Parshat Vayishlakh

December 1

When our ancestor Yaakov hears that his estranged brother, Esav, is on his way to meet him with a fighting force of 400 men, Yaakov becomes very afraid.  After all, this is the same brother who had been plotting to kill him the last time they met.  Rashi notes that Yaakov pursues three strategies in approaching his brother: Doron (sending gifts to placate Esav), Tefilah (praying to God for divine protection), and Milchamah (war—dividing his camp in two so that if one camp is attacked, the other can escape).

Ramban says that Yaakov’s three-pronged approach to Esav serves as a model for the three tactics Jews must employ to survive exile in Christian lands (Christianity is traditionally associated with the figure of Esav).  We must first of all pray to God, maintaining our relationship with the Creator, we must seek to cultivate positive relations with our gentile neighbors, and we must be prepared to either to fight or to run away when we are faced with actual violence. Many of the conflicts within the Jewish community have to do with how much we think each of these three approaches should be emphasized. Many of us tend to focus on one or another of these approaches to the exclusion of the others.  However, in order to survive and thrive as a people, we need all three approaches.  If we rely on only one or two, we leave ourselves vulnerable to the twin threats of antisemitism and assimilation.

Beyond the specific question of how to survive as a diaspora community, these three strategies perhaps represent three ways of responding to conflict in general.  Some of us default to a position of seeking others’ favor and approval (doron).  Others among us don’t worry about what other people will think or do, trusting God to take care of things (tefilah).  Still others are always braced for the worst, assuming the ill-will of others and spoiling for a fight (milchamah).

Which is the best strategy?  None of them, by themselves.  There are situations in life that call for appeasement, when picking a fight would be disastrous.  In other situations what’s called for is to stand up and fight for ourselves, when simply trying to curry favor with someone isn’t going to help.  And there are times when there isn’t anything we can do to change things, and all we can do is to place our trust in God that He will take care of us.

While nobody pursues a single one of these strategies in life 100% of the time, many of us tend to favor one over the others.  Perhaps when we find ourselves in difficult relationships or conflicts that seem unresolvable, the problem is that we’re choosing the wrong approach.  Maybe, if we shifted our strategy and tried something different, we would find ourselves more successfully able to manage the conflict.

Wishing you Shabbat free from conflict, a true “Shabbat Shalom.”

Rabbi Garth Silberstein