Strength in Humility

The LORD has ended in Zion Festival and sabbath… He has handed over to the foe
The walls of its citadels; They raised a shout in the House of the LORD as on a festival day. The LORD resolved to destroy the wall of fair Zion; He measured with a line, refrained not from bringing destruction. He has made wall and rampart to mourn, together they languish.

All your enemies jeer at you; They hiss and gnash their teeth, and cry (or tweet): “We’ve ruined her! Ah, this is the day we hoped for; We have lived to see it!”

The above is drawn from Eichah – Lamentations Chapter II. It mourns the destruction our people suffered almost 2,600 years ago. 2,600 years have passed, yet far too much of the text can still apply today. Hashem promised us a time without sickness or war. And yet, 2,600 years have passed and the same reality is being lived. Much of that text may not currently apply, but far too much certainly does.

The question must be asked: What does G-d want from us?

What does G-d want before He will allow us to live in health and in security?

I don’t think the answer is as simple as keeping Torah and Mitzvot. In our thousands of years of history, we’ve had our Zealots and while some have seen some success, they haven’t been blessed – not like described in the Torah. On the other hand, we’ve had kings the Tanach has identified as idol worshipers – and they have seen relative success, although nothing biblical.

More recently, we had 2,000 years of exile where, for a great deal of time, the ‘Torah’ form of Judaism was the only form of Judaism. And yet we were not redeemed.

In fact, we only returned to Israel under the aegis of the communists, socialists and atheists. My grandfather was among them. But, lest you think economic equality is G-d’s goal, that return came at the cost of 6 million in Europe and 6,000 here in Israel. It came at the cost of innumerable Jews killed by the very regime they helped create in Russia. And, of course, it came at the cost of hundreds of thousands displaced from ancient homes in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

None of it has been enough…

So… what does G-d want? What can we do to bring our suffering to an end?

The story of Yaacov, the Story of Yisrael, might just help us understand.

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, Yaacov sends messengers to Esav. He wants to work with Esav, to figure something out. But Esav responds with a concrete threat. He approaches with 400 armed men. Negotiations have failed. The sentence that follows is remarkable – it is definitional:

וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ

And Yaacov was very afraid, and it formed him.

And then:

וַיַּחַץ אֶת-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-אִתּוֹ

And he divided the עם (nation) with him.

It isin the face of an existential threat – that our people are called an עם for the first time.

I want you to think about that for a moment: We try to mend relationships, the response is violence – or the threat of violence – and it forms us into a people.

It’s all too familiar, right?

There’s a problem, though. Yaacov isn’t really ready to stand up for his עם. He divides his people, he pays tribute and he prays. For thousands of years, we have argued that this is a model response to the threat. But I think it is nothing of the sort.

How does Yaacov pray? He says: “I am too small.” I can’t handle what’s coming. The עם has formed, but the leadership – even the leadership of our great forefather Yaacov – remains weak.

At first, G-d does not seem to answer Yaacov’s prayers. Esav is not visited by a threatening angel as Lavan was. So, in the middle of the night, Yaacov sends everybody ahead and it seems like, once again, he may be about to run.

And then everything changes.

This week, I had the misfortune of watching most of Lyle Lyle Crocodile with my younger kids. In it, the crocodile throws a wrestling match with the father of the family. The goal is to pump that father up – to restore his confidence. It is to make him feel stronger than he actually is. That scene reminded me of Yaacov wrestling the man in the middle of the night.

You see, Yaacov identifies exactly who he was wrestling.

כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹקים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל

Yaacov called the name of the place Peniel, because I saw G-d face to face.

Whether Yaacov wrestled Hashem or he wrestled an angel, Hashem threw the match. Either way, afterwards Yaakov was told the lesson:

שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹקים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל

You strove with G-d and Man, and you WILL BE ABLE.

In other words, it doesn’t matter who you’re fighting: if you put up a fight, you will able to do what you need to do. It is not about physical ability, it is about your will and the support of your G-d.

עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ – My strength and the Song of my Lord (from Exodus 15)

It might seem that the lesson was wasted on Yaacov. After all, Yaacov was wounded. He was limping. He couldn’t run. G-d forced him to fight.

Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?

But the lesson was not wasted. Not only does Yaacov face Esav – as he must – but when he does, his camp is not divided. Yes, he is still trying to protect Rachel and Yosef – but everybody is there. Together. He isn’t mitigating the risk; he’s facing it head-on (although his problems with deception have yet to be resolved).

He trusts in Hashem.

In other words, Yaacov has progressed. As a young man, he fought for pride of place – breaking all conventions along the way. In Padan Aram, Lavan took Yaacov in because he was family. Yaacov began to work and to build around that fundamental construct of culture. He found – and earned – a place. But he had not learned how to stand up – face to face – for what needed defending.

Remarkably, it took a damaged leg to teach him to stand. The Torah records Yaacov only pulled his legs into bed in the moments right before he dies. He never again gave up on standing strong. I think Yaakov is standing strong – in part – because he is weak. He understands that it is not muscle; but will and the support of Hashem that makes him who he is.

But notice what he stands strong for. It isn’t for pride. After all, he calls Esav Adoni – My Master – 5 times. It isn’t for wealth – he still gives Esav the tribute. In fact, he gives Esav everything Esav so desperately craves. Esav is so delighted that Yaacov says his face is like the face of G-d.

No Yaakov stands strong for what really matters: his family and their independence.

Before our present war, we were ripped apart by our seeking of pride. We were fighting for position – for validation through power. We lost track of what was truly important. We weren’t spending our efforts on being a nation of creation and holiness.

So, G-d hobbled us and is hobbling us still.

So, what should we do? I think we simply refer to the classic bumper sticker:

“what would Yaacov do?”

I think that Yaacov would be strengthened by the knowledge that his will has grown only stronger in the face of loss. I think Yaacov would stand strong, but with a humble heart.

The first step in the emergence from the curses of Vayikra (Leviticus) is:

יִכָּנַע, לְבָבָם הֶעָרֵל

Humble your blocked hearts.

This is what we must do. We must humble ourselves before our brothers. And we must humble our nation before our G-d. We must understand that it is not our pride, but our will and the support of our G-d that make us strong. We must stand strong for our families and our independence, but with humble hearts.

If we do this, then I believe we be an עם. Not an עם defined by the threats of others – but an עם defined by our goodly tents and by the blessings of our Lord.

Shabbat Shalom

(I can go on about this topic, which I didn’t do in the speech, so let me hit some highlights here.

  1. Right after being told to humble our hearts were are told the cost of dedicated our souls to Hashem. It is highest for adult men and lower for women, children and the elderly. The sums about the funds needed to humble one’s soul.
  2. Immediately after that the census of the book of Bamidbar takes place. There, only the men of military age pay and they pay 1/10th the rate in the previous reading. This is because, in war time, it is a lot easier to humble your heart. Non-soldiers don’t pay at all because they harbor no illusion of control – they are humbled automatically. War is humbling.
  3. Yaacov is a complex character. His (and his family’s) problems with deception continue until Yosef begins to resolve them. These are also important issues, and they temper the strength with which Yaacov actually stands up to Esav.
  4. How would this actually work? My constitution talks about the practical ways of limiting our own honor-seeking and accepting our limits. But beyond that there is a fundamental concept: If our people can pour their energies into building their physical reality and reinforcing their connection to forever – then no terrorist or country group could ever imagine toppling us with a day of slaughter. Our strength, and the song of our Lord, would create the reality we read about in Chumash. Security would be more likely simply because the concept of victory over the Jewish people would be so much harder to imagine. We are small, but with our will and the strength of our Lord we will be able.
  1. Kfir says:

    But I would like to make some comments. One comment is regarding your arguments: “There’s a problem, though. Yaacov isn’t really ready to stand up for his עם. He divides his people, he pays tribute and he prays”, and further ahead: “So, in the middle of the night, Yaacov sends everybody ahead and it seems like, once again, he may be about to run”.

    In my opinion, you present Jacob as an inferior person, disheartened, cowardly and clearly unfaithful to his family, since you say/imply that he is ready to abandon the entire camp, his wives and children, while he focuses solely on saving himself and avoiding a confrontation with Esau. This attitude does a terrible injustice to Jacob’s character.

    I would like to emphasize, it is not about making Jacob’s character only human and as such suffering from problems, weaknesses and flaws like any human being. This is about something much more serious and extreme. You are actually attributing to Jacob a norm of behavior that there is no way that any of us or any person who considers himself to be a bit moral, decent and loyal to his family, would have behaved in such a way in a moment of trial. You present Jacob as some petty and lowly egotist who, at the moment of truth, is ready to turn his back and abandon his family to their fate, just to save himself.

    If this comment about Jacob’s cowardice and escape was necessary for the story, let it be. It would be very unfortunate – but both the Torah and the Sages did not spare criticism from its heroes. But since there is no explicit expression for this in the Torah, then it is difficult for me to understand why you choose to go in a direction that hurts Jacob’s character so much. After all, there is no reason to interpret the words “and Jacob was left alone” as Jacob’s attempt to escape, precisely. There is no problem in interpreting things in such a way that Jacob was left alone when he bothered to move all his equipment across Nahal Yabok. If the Torah wanted to tell us that he wanted to run away, why isn’t it written explicitly or at least a little more explicitly?!

    Another comment to mention: even after Jacob’s encounter with the angel, the struggle and the injury, apart from the fact that the division of the people into two camps is not mentioned later, we do not see any clear sign that Jacob stands firm against Esau, and we do not see readiness on Jacob’s part to use force to protect his family. The same later, regarding Jacob’s lack of initiative and activity in relation to the crime committed by Shechem Ben Hamor to Dina. So, it’s hard to see how Yaacov was changed after his struggle with the angle.

    I have additional comments – and I would be happy to list them in additional comments.

    1. Joseph Cox says:

      The Torah doesn’t say he was about to run, but he has a history of doing exactly that. He does it with Esav and he does it with Lavan. The problem here is he can’t run *with* the family. Lavan would take them. He’s stuck in the middle and there’s a chance – if Yaacov isn’t there – that Esav’s hate wouldn’t really be acted on. But abandoning family is a problem. After all, Avraham didn’t identify Sarah as his wife, with 2 different kings. Yitzchak did the same thing. Why would it be so surprising that Yaacov would follow in their footsteps?

      There is a fear of facing these situations that is pervasive and a critical growing process for all the avot.

      Why was he there… we could say it was just accidental, but the idea that Yaacov, a head of an Am under threat, would be left entirely alone on one side of the river is just weird. “I’m just going out for milk” weird.

      You are right that Yaacov doesn’t *fight* Esav – he would have been forced to if he couldn’t have appeased him, though. No, Yaacov just doesn’t run. He stands firm. He doesn’t show fear. Maybe he prefers Esav – who he can pay off with sheep – to Lavan who wants everything.

      Yaacov is deeply complex and his ‘lack of initiative’ was, I think, a growing respect for conventional rules – although he might bend them to his own ends. There are at least 19 contracts in Vayietze and through them, Yaacov learns to restrain himself to convention and then work through convention to change the world around him. Hamor’s actions were in line with convention and he was reluctant to completely break it – even for his daughter. His encounter with Esav was much more about maintaining convention (kissy kissy huggy huggy brothers) in the face of somebody who wanted to smash it.

      Did Yaacov become a full-on defender of his family? No. He remains incomplete. He never did learn to apply force or to deal with the son’s of ‘not Rachel’ in an appropriate manner.

      Again, Yosef has to correct a great deal of what went wrong. He brings the truth out and makes people *really* stand up for family. Tamar does as well.

      What would I praise Yaacov for? Will. Tenacity. The willing to accept the consequences of his choices, again and again. Hard work. Idealism.

      These are fundamental Jewish characteristics. But we have bad characteristics as well and the national Yisrael has to work on them just as the man Yisrael did.

      The desire to run if just one issue we have to face.

      1. Kfir says:

        Yaacov has not run away from Esav by his own decision, but he only obey his parents order/ request. At least this is the story in Tora, unless you feel free to complete the story by sayin he was very happy with this order. Again, it seems like a try to interpret several events by your basic direction and assumption. It’s like shooting the arrow and after marking the terget.

        1. Joseph Cox says:

          You are right, the Torah never really says that he ran that first time. He just went. In fact, it never says Esav pursued him – or that his nephew did. He just left to get a wife. In which case, his history of running was limited to Lavan. Of course, most people interpret his conditional acceptance of G-d on G-d granting him bread and clothing as indications that he was short on both. Which is weird. After all, his parents were wealthy… they sent him to get a wife. Why not load him up with money – like Eliezer.

          The general answer is that he was robbed by his nephew or straight out fled, rather than just going at his parents’ suggestion.

          As I think about it, Yaakov is like a person who pushes little issues under the table so he doesn’t have to face them. Eventually those little issues *may* become big issues. Both running and lying are symptoms of not facing issues. Sometimes it may be best not to face them – because they’ll go away on their own. After all, in this reading Esav left, was happy, and didn’t harass Yaacov later. A win for both sides. In a way, Yaacov played the encounter to a very effective end by not pursuing a full conflict.

          But sometimes not facing issues makes them far far worse. Sure, he should have gone to Paddan Aram for a wife – but dealing with Esav (seeking forgiveness, doing everything he could to return the blessing Esav wanted etc…) beforehand might have made the whole experience a whole lot less traumatic. Of course, Yaakov had to grow and his time in Paddan Aram led to just that. He did do everything he could to return the blessing – on the way home. Whether or not he was actually going to go through with that blessing return beforehand is unclear.

          What is clear is that the encounter in the night changed his plans: he brought his family back together for the meeting with Esav. That indicates a strength or confidence or need to be with family in a time of greaet risk that wasn’t there before.

          Makes you wonder what else might have been changed.

        2. Kfir says:

          Regarding your comment that “I don’t think the answer is as simple as keeping Torah and Mitzvot”, I would like to note that all the Tora and prophets and Ktuvim (i.e. bible) are full with the simple message: If you’ll keep Torah and Mitzvot- yu will be safe, peace and happy, and if you don’t- the opposite will be your fate. Now, if you think that all of this is nonsense, and the real story is complete different, so why we put so much efforts in learning the Tora and Bible if we are dealing with irrelevant, false and not reliable content, messages and so on. why we have to read 3 times a day Kriat Shema about “If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving your God ה’ and serving [God] with all your heart and soul,
          I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. etc.”
          Why the Tora cannot talk with is in a simple manner, that we have to keep independence and united and humility? why the Tora cannot be clear with its messages? no surprises why the Israel people didn’t learned the real lesson, is it so.

          1. Joseph Cox says:

            I didn’t say we shouldn’t keep them, I said it wasn’t that simple. The challenge I have is this: We don’t keep the explicit commandments in the written text and nobody thinks it would be a good idea to do so. Maybe the Maccabim tried it but I doubt it.

            What we keep is a gloss on a gloss on a gloss and we argue about it. If we kept what we think is the present gloss then a halachic government would devolve into total war. Different branches of Litvak yeshivas can’t get along, just try Satmar trying to work out a government with the Dati Leumi. Or the Open Orthodox with some of the religious folks in our current government.

            Perhaps this is why the text is pretty explicit about how we end the curses. The first way out is: humble your arel heart. The second is: circumcise your heart. The third is: Hashem will circumcise your heart. All of it is effectively humbling yourself as the first step to moving beyond curse.

            If those had been the parshiot this week, I wouldn’t have focused on Yaakov. In a way your right, this dvar was reverse engineered. But not from my own mind, just from later parts of the text. You will note the humble part doesn’t really come from the Yitzchak story. He is just strengthened while being wounded and quite explicitly puts his own pride aside.

            As a relevant related item: my Constitution focuses on enabling people to live out and demonstrate their halachic vision (as well as other visions). It would be a great test bed for mature halachic government concepts to demonstrate what they can deliver.

          2. Joseph Cox says:

            One more thing… If you read the Yom Kippur haftorah it is clear there is also an economic aspect that is critical. So I tend towards a very broad reading (walk in the path of G-d by creating and connecting to the timeless while distancing ourselves from loss and destruction). Not everybody has to do every part of the cycle to the same degree. So people who help the poor think beyond tomorrow have a Holy role even if they don’t see it. People who create new things have a role. People explicitly dedicated to the holy alone (like ancient Kohanim) have a role. The key is to find ways to integrate and encourage and learn from these very different strands. It is even to encourage them to compete and challenge each other without being driven by pride. I really don’t think anybody has a monopoly even on this Truth.

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