PRAYING FOR SURVIVAL
BY HENNIE BLACK
In this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach, Yaakov is about to meet his brother Eisav after a period of 34 years. Things did not end well for the two brothers all those years ago; knowing that Eisav last wanted to kill him, Yaakov decided to send messengers ahead in an attempt to make peace with Eisav and to see what his brother’s motives were.
The messengers report to Yaakov that Eisav was coming toward him, accompanied by four hundred men. As to be expected, Yaakov is frightened. He consequently creates a three-fold strategy to prepare for the impending encounter: diplomacy, war stratagems, and prayer.
The first strategy of diplomacy involved sending gifts to Eisav as a tool of reconciliation and negotiation; the second strategy involved Yaakov dividing up his family into separate groups in case of war, and the third strategy was prayer, the latter being the most crucial in ensuring the success of the diplomatic and war tactics.
During Yaakov’s prayer, he beseeched G-d saying, “Rescue me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav.” Why did Yaakov ask for protection from both “his brother” and “Eisav?” We already know that Eisav is Yaakov’s brother. While it appears this double language is redundant, each word points to different type of danger that Eisav posed to Yaakov—physical danger and spiritual danger.
The physical danger was clearly posed by Eisav’s approaching Yaakov with an army of 400 men. The spiritual danger, however, was posed by the possibility of Eisav’s wanting to reconcile with his brother and to re-establish their relationship. This, in turn, could lead to Eisav’s breaking down Yaakov’s spiritual resolve and sense of mission.
Yaakov, who foresaw both dangers, prayed to G-d to save him from “his brother” and from “Eisav.” The word brother is mentioned first because the threat arising from Eisav and Yaakov’s reconciliation was actually the more subtle and the more insidious of the two; it was, therefore, a danger Yaakov knew the Jewish people would fall prey to.
Throughout our history, there have been two approaches that our enemies have used to destroy us: killing us physically or killing us spiritually by undermining our beliefs and principles.
This is exactly what the Greeks attempted to do to us 2000 years ago when the Chanukah story took place. The Greeks waged a spiritual war against the Jewish people by prohibiting certain Jewish practices—the observance of Shabbat, circumcision, and Torah study—which were essential to Jewish survival.
Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Ephraim Mirvis explains that “the three greatest challenges facing the Jewish people today are the three A’s: antisemitism, assimilation and apathy.”
While we must always guard ourselves from the physical threat posed by antisemitism, we must also recognize the spiritual threats that surround us daily—those that come from “brotherly” overtures that may result in assimilation and apathy, a state of mind that renders us indifferent to our roots and traditions.
In order to combat these challenges and threats, we must not forget that the key to our survival is to hold onto Torah and Judaism. And if we want to ensure that we pass on our traditions to the next generation, we must do more than “hold on”—we must live and practice our Judaism with love, passion, and enthusiasm.