Parashat Vayishlach begins with the description of Yaakov’s frantic preparations for his dreaded reunion with his brother, Esav. Upon hearing that Esav was approaching with a battalion of four hundred men, Yaakov assumed that Esav’s intent was to wage war and kill Yaakov and his entire family. He immediately divided his family, his servants and his property into two camps, figuring that “if Esav descends upon one camp and strikes it, the remaining camp will be saved” (32:9). As Rashi explains, Yaakov’s plan was that one camp would engage Esav and his men in battle, such that even if the camp is ultimately defeated, the other camp will have the opportunity to escape in the interim. Yaakov proceeded to offer a prayer to God for protection, and then sent a large gift of cattle to Esav in order to bribe him and thereby avert conflict altogether.
Rav Natan of Breslav, in his Likutei Halakhot (Rosh Chodesh, 7:51-52), sees Yaakov’s strategy of dividing his camp as a symbol of the proper approach to take when facing spiritual threats that one fears he may be unable to overcome. Yaakov somberly acknowledged the likelihood that Esav, who was approaching with a considerable army, would wage a successful war against him, even as he prayed and offered a bribe in a desperate attempt to avoid conflict. Recognizing this possibility, Yaakov devised a strategy whereby at least half his family and belongings would be salvaged. He did not see his looming confrontation with Esav as an “all-or-nothing” situation, in which he would either be triumphant or lose everything. Even as he did everything he could to secure victory, he made plans to minimize his losses in the case of defeat. Similarly, Rabbi Natan writes (based on the teachings of his mentor, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav), we should not view our spiritual efforts as an “all-or-nothing” enterprise. When we fail, or when we find ourselves as yet capable of meeting the standards we should meet, we should ensure, as Yaakov did, that “ve-haya ha-machaneh ha-nish’ar li-fleita” – that we salvage what we can. People who, for whatever reason, fail to properly observe Halakha as they should, or have succumbed to certain temptations, should not then conclude that they might as well despair altogether. Rabbi Natan gives the example of a person in a state of emotional turmoil who finds himself unable to stand before God in prayer. Such a person, Rabbi Natan writes, should not give up on prayer altogether. He should try to salvage whatever inspiration he can to, at very least, briefly cry out to God for help. Even if one finds himself defeated, there is great value and importance to minimizing the extent of his defeat to whatever extent possible.
Rabbi Natan’s teaching reminds us of the dangers of perfectionism, of approaching our obligations and our aspirations with an “all-or-nothing” mindset. We do not need to achieve perfection in order to justifiably feel accomplished. And our inevitable mistakes and failures do not absolve us from our obligation to “salvage” what we can, to continue struggling and accomplishing to the best of our ability. Failure should never be allowed to be total; instead, we must always preserve a “machaneh ha-nish’ar li-fleita,” a “remnant” of commitment and achievement that does not have to be threatened by our occasional missteps.