War and Morality: Yisrael in the Land

  • Rav Yoel Bin-Nun
In loving memory of my parents:
Shmuel Binyamin (Samuel) and Esther Rivka (Elizabeth) Lowinger z"l
In memory of Rav Michael (Mike) Bloom z"l, son of Albert and Evelyn Bloom,
a "Renaissance man" who cared about people and taught many the ways of Hashem.
His siblings, Shanen Bloom Werber, Dov Bloom, Elana Bloom
  1. Did Yaakov also prepare for war?

According to Chazal, in anticipation of his encounter with Esav, Yaakov prepared himself in three different ways:

With prayer, and with gifts, and with war. (Kohelet Rabba 9:1)

In contrast to Rashi, who maintains that Yaakov actually prepared himself to fight, both Ramban and Rashbam explain that “with war” means that Yaakov planned to flee in order to save himself. Ramban writes:

This episode is recorded in order to tell us that the Holy One, blessed be He, saved His servant and delivered him from the hand of one who was stronger than him; He sent an angel who saved him. It also teaches us that [Yaakov] did not rely on his righteousness, and made efforts to save himself as far as he was able to. There is also another lesson for future generations that is alluded to here: that all that happened to [Yaakov] our patriarch with Esav, his brother, will happen to us continually with Esav’s descendants, and it is proper that we follow the example of this righteous man and prepare ourselves in the three areas in which he prepared himself – prayer, gifts, and deliverance in war, to flee and be saved. And Chazal noted this allusion in the text, as I shall explain. (Ramban, Bereishit 32:4).

Rashbam explains why Yaakov had all of his people cross over the Yabbok crossing at night:

He meant to flee by a different route, and therefore crossed the river at night… For his intention was to flee by a different route, so as not to meet Esav. (Rashbam, 32:23-25)

Rashi alone, as noted, understands the midrash as teaching that Yaakov planned to fight, if left with no other alternative:

“Then the camp that is left shall escape” – against his will, for I shall fight against him. (Rashi, 32:9)

In our generation, the interpretation suggesting that Yaakov planned to fight sounds quite simple and straightforward. But in Rashi’s generation – at the time of the Crusades, when masses of Jews were murdered all the way from Europe to Jerusalem – this option was not self-evident. At a time when the struggle over the Holy Land was being waged between Christian Crusaders and Muslims, it required real courage – spiritual courage – to even imagine a Jewish war of “no choice.”

One might read the parasha as a chronicle of Yaakov’s self-abasement before Esav. But Rashi reads it differently. To his view, the terms “my master” and “your servant” are merely external lip-service that Yaakov was willing to pay, seemingly humiliating himself, in order to appease Esav. In his heart, however, he was willing to fight if this became necessary.

Nevertheless, when we read Yaakov’s prayer, we detect what sounds like a note of obsequiousness:

I am unworthy of the least of Your mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant, for with my staff [alone] I passed over this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. (32:11)

The question arises, had God not promised Yaakov the great promises which He had given to Avraham? And had Yaakov until now not relied upon these promises? So why does he say, “I am unworthy”? Why, “Deliver me, I pray You”? Why “for I fear him”? Yaakov himself goes on to recall God’s promise, “And You said, ‘I shall surely do you good’…” – but he seems not to believe in it wholeheartedly.

Ramban’s answer to this puzzle offers an important and fundamental insight. He explains that the forefathers believed in God, but did not believe in themselves: “Perhaps, owing to sins….” It is appropriate that a religious person maintain this consciousness: while all God’s promises are true and proper, it is possible that I am no longer worthy of them.

In our generation, with the entire spiritual and psychological discourse centering around “believing in yourself,” this may be difficult to grasp. Nevertheless, the fear that “perhaps I am not worthy” accompanied the prayers of the forefathers, and it should accompany the prayers of their descendants as well. Are we truly worthy of all the good that God showers upon us? What do we need to do in order to be worthy?

  1. The Yabbok crossing – readiness to fight, and the name “Yisrael”

Rashi also teaches us something else about wars:

“And Yaakov was greatly afraid” – lest he be killed; “and distressed” – lest he kill others. (Rashi, 32:8)

Rashi, the only commentator who understands the midrashic reference to war as an actual readiness on Yaakov’s part to fight if necessary, nevertheless clarifies that Yaakov is not happy about the prospect, since it would pain him to kill others. He will fight only when there is no other option, and any strategy in the world is appropriate, in his eyes, to avoid war. This is the reason for his dispatching of messengers with an extraordinary, magnificent gift to Esav. Still, even after they set off towards Esav with the flocks, Yaakov feels that he cannot rely on the delegations preceding him; he must prepare for conflict with Esav’s army, which numbers 400 soldiers.

As noted, according to most of the commentators, Yaakov sought to evade the conflict by slipping away at the last moment, at night, at the Yabbok crossing. However, the encounter with the mysterious “man”[1] forces him to fight “face to face.” This was, in fact, the first time he had ever fought this way. All his life, since the womb, he had utilized schemes and deception, in dealing with both Esav and Lavan. Forced now to fight, Yaakov surprises even himself (“and my life is saved” – 32:31) with his abilities.

From within the Yaakov who sought to flee and evade, who called himself “your servant,” and who constantly grasped the heel – from within that exilic Yaakov – there emerged at Yabbok crossing by the end of the night a fighter who was ready to take the struggle to the very end. And the “man,” we are told, “could not prevail against him” (32:25). Even when he tried to strike the “sinew of the vein” (gid ha-nasheh) – meaning, the organ of reproduction – he was able to harm only the nearby “hollow of the thigh,” causing him to limp. Thus, Yaakov emerged whole – he and his descendants (see Rashi and Ramban).

Only then, with the dawn at Yabbok crossing, when the time of the mysterious “man” is over, does Yaakov receive his new name:

“I shall not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Yaakov.” And he said, “Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you have contended with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (32:27-29)

From the exilic Yaakov there emerges Yisrael, who fights with all his strength. Yisrael may be injured, but he will not be vanquished. Then, once again, Yaakov receives the same blessing he received from Yitzchak, this time having demonstrated that he has truly acquired “the hands of Esav.” He no longer needs to resort to deception; he is now able to maintain “the voice of Yaakov” while at the same time using his hands in a real struggle. This is the meaning of Rashi’s comments here:

“Unless you bless me” – acknowledge the blessings with which my father blessed me, which are questioned by Esav.

“Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael” – it shall no longer be said that the blessings came to by virtue of deception (Yaakov – ekev), but rather authoritatively and openly. (Rashi, ad loc.)

This suggests that it is neither Yaakov who is blessed by Yitzchak, through Divine inspiration, nor Esav. The figure who actually received the blessings – possessing “the hands of Esav” while his voice was “the voice of Yaakov” (Bereishit 27:22) – did not yet exist. Only after twenty years of living in Lavan’s household, during which Yaakov grew accustomed to placing “the skins of the kids of goats” (27:16) upon his hands, did this figure come into being.

Still, Esav is a fighter and he lives by the sword. Therefore, it is only through the struggle at Yabbok at the end of the night, when the fighter “Yisrael” emerges from within the fleeing “Yaakov,” that the figure who received the blessings becomes manifest. It is neither Esav nor Yaakov, but rather “Yisrael.”

  1. The meeting with Esav – once again “my master” and “your servant”

Despite the struggle, and despite the deliverance and the blessing, when Yaakov actually meets Esav, he reverts to his “exilic” mode of speech. He calls Esav “my master,” and refers to himself as “your servant,” going so far as to bow “seven times” (33:3).

This would appear to be Yaakov’s final attempt to restore to Esav the element of sovereignty that had been bestowed by Yitzchak: “I have made him a lord to you” (27:37). Yaakov showed Esav that he did not seek to be a lord over him. Even if he was indeed blessed with Yitzchak’s blessing, he was willing for Esav to be called “my master,” while Yaakov himself would be “your servant.” What was important was that Esav would not have to “break [Yaakov’s] yoke from off your neck” (27:40), and there would be peace between them.

This is a very difficult message for Israelis to hear – even those who consider themselves “seekers of peace.” How can Yaakov display such meekness? How is it possible that he bows to the ground seven times? How can he call himself “your servant”? Perhaps to the exilic ear all this sounds reasonable. But for Jews living in Israel, who have tasted independence and freedom, this description is hard to swallow. It is difficult to accept that Yaakov was willing to reach such self-abasement, solely to appease Esav.

For most of its history, the Jewish People has lived in exile, and the situation of “my master” and “your servant” is a faithful representation of the approach that characterized most of our past. And in this prototypical situation, Yaakov’s strategy seems to work. It seems that Esav originally set out with violent intentions, as evidenced by Yaakov’s servants’ report that he is accompanied by four hundred men. But then Esav sees the camp; he sees the women and children bowing down before him; he sees Yaakov himself bowing, relinquishing completely the image of “you shall be a lord over your brethren” (27:29). There is no longer any need to explain anything; Yaakov greets him as a “lord,” and therefore he is appeased, and he embraces him and kisses him.

Among Chazal there are those who express criticism of Yaakov, but there are also opinions that learn practical guidance from his behavior. The criticism is aimed mainly at the original initiative – sending to Esav to tell him that Yaakov is returning. The midrash portrays Esav as “walking on his way”; he was already settling in Mount Se’ir. Why, then, did Yaakov need to call him back to Cana’an, as it were? The situation is described as follows:

“Like one who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles with a strife not his own” (Mishlei 26:17) – one who pulls the ears of a passing dog should not be surprised if it bites him.

On the other hand, R. Yehuda ha-Nasi would read the account of Yaakov’s preparations for the meeting with Esav when he himself was to meet the Roman Emperor (see Bereishit Rabba 75:5; Tanchuma, Vayishlach 5). In other words, he viewed Yaakov’s behavior as a guide for all generations in dealing with gentiles, taking care to maintain the honor of the rulers and calling them “my master.”

Ramban (32:4) views Yaakov’s actions as the root of the sin of Yehuda Maccabee, who sought aid from Rome in the war against Antiochus and the Seleucid kings, explaining his request as the background to the fall into Roman hands:

According to my view, this also hints that we ourselves initiated our own fall into the hands of Edom, for the kings of the Second Temple Period entered into a covenant with the Romans. (Ramban, 32:4)

To this day, Jews initiate all sorts of diplomatic appeals aimed at inviting international intervention, and ultimately bringing untold trouble.

However, we might look at the whole situation differently. Yaakov was willing to call Esav “my master,” and himself “your servant,” only with a view to getting Esav to leave him alone and go off on his way, while Yaakov would proceed slowly on his own path, “until I come to my master to Se’ir.” According to Chazal, this alludes to the Messianic Age. The children (and their descendants) whom Yaakov endangered himself in order to save will eventually become sufficiently powerful that they will inherit Mount Se’ir. As we find in the haftara, from Sefer Ovadia:

… and there shall be no remnant of the house of Esav. (Ovadia 1:18)

According to this view, Yaakov’s readiness to humiliate himself stemmed from the fact that, in his situation, he lacked the strength to deal with Esav, and therefore preferred to postpone the battle for a time when he would be in a better position to fight.

The miracle of rebirth that we have witnessed in recent generations is very similar to the story of Yaakov. At the historical Yabbok crossing,[2] at the end of the terrible night of exile during which we remained alone, “Yisrael” emerged from within the “Yaakov” who was making his way back from the Diaspora, demonstrating a wondrous ability to realize the combination of the “voice of Yaakov” and the “hands of Esav.” Thus we have merited the blessings of Avraham and Yitzchak not through winding, complicated schemes, but uprightly and independently.

But has Yaakov already moved past the historical stage in which he calls Esav “my master” in order to survive and earn himself more time? Only time will tell.

  1. Purchase of the field – inheriting the land

The purchase of a plot of land expresses the forefathers’ efforts to secure a foothold in the land, paying its full price. Thus, Avraham bought Ma’arat Ha-Makhpela; Yaakov (who was already called Yisrael) bought a field in Shekhem, upon his return to the land; and King David bought the threshing floor on Mount Moriah. Chazal therefore taught (Bereishit Rabba 89:7) that no one can question the Jewish rights to these three places, as they were purchased outright.

Ironically, these three places are especially sensitive, and it is specifically with regard to these places that most of the nations of the world question our rights to the land. Perhaps Chazal are teaching a lesson that is directed principally at us, so that we will know the justice of our cause and continue on the path of Avraham and Yaakov, making every effort to buy and acquire the land, despite the difficulties that this entails.

Yaakov establishes an altar on the plot that he buys and calls it “El Elokei Yisrael” (Bereishit 33:20).

For the first time, the name “Yisrael” is uttered by Yaakov himself. This is not the name of the altar; rather, what it means is that God, who has watched over Yaakov (Yisrael) throughout his journeys and tribulations, has now brought him back, to establish this altar in the same place where Avraham established his first altar. But Avraham’s journey to the land had never been hindered or troubled by the inhabitants of the land. On the contrary, they forged covenants with him and regarded him as a “prince of God.” Yitzchak, in contrast, had experienced troubles with the Pelishtim, and Yaakov has to contend with the episode of Shekhem.

  1. The story of Dina

The first test that faces Yaakov-Yisrael at the gateway to the land of the forefathers concerns “ethics of warfare.” The episode of Dina becomes the episode of Shimon and Levi, causing Yaakov to confront his sons against the backdrop of the rape of their sister.

Ramban, who sets forth the Jewish position on ethical warfare, raises an important question:

It appears that it was with the agreement and advice of [Dina’s] father [i.e., Yaakov] that [Shimon and Levi] gave their answer [to Shekhem and Chamor], for they were before him, and that he knew that they were speaking with guile; this being the case, why was he [later] angry? Furthermore, it is not possible that [Yaakov] wished to marry off his daughter to the Canaanite who had defiled her, but while all the brothers offered their response with guile, Shimon and Levi alone carried out the act, and the father cursed the anger of them alone. (Ramban, 34:13)

If the intention behind Yaakov’s sons’ proposal for the men of Shekhem to undergo circumcision had been, all along, that they would later go and kill them afterwards, then why was Yaakov angry with them later? And why did he curse the anger of only Shimon and Levi?

Ramban’s answer seems to speak directly to the sort of problems that we are still dealing with today. Before citing his explanation, it is important that we consider the context of the negotiations and the massacre. Dina had been kidnapped by Shekhem and Chamor, and then raped. She had not been released, and the negotiations were conducted while she was still in their captivity. This is clear from the text itself:

“And if you will not accede to us, to be circumcised, then we will take our daughter and we will be gone.” (34:17)

Further on we read:

And they killed Chamor and Shekhem, his son, by the sword, and they took Dina from Shekhem’s house, and they went out. (34:26)

In order to free their sister, Yaakov’s sons were willing to deceive the men of Shekhem. As Ramban explains:

The answer is that the deception lay in their telling them to circumcise every male, for they did not think that the men of the city would do so. But if they would indeed obey their prince and all undergo circumcision, then they would come on the third day, when [the men of Shekhem] were in pain, and they would take their daughter from Shekhem’s house. This was the plan of all the brothers, with their father’s approval. But Shimon and Levi sought revenge, and they killed all the men of the city.

And perhaps Yaakov’s anger and his cursing of their anger was for their having killed the men of the city, who had done him no harm, [while] they should have killed only Shekhem himself. And this is as it is written, “And the sons of Yaakov answered Shekhem, and Chamor, his father, with cunning, because he had defiled Dina, their sister” – meaning, that they all agreed to speak with [Shekhem] with cunning because of the disgrace that he had perpetrated towards them.” (Ramban, ad loc.)

Ramban establishes the perception of war in Yaakov-Yisrael’s household: when there is no choice and captives must be freed, then it is permissible and proper to act deceptively and to exploit weaknesses in order to free them and to make an accounting, but with the perpetrators alone. The men of the city are not to be harmed.

The modern formulation of the “ethics of warfare” is expressed here very clearly in Yaakov’s anger towards Shimon and Levi. Yaakov was not angry about the deception, but rather about the massacre, which was disproportionate. It was an act of revenge.

In our parasha, Yaakov tells Shimon and Levi only, “You have brought trouble upon me…,” expressing his concern that he will be faced with a bigger fight than he is able to take on. His sons, on the other hand, speak as brothers, with a sense of pride and power that cannot be reconciled with the humiliation of their sister (Bereishit 34:31).

However, this is not the end of the story. Yaakov gives fuller expression to his fundamental moral position towards the actions of Shimon and Levi at the end of Sefer Bereishit:

“Let my soul not come into their counsel; to their assembly [for wars of revenge and massacre] let my honor not be united… I shall divide them in Yaakov and scatter them in Yisrael.” (49:5-7)

Rashi comments:

“Instruments of cruelty (or “theft” - chamas) are their swords” – this proficiency in killing is “stolen” in their hands. This is part of Esav’s blessing; it is his speciality, and you have stolen it from him. (Rashi, 49:5)

Thus, Rashi brings us back to the great conflict between Yaakov and Esav. After Yaakov has returned to Esav the promise of “lordship” that he had received through cunning, and after they have reconciled and each has gone his own way – now Shimon and Levi arise and adopt Esav’s actions!

If Yaakov’s sons use Esav’s sword and his methods – even if only for the purposes of survival – then they are not following the path of Yaakov. It was not for this purpose that God chose the weaker Yaakov, rather than the stronger Esav. Avraham’s family features Yishmael and Midian, the sons of Lot, the sons of Ketura, and Esav’s many descendants – but God chose specifically the line of Yitzchak and of Yaakov. He chose them in order that they would “keep the way of the Lord, to perform justice and righteousness.”

Thus, the actions of Shimon and Levi deliver a stunning blow to Yaakov’s household. This explains the severe punishment that Yaakov metes out to them: the loss of their inheritance. If Shimon and Levi had intended to strike Shekhem and thereby inherit the city and its environs, they will now no longer be entitled to their own inheritance in the land, but rather will have to settle among the other tribes.

The “voice of Yaakov” takes up the sword only when there is no other option, and only within that scope. This principle, built upon Ramban’s interpretation of the story of Shekhem, guides us in our own generation, too, to inherit the land using the IDF principles of ethical warfare and “purity of arms.”[3]

  1. Bestowing the name “Yisrael”

The giving of the name emerges not from an angel, nor from Yaakov, but from God Himself. It comes not at the end of a struggle, but rather as the concluding revelation of Yaakov’s travels.

When Yaakov left Beer Sheva, it was night. Yaakov experienced a deep sleep; there was a ladder with angels ascending and descending. All of this expressed the tremendous distance between reality and the vision. The gap represented by exile. Bridging this gap was the ladder that stood upon the ground with its top reaching to the heavens, with the accompanying promise:

“Behold, I am with you, and I shall watch over you wherever you go, and I shall bring you back to this land.” (28:15)

When Yaakov returns from his exile, the end of this “night” is experienced at the Yabbok crossing. The revelation at Beit-El takes place already in broad daylight. The expressions that appear here hint to the covenant of circumcision, which is performed only by day:

And God said to him, “I am El Sha-dai; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall be from you, and kings shall emerge from your loins.” (35:11)

The giving of the name “Yisrael” likewise recalls the covenant of circumcision (as in the case of Avraham and Sara, whose names were changed around the event of Avraham’s circumcision).

This covenant, forged through an act and not in a vision, is what molds the life of the forefathers in practice, in their actual lives. Therefore, the revelation in Luz (which is Beit-El) no longer reflects any hint of the huge gap between heaven and earth, as had been Yaakov’s experience upon his departure, and there is no longer any need for a ladder. Heaven and earth meet with the closing of the circle of the journeys of Yaakov, who has become “Yisrael.”

  1. Why did Esav go to Se’ir after reconciling with Yaakov?

It is not out of jealousy and anger that Esav heads for Mount Se’ir. He had originally set out while Yaakov was still in Padan Aram, and he completes his move after they are reconciled. From Yitzchak’s place, in Beer Sheva, Esav heads southward, to the mountains and the desert that suit his character, while Yaakov will inherit to the north, in Eretz Cana’an. Therefore, the Torah tells us:

And Esav took his wives and his sons and his daughters and all the people of his house, and his cattle and all his beasts, and all his substance, which he had acquired in the land of Cana’an, and went into another country, away from his brother Yaakov. For their property was too great for them to dwell together, and the land in which they sojourned could not bear them because of their cattle. (36:6-7)

The language here is very similar to the account in Lekh-Lekha, concerning Avraham and Lot, when they, too, were forced to part (Bereishit 12:5; 13:7).


In Sefer Devarim (2:1-8), we are told that it is forbidden to take from the inheritance of Esav, who is Edom, “even so much as a foot breadth.”[4] The fact is that the relations between Yaakov and Esav in the Chumash conclude on a peaceful note, in contrast to the Books of the Prophets, which address Edom extensively.[5] Ultimately, one might say that within the framework of the Chumash, their relations conclude with a victory for fraternity:

You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother… (Devarim 23:8).

Translated by Kaeren Fish




[1]  According to Chazal, this “man” was “the prince of Esav” (Bereishit Rabba 77:3).

[2] See Ehud Luz, Maavak Be-Nachal Yabbok (Jerusalem 5759).

[3]   There are those who quote the Rambam in his Hilkhot Melakhim (9:14) and (erroneously) understand him as endorsing paths of zealousness. Ramban disagrees with the Rambam here and rejects his view outright.

[4]  See Ramban, Bereishit 27:40.

[5]  See Amos 1, Yishayahu 34, Ovadia, Malakhi 1.