I read a story of an encounter that took place almost sixty years ago between American Rabbi and a wealthy congregant, who was bemoaning the lack of Judaism in his life. With deep nostalgia, he recalled the blissful days of his childhood in the shtetel (small village in Eastern Europe). There was a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye as he spoke of his learned and sincere father, as well as his mother, a woman revered for her modesty and piety, and beloved for her kindness. The man lamented about his having drifted away from his Jewish roots and blamed it on the American environment in which he now lived as well as the moral compromises in the business in which he found himself. When the Rabbi remarked that his excuses were not very convincing, the man was disappointed. “Rabbi,” he said, “you do not seem to appreciate the pressures I had to face when I came to this strange land as a youth.” He explained that as a child in the Old Country, he had learned about the encounter between Jacob and Esau and the concessions Jacob was forced to make. Wasn’t Jacob, he asked, the one who did the bending, bowing and yielding to Esau?
His reference, of course, was to an event described in this week’s Parsha. After the incident of the birthright, Jacob had to flee-he barely escaped with his life. Esau (his brother) was after him and this week is the story of their encounter. Before the meeting, Jacob sent gifts with his servants to Esau and went out of his way to appease his brother.
You shall say, “[I belong] to your servant Jacob; it is a gift sent to my master, to Esau, and behold, he is behind us.” And he commanded also the second one, also the third one, also all those who followed the herds, saying, “In this manner shall you speak to Esau when you meet him. And you shall say, ” For he said, “I will appease his anger with the gift that is going before me, and afterwards I will see his face, perhaps he will favor me.” (Gen. 32:19-21).
Getting back to our story, the Rabbi noticed that the man seemed pleased that after all these years he was still able to quote a Biblical text to support his laxity and backsliding. But had the man taken the time and effort to read the text carefully, he would have reached the opposite conclusion and seen that the story is actually an indictment of his conduct. Granted, Jacob was willing to yield to Esau, but what exactly did he concede? He sent Esau rams, goats, and camels–material things which he had earned with his own blood, sweat, and hard labor.Nevertheless, he did not yield any of his convictions, change his value system or behavior in order to ingratiate himself in the eyes of Esau.
This thought is stressed in Rashi’s comment on the verse describing the gifts Jacob prepared for Easu.
He spent the night there, then he took from what came into his hand a gift for his brother Esau. (Gen. 32:14). Rashi comments on the words “from what came into his hand” saying that it refers to “precious stones and pearls which a person binds in a bundle and carries them in his hand. Alternatively, he gave from the profane, unsacred, things.” Jacob did not hesitate to give money, jewels and cattle as the price for the goodwill of Esau. He parted with things that pass from hand to hand, items that belong to one today and to another the next day. “Here are my sheep and my camels,” Jacob said; “Take my jewels and my precious stones. They are profane items that can be replaced. But my heart and my brain, my neshamah (soul) and faith are sacred to me; I will never part from them.” The is the legacy the Patriarch left to his children. He instructed the bearer of the gifts, When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, saying, “whose are you, where are you going, and to whom are these before you.” You shall say, “they belong to your servant, Jacob; it is a tribute sent to my master, to Easu and behold, he is behind us. (Ibid 32:18-19).
With these words, Jacob sent a crucial message of instruction to his descendants. “If Esau (and all Esau represents) should confront you with the questions, “to whom do you belong, what is your destination and to whom do all these things belong,” your answer should be, “it is a gift sent to Esau.” Even though I worked hard for it and earned it honestly, I am willing to give it to you if that will satisfy the demands you make upon me. But as to the question “to whom do I belong and what is my goal in life, I wish to make it clear that am a member of the Jewish people; we give our hearts and souls to-i.e. we belong to no one other than- Jacob and the ideals and values for which he lived. Being Jewish is our destination, it’s not just a passing cultural phenomenon.
This legacy was not limited to one generation. “And so he commanded also the second, also the third, also all the droves that followed” (ibid. 32:20). Jacob ordered every succeeding generation of his descendants to emulate his example. In the past, Jews may have bowed down in Poland to the uncouth poretz and in Russia to an Army officer ot the police; they may have had to give their hard-earned possessions to the wicked Esaus of the generations. They were willing to yield on everything material but when ordered them to violate the laws and values by which they lived, they allowed themselves to be harassed, incarcerated, and sometimes even killed rather than comply. In questions of sacred matters, the seeming cowards surprised their enemies with an unusual exhibition of courage and heroism.
The man talking to the Rabbi in our story attributed wrong motives to Jacob and found justification for his own deviation and backsliding in his misunderstanding of the story. For him ”sheep, goats, and camels” and all that is mundane were of prime importance; he would do anything to protect them. The Rabbi commented that the man would fight like a lion if the union demanded an increase in wages or shortening of the hours of his employees but he would never put up even a semblance of struggle for Jewish observance or to provide his children with meaningful Jewish education.
The Rabbi observed that selling the holy but fighting for the mundane (material) is typical of Jewish life in America is (These words were spoken 60 years ago!) We fight against discrimination in the work place and in school, and this is as it should be; we need to protect our hard-won rights and the rights of others. However, we need to be mindful of what we squander; the sacred possessions of the ages. We live at a time when today’s Esau does not demand of us to renounce our Judaism. On the contrary, Jews and those loyal to their heritage are respected in this country.
May we resolve to shield and protect the cherished and sacred treasures of Jacob and the beauty of our birthright.
(Sermons The Year ‘Round by Rabbi Bernard Berzon; Vayishlach:Sacred and Profane)