Responding to potential threats: Two case studies
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TorahParshat Vayishlach

Responding to potential threats: Two case studies

Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Everybody’s wrong in Parshat Vayishlach.

I know. That’s not what you want to hear. People tell me all the time that they are so troubled by the actions of various characters in the Torah. People misbehave or sin or do something terrible. Folks new to Torah — or new to looking closely at the Torah — are scandalized.

Here’s the thing, I tell them. If you want happy-happy, go read Proverbs. If you want real life, read the Torah because sometimes in real life you do the right thing and sometimes you do the wrong thing, and sometimes you’re not even sure.

Jacob and Esau, brothers, had a rift. A big one. Then word comes to Jacob that Esau is approaching with 400 men. Is this a military formation? A violent mob? Or maybe just a very large posse, retinue, troop of happy travelers. We don’t know. But Jacob is scared and decides to send gift after gift after gift down the road to Esau. Hundreds of goats and sheep. Thirty camels, 50 cows, 30 donkeys. He staggers them so, as Esau approaches, he will be met by a gift, then another mile down the road, he will meet another gift. And again and again. Jacob’s goal is to soften up his brother, leach the anger out of him with these very generous gifts. So many gifts.

Then Esau arrives and Jacob bows to the ground seven times. If there was any anger in Esau, it has dissipated.

This is a tale of obsequiousness run amuck. But was it the right call? When faced with an enemy or the threat of an enemy, is the best choice humility in the extreme? Should one give abundant gifts, accept a posture of subservience? Here it worked for Esau and Jacob. They cooperated a little, and then as their flocks and families grew, each went his own way. Esau traveled to Seir and lived his life there, in the land of Edom. And there was peace. (That won’t last forever, but that’s another story.)

Jacob, meanwhile, settles in Shechem. His daughter, Dina, meets Shechem, a man with the same name, who rapes her but also loves her and asks to marry her. Dina’s brothers are horrified by the insult to their sister. They tell Shechem and his people that they can’t marry the women in Jacob’s tribe unless they become circumcised. So they do. All of them. And they do so gladly, imagining a day when they will all share the land and intermingle peacefully. As they are recuperating, two of Dina’s brothers pick up swords and slaughter them all. Simeon and Levi steal all the animals, too. Jacob is horrified by this, but
the two brothers are unrepentant. They felt righteous indignation on behalf of their sister.

An abuse must be met with justice. Perpetrators must be held accountable. But was this scorched earth approach the right way to do it? Was it proportional? And given Jacob’s reaction (Jacob, the father and leader of the tribe) it seems these two brothers were acting the vigilante more than ensuring justice.

Two approaches. Meekness and humility.

Utter fury.

To be honest, both approaches worked even though the parsha is clear that doubts could be had as to whether either was the best approach. In short, everybody’s wrong. Sometimes a successful course of action is not the best course of action. It will work but the fallout won’t be worth it. What did Jacob lose in his extreme humility? What were the negative outcomes when word got around of the brutality of the two brothers?

Difficult situations require great deliberation and thought. Strategic thinking is called for and multiple perspectives
from experienced leaders help with good decisions. Two case studies of how you could react to potential threats, how you could react to violence against your tribe are on offer. Kindness and toughness. Perhaps the two case studies in one parsha suggest we consider both and figure out how much of each are needed today. PJC

Rabbi Larry Freedman is the director of the Joint Jewish Education Program. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

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