History Repeats Itself

  • Rav Alex Israel







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





By Rav Alex Israel



            Our parasha continues the epic saga of Jacob and his brother Esau.  Jacob returns home after twenty years in exile.  He returns with a great deal more than he left with.  He left Canaan as a fugitive, running for his life with only the clothes on his back.  Now he has a large family; four wives, twelve children and countless possessions: "With my staff alone I crossed this Jordan River and now I have become two camps" (32:11).


            Our parasha opens with an image of Jacob seized with tension and fear.  He is terrified.  We look on as he spends an entire night planning, praying, and making last minute preparations.  He has good reason to be concerned.  Tomorrow is an auspicious day, a fateful day.  Tomorrow is his reunion with Esau.  His last contact with his formidable older brother was on the day he cheated him of his father's blessing.  It was then that Esau threatened to kill Jacob.  He hasn't been home since.  What has happened in the interim?  Jacob is restless and agitated.


"The messengers returned to Jacob saying, 'We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.'"(Genesis 32:7)

"WE CAME TO YOUR BROTHER ESAU: You look at him in a brotherly way but he acts towards you as the evil Esau.  He still hates you." (Rashi's comment on 32:7)


            Is this impression just in Jacob's mind or is it a correct reading of the situation?  Have the past twenty years caused Esau to forget his anger and insult; or have these been years of festering hatred, of planning for revenge and justice?  Is Esau coming with a brotherly hand of peace and love?  Are his four hundred men a welcoming guard of honor, or is this going to be an ambush, a massacre, a fulfillment of Esau's bloody promise?  What will tomorrow bring?  Jacob has good reason to be worried.




"He prepared himself in the ways: diplomacy, prayer and battle plans.  The diplomacy refers to the gifts that Jacob sent Esau (v. 22); the prayer to the God of his father Abraham (v. 10); and the plans for war: 'If Esau attacks this camp, then the other camp will be able to escape' (v.9)." (Rashi on 32:9)


            Jacob prepares in every way he can.  He appeals to Esau with gifts, showing his brotherly relations.  He appeals to God in prayer, and he also makes plans for the worst case scenario - if the camp comes under attack.


            The tension rises steadily as we progress through the parasha.  We watch Jacob pray and we pray together with him.  We see him sending off wave after wave of gifts to Esau and we hope that they will be received in good spirits.  We follow Jacob's struggle with a strange man in the darkness of night and we feel Jacob's pain as his hip is dislocated and knocked out of place.  We are on the edge of our seat until the actual meeting takes place.  A nervous Jacob approaches Esau, bowing seven times.  We all breathe a sigh of relief as we see Esau gives Jacob a big brotherly bear hug (33:3-4).  It becomes apparent that this is a meeting of brothers, not of enemies.  Esau has missed the presence of his brother Jacob and he is happy to see him now.




            This is the storyline as we see it in the narrative of the Torah itself.  But hidden between and underneath the lines of the text, there is a subtext.  Whereas the text is a story about a family and the individuals that create that family, the subtext is about the entire nation of Israel.  The biblical narrative describes a specific historical event, in a particular historical period, at a definite time and place.  The subtext reads this story as a prediction of ALL the future events of Jewish History, as a pattern which can define future events at any time and in any place.  This is not one event; it is the pattern of all future events.


            Let us explain.  In the rabbinic literature, stretching from the Talmud and the Midrash, all the way to the great scholars of the Medieval period, a certain rule has been applied to the lives of the forefathers.  This principle states that future events will mirror past events and conversely, that the occurrences of the forefathers will recur to their children after them.  In the words of the midrash: "ma'aseh avot siman le-banim."  A simple translation of that phrase is: "the actions of the fathers are a sign for the children."


            In our specific story, we will see how the meeting between Esau and Jacob - fraught with the threat of Jacob's imminent demise, colored by feelings of dread, prayer, hope - is read as a paradigm of all future encounters between the Jewish nation and non-Jewish oppressors.  The image of helpless Jacob; weighed down by his wives and children, innocently going on his own journey; confronted by an aggressor who threatens him with death is taken as a model for future events of this sort.




"A saying of Rabbi Jonathan: Whoever wishes to placate a king or a government and knows not their policy nor can he predict their attitudes; let him place this chapter (of Jacob and Esau) before him and learn from it the art of appeasement and diplomacy." (Midrash Lekach Tov)


            Our parasha has implications which go beyond the written narrative.  Nachmanides (the RaMBaN - abbreviation for Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman) emerges as the champion of this meta-historical philosophical reading of the biblical text and it is in our parasha where this type of analysis is given special prominence.  His introduction to our parasha explains his multi-layered reading of the biblical text.


"This parasha is written to tell us ... that everything which befell our father (Jacob) with his brother Esau will occur to us repeatedly in our relations with the children of Esau.  [Rome and the entire Christian world are seen as heirs to the title "Edom" and thus Esau's children.]  We should teach ourselves to be prepared to act according to the three-pronged strategy that Jacob adopted: Prayer, diplomacy and saving ourselves from war        - by fleeing and escape."


            Nachmanides will read every detail of the story as an allusion to a later historical reality.  Let us read a selection of these interpretations.




            Our parasha begins with Jacob's approach to Esau.  Jacob is returning to Canaan and he sees fit to inform Esau of his arrival.  The messengers return with the news that Esau and a whole army of men are already on their way to meet Jacob and his family.


"Jacob sent messengers ahead to his brother Esau in the land of Se'ir, to the country of Edom, and instructed them as follows, 'Thus shall you say, 'To my Lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now ... I send this message to my lord, in the hope of gaining your favor.'" (32:4-6)


            The midrash comments:


"Rav Huna said, 'Someone who meddles with a problem which is not his is like a person who grabs a dog by the ears.'  God said to Jacob: 'Esau was busy with his own business.      Why did you dispatch a delegation to him?'"


            The midrash sees Jacob's message as an act of stupidity and foolishness.  Esau would never have known of Jacob's arrival had he not been informed by Jacob's messengers.  He is inviting the evil upon himself, taunting the dog by pulling its ears!  Why go and draw Esau to you?  You should have let him carry on his own life!


            The Ramban sees the wider historical context of this critique:


"In my opinion, this detail alludes to the fact that WE WERE THE CAUSE OF OUR OWN DOWNFALL by the hands of the Rome.  In the Second Temple period, the Hasmonean kings made a treaty with Rome and some of their representatives even went to Rome and in the end, this was the first step of our falling into their hands."


            We have already noted the rabbinic identification of Rome with Esau.  The Ramban is referring to a deal made between King Agrippas and Rome, to assist him in ridding Israel of Greek power.  The alliance with Rome opened the door to a greater evil.  It was the Romans who destroyed our Temple and exiled us from our land.  We invited them through the door.  Jacob invites evil upon himself and so do his descendants. History repeats itself.




            Jacob "divided the people with him ... into two camps.  He said 'If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.'" (32:7-8)


            The Ramban comments:


"This too is an allusion: Esau may make plans and decrees which aim at destroying our name completely but he will succeed in harming only a section of our people in certain lands.  A ruler in one land will make laws and edicts against Jewish property and Jewish lives and a leader in another land will have compassion in his country and will save the remnant ... See that this detail also alludes to future events."


            Indeed the Ramban knew this very well from personal experience.  In the shadow of Christian influence, the Ramban himself was expelled from Spain by the King's decree.  He found refuge in Jerusalem and proceeded (in his seventies!) to work on rebuilding the Jewish community in the Holy City.  In our century, where we have witnessed the destruction of a third of world Jewry - the entire fabric of Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe - we have seen a revival of intense Jewish life and learning in the Jewish centers of Israel and America.  History repeats itself!!




            Another story seen in a meta-historical light is Jacob's struggle with the strange man.


"Jacob was left alone.  And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.  When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob's hip at the socket ... He said: Let me go for dawn is breaking. - Jacob answered: I will not let you go unless you bless me. - And he said: What is your name? - Jacob answered: Jacob - Whereupon the other said: Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and man and have prevailed ... Jacob named the site Peniel: For I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved" (32:25-32).


            One of the puzzling features about the story is the identity of the mysterious attacker.  He is first described as a man but then Jacob talks about seeing God!  Who is he?  The commentators talk about Jacob wrestling with an angel.  But what is the purpose of this angel?


            Rashi quoting the midrash, identifies this protagonist as the "Officer of Esau."  He is the patron angel of Edom.  According to Rashi then, Jacob is fighting the national angel of Esau.  This is not a fight between humans, this is a battle of national destinies.  This is a struggle in which both fighters are locked in mortal combat an entire night.  Equal forces face each other, neither one being able to overpower the other.  Who will prevail over whom?


            The Ramban once again, sees this episode as yet another allusion to future events:


"The whole episode represents future history.  That there would come a time when the descendants of Esau would overcome Jacob almost to the point of total destruction.  This happened during the days of the Mishna in the generation of Judah ben Baba and his colleagues.  At that time R. Chiya bar Abba pronounced 'If a man will say to          me, give your life for the name of God,' I will give it; but on condition that he will put me to death immediately.  A time of torture and forced conversion I could not bear.'  What did they do in such times (of forced conversions)?  They would bring white hot iron            balls and place them under the armpits and drive their      souls from them.


There were other generations who did such things and worse than this but we endured all and it passed us by, as is intimated by the text: 'And Jacob came to Shalem' (33:18) (Shalem means whole or perfect) - Jacob emerged intact."


            So this story too, represents the night times, the dark times, when we are locked in game of life and death, and even though we get hurt and we limp, we emerge intact having prevailed against Esau.




            Many have noted this tendency of the Ramban to connect different events in history.  The American Jewish academic Yosef Chayim Yerushalmi in his book "Zakhor" notes that the Ramban was typical of many medieval Jewish scholars:


"There is a pronounced tendency to subsume even major new events to familiar archetypes, for even the most terrible events are somehow less terrifying when viewed within the old patterns rather than in their bewildering specificity.  Thus, the latest oppressor is Haman and the court Jew who tries to avoid disaster is Mordechai.  Christendom is 'Esau' or 'Edom,' and Islam is 'Yishmael' ... The essential contours of the relations between Jews and gentiles have been delineated long ago in rabbinic aggada..."


            How do we relate to these ideas?  Are they simply not seeing reality, or maybe something more?  Can we really draw such precise historical parallels from our biblical stories to current events?  Can we really read the Bible in this way?


            In his commentary to Lekh Lekha, the Ramban introduces the principle of "ma'aseh avot" and makes a rather radical statement.


"I will tell you a rule to be applied throughout the parshiot of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.  The Rabbis stated this rule as "everything that happened to the fathers is a sign for the children."  The Torah tells stories, at length, about journeying or well digging and the like.  You might think that these are meaningless detail but in reality they all tell us something about the future.  WHEN AN EVENT OCCURS TO ONE OF THE PROPHETS WHO ARE OUR FOREFATHERS, HE WILL KNOW THAT IT WILL BE DECREED TO HIS DESCENDANTS IN SOME FORM ... AND THE EVENT WILL TAKE PLACE NO MATTER WHAT."


            The Ramban seems to be indicating that the lives of the avot - the patriarchs - somehow DEFINE the future.  "He will know that it will be decreed to his descendants ... and the event will take place no matter what!"  How do we choose which events find later expression and which do not?  Why should the patriarchs have this effect?


            The Ramban was strongly attracted to the kabbalistic mystical traditions.  We can suggest that in the same way as the patriarchs are referred to in their fatherly status, the Ramban sees the avot literally as fathers to the children of Israel.  They are the genetic blueprint of the Jewish nation.  They are the DNA which will form the People of Israel!  If they do something, it has ramifications far greater than their individual lives.  An act by the avot has an effect all through Jewish history.  It's as if the avot are the prime elements of the Jewish people and now we live in the tracks that they have trodden.


            The truth is that even this interpretation is somewhat unsatisfactory.  Children do not always look like their parents and the same events which befall a parent are not necessarily visited upon the sons.  Nonetheless, the Ramban's tendency to unite Jewish history into cyclic recurring patterns is a very popular idea that finds its expression in many ways.  In exactly this way, we incorporate many hundreds of years of pogroms and persecution into the fast day of the Ninth of Av.  On that day we "unify" the burning of the Temple with other tragedies.  On Passover we can celebrate freedom not solely as a historical event but as a living reality.


            And when we in a couple of weeks' time say the blessing for the Chanuka candles and we praise God, "Who made miracles for our fathers in those days of old and IN OUR TIMES" we are expressing a profound belief that Jewish destiny is linked not just between Jews - horizontally - but also vertically, throughout the generations.  Our collective Jewish history is seen not as a series of chance happenings but rather as a process, a meaningful journey.  In that sense we do not simply move blindly into the future.  Our past and our future are intertwined, each one enlightening the other.