not only for himself, but also for us, who followed him many generations later. When Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, he also saw the Inquisitions, the pogroms, the Holocaust, and he begged for mercy. God heard his prayers, and promised that we, the Jewish people, would forever survive. As King David wrote, "May Hashem answer you on the day of distress; may the Name of the God of Jacob make you impregnable."[4]


Upon confronting Esau, Jacob cried out, "Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau...."[5] Our Rabbis discuss the meaning of these two hands, and the meaning of "my brother ... Esau." After all, Jacob had no other brother, and we know that nothing is redundant in the Torah, so why did Jacob use these apparently repetitive phrases? Our Sages explain that the Patriarch is teaching us a lesson for survival. Esau will confront us in two different guises: There are times when he will extend to us the hand of a brother in friendship, and in so doing, will attempt to destroy us through assimilation; there are times when he will attack us with Esau's hand, the ruthless hand of oppression.

Esau greets Jacob with a kiss, but the word "kiss" is dotted; the Sages teach us that the kiss was really a bite.[6] What seemed to be an act of friendship on Esau's part disguised a threat to Jacob's life. The Midrash tells us that God, in His infinite mercy, changed Jacob's neck into a pillar of marble, thereby preventing Esau from injuring his brother. While we must be vigilant in regard to both hands of Esau, Jacob feared the hand of friendship more, pleading first for rescue from the hand of his brother. The danger from the hand of Esau is clear; it attempts to destroy our very lives, but the brother's hand, the hand of friendship, is the more dangerous, for when that hand is outstretched, we may be taken unawares, and can, God forbid, lose our identity, our heritage, our very Jewishness. The hand of friendship can make it very easy to forget that we stood at Sinai and are bound to God by an eternal covenant. So let us treasure the awesomeness of our survival and protect our identity, our Torah, our Judaism with vigilance and love.

  1. Genesis 32:9.
  2. Proverbs 3:25.
  3. Isaiah 8:10.
  4. Psalms 20:2.
  5. Genesis 32:12.
  6. Ibid. 33:4.

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