The Actions of the Fathers Are a Sign for Their Descendants

  • Harav Yehuda Amital








This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Carole S. Daman of Scarsdale
in memory of Tzvi Hersh ben David Arye z”l – Harlan Daman



The Actions of the Fathers Are a Sign for Their Descendants

Adapted by David Tee

Translated by Kaeren Fish



The Ramban writes at the beginning of this week’s parasha (Bereishit 32:4):


This parasha comes to teach us that the Holy One, blessed be He, saved His servant [Yaakov] and delivered him from someone stronger than him and sent an angel to save him. We learn further that [Yaakov] did not rely on his righteousness, but exerted every effort to save himself. And there is yet another hint for future generations: that all that happened to our forefather [Yaakov] with Esav, his brother, will happen to us in perpetuity with the children of Esav. Furthermore, it is proper that we adhere to the path of the righteous [Yaakov] by readying ourselves in the same three ways that he readied himself: through prayer, through gifts, and through salvation by way of war, to escape and to be saved.


Ramban appears to be teaching us something quite revolutionary: the principle of "the actions of the forefathers are a sign for their descendants" is to be understood not only in symbolic terms, as a hint to future events, but also as practical guidance: we should act as our forefathers acted. This is not something that we would necessarily assume to be true. After all, Yaakov faced a particular situation and set of circumstances; who is to say that the same strategies would be suitable or effective in different crises in the future? Perhaps the prayer, dispatch of gifts, and preparation for war were suited specifically to that instance?


The question becomes more pointed in light of what Ramban goes on to say immediately afterwards:


And the Sages reproach him for this. They say, in Bereishit Rabba (75:3): "'One who seizes a dog's ears' (Mishlei 26:17) – [this is a metaphor for what Yaakov did.] The Holy One, blessed be He, said: He [Esav] was minding his own business; for what reason did you send him a message, saying, 'So says your servant, Yaakov' (Bereishit 32:5)?" I believe that this, too, is a hint  that we initiated our own downfall at the hands of Edom, for the kings at the time of the Second Temple entered into an alliance with the Romans, and some reached Rome, and that was the reason for their downfall at their hands.


Why does Ramban first encourage us to adopt Yaakov's strategy, and then immediately go on to quote a midrash that criticizes him for acting unwisely?


The Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim III:51) writes that Moshe Rabbeinu and the Forefathers were the only ones to reach a level where they were able to engage in matters of this world – such as political leadership, acquiring property, and managing finances – while still achieving such a lofty spiritual level that God's Name was attached to them. He explains that the Forefathers achieved this level because their purpose in engaging in matters of this world was to "create a nation that would know God and serve Him," as the Torah testifies concerning Avraham: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, to observe the way of God" (Bereishit 18:19).


The consciousness of our Forefathers was historically-oriented. They knew that they were the founders of an entire nation, and understood that every action they took would have great influence on that nation. This is precisely the idea of "the actions of the forefathers are a sign for their descendants" – the Forefathers viewed themselves as guides for the nation.


When Hagar despairs over Yishma'el because their water has finished and he is close to death, the angel tells her, "Arise, take up the boy… for I shall make him into a great nation" (Bereishit 21:18). We might ask: of what consolation is this, in her predicament? We can understand this if we realize that Hagar, during all the time she had spent in Avraham's house, had absorbed the atmosphere of history-making, and therefore she thought in these terms. She was able to view her son as the father of an entire future nation.


Rivka is likewise told: "Two peoples are in your womb, and two nations will separate from your bowels, and one nation will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger" (Bereishit 25:23).


And Yitzchak blesses Yaakov with the words: "Nations will serve you, and peoples will bow down to you" (Bereishit 27:29).


Events are viewed in historical terms and through an historical perspective.


Yaakov, too, thought in these terms. He understood that whatever he did would impart a message for an entire nation. He wanted to show that it is always important to exert efforts to prevent war. He first tried prayer and the dispatch of gifts; only afterwards did he prepare himself and his household for war, with the hope that this contingency plan would be unnecessary. He wanted to teach the nation of his descendants that we should aspire to solve problems in a peaceful manner, and only afterwards resort to war. Yaakov is willing to show submission before Esav; his priority is to avoid conflict.


This is precisely the reason for Chazal's criticim of him: in order to achieve this aim, the best course of action would have been to "let sleeping dogs lie," to borrow the metaphor from Mishlei - to ignore Esav altogether, such that there would have been no need to prepare for conflict.


Ramban emphasizes the message of distancing ourselves from war because he believed that this message was relevant for his generation. It would seem that the parasha contains another message for future generations, which Ramban chose not to emphasize - perhaps because it was not relevant in his time, but it is of great importance today. The text tells us, "Yaakov was greatly afraid and he was distressed" (32:8). Chazal explain (Berakhot 4a) that although God has promised Yaakov, "Behold, I am with you and I shall guard you wherever you go" (Bereishit 28:15), Yaakov was still afraid of Esav, because he feared that he might sin, and as a result God would not save him. This is an important message to convey to future generations. Even if there is a Divine promise, our fate is still dependent on our actions. Even if we feel that God is helping us and that we have reached the beginning of the flowering of our redemption, we must always remember that everything depends on our conduct and our actions, and we must fear what might come about as a result of our sins.


(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat parashat Vayishlach 5750 [1989].)