What do you do when your back is to the wall? When tensions are so high, annihilation seems imminent?
Jacob has an answer that touches my soul. He doesn’t fight, run or resist. Instead, he surrenders completely, and that which he feared washes over him like a wave.
Twenty years earlier, in Parashat Toldot, Jacob steals a blessing meant for his twin brother, Esau, and narrowly escapes with his life. This time, in Vayishlach, it’s not just his life he is worried about, but that of the sizable retinue he has acquired — four significant others, 11 sons, plus daughters, servants and plentiful livestock.
Jacob sends a delegation to scout out Esau and deliver a message, and he learns that his brother is headed toward him with 400 men. This is a formidable army in his path, under the leadership of a man who has every reason to want his death.
So Jacob takes three steps. First, he divides his camp into two and sends them separately across the Jabbok River (the modern-day Zarqa, in Jordan), so that, at a minimum, one will survive. Second, he prays to God for survival and wrestles with an angel all night, leaving him injured. And third, he turns the camp that he will be walking with into a series of tributes — gifts made as a sign of submission. Servants, each walking with a herd of animals, are instructed to deliver them to Esau, along with the same message he sent with the scouts: “To my lord Esau, from your humble servant, Jacob.”
Our commentators understand dividing the camp, and the need for prayer. But Jacob’s willingness to declare himself subservient to his brother, via messengers and gifts, sticks in their craw.
Rabbi Huna, in the Midrash, thinks Jacob should have avoided Esau altogether. Why not let sleeping dogs lie? Rabbi Judah ben Shimon adds that by calling himself Esau’s servant, Jacob taught Esau to be his captain, something no one should do. Others attribute tragedies for the Jews in Roman times to this precedent, since Rome is known in the Talmud as Edom (the place of the “red one,” Esau, who had red hair).
Rabbi Judah HaNasi, editor of the Mishnah, on the other hand, sees much in Jacob’s humble approach, saying he would do the same. Sometimes you need to let people feel that they are in charge, to let them “win” — especially powerful people. It gives them permission to relax, and, in so doing, the locked horns you both had been holding to can be unhooked.
Ideally, reproach should be done from a place of sincere shame and regret. When we ask others for forgiveness on the High Holy Days, for example, actually feeling sorry is mandated by God.
It’s not clear if this is the case for Jacob, or if he is still up to his old manipulations. Once peace is attained — Esau kisses him and offers to travel with him — Jacob replies that he’ll meet his brother in Seir (Edom), south of the Dead Sea. Jacob then heads west, and settles in Shechem, in the modern West Bank, instead.
So maybe it is all an act. It doesn’t really matter. The end is the same; Esau has saved face, and Jacob’s family is safe.
Surrender can resolve a stalemate of any kind, from a tiny slight to a national saber-rattling. It even applies within ourselves, when in the grip of anxiety. Jacob teaches us how. Humble yourself to your opponent, blatantly and consistently. Don’t let your sense of righteous indignation get in the way.
Sometimes it helps to focus on feeling pity. To think, “Poor fellow, he can’t back down. He needs to win. OK, I can do that for him.” It can help cooler heads to prevail.
I’m not saying to flout your own safety. As it says in the Talmud, “Never put yourself in a dangerous place and pray for a miracle.” The goal is to bend like a reed and not break like a cedar in a high wind. Consider your options, and don’t reject submissiveness as one of them.
Keep this approach in mind as we head into the holiday season and are reunited with those we love, but with whom we may share old wounds. The goal is an end to tensions. Once attained, it won’t matter who gave in. Release the need to “be right.” Let the feared moment wash over you, pass and be gone.
Jacob actually calls Esau “my lord” (adonee) 15 times, if you count all the gift presentations. In Hebrew, 15 can be written yud (10), hay (5), which spells Yah, a name of God. Perhaps Jacob repeated his “my lord” mantra “Yah” times, on purpose, to transform his actions into one big prayer.
Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.