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The Message Behind The Message

We have all seen movies or read novels where the hero or heroine saves the day by cracking the secret code or message. Many military analysts attribute a quicker end to WWII because of the “code breakers” and their timely success in deciphering an elaborate encoding technique employed by the Japanese navy. The US naval victory at Midway Island, in particular, is just one example that turned the tide in favor of the Allied forces. A few weeks ago, at Posnack School , we marked Veterans’ Day with a school wide assembly to express our gratitude to the brave men and women who served and continue to serve in the American armed forces. Today, protecting the free world from the tyranny of ruthless leaders and terrorists is perhaps more dependent on excellent intelligence than ever before.

At other times a coded message may serve as a preemptive measure. It is a way to communicate, in a subtle yet very diplomatic way, that the perceived adversary has nothing to fear. Just such a case is presented at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, פרשת וישלח. No doubt Yaakov was troubled by the coming and inevitable reunion with his brother. Many years earlier, Esau swore he would kill Yaakov. How could Yaakov survive this encounter with his unquestionably more powerful brother and his legions? In a strategic and insightful move Yaakov initiates the encounter sending an odd message to Esau. 

Yaakov’s open message is contained in two lines, “Thus says your servant Yaakov, I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. And I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, men and women servants; and I have sent to tell my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.” What was the message? Would the plain meaning of the message resonate with his brother? Furthermore what was Yaakov’s calculation in sending this message? Telling Esau that he has material wealth would seem to incite Esau. How would this message be affective to still Esau’s pent up hostility?

To complicate matters, Rashi informs us of the behind the scenes message contained in Yaakov’s words. “You have no reason to hate me because I did not become a prince or leader but remained a sojourner with Laban. Our father’s blessing was not fulfilled with me. Another interpretation is that the word “sojourn,” גרתי, corresponds to the number 613. All the time I was with the wicked Laban, I kept the commandments. I did not adopt his evil ways.” Rashi’s explanation is itself cryptic, begging interpretation! How would Yaakov’s telling Esau that he kept all the mitzvot while living with Laban avert a war? To put it bluntly, Esau didn’t give “hoot” about mitzvot so what was the message?

Our patriarch, Yaakov, was the consummate diplomat. He was also an astute student of human psychology. Our Talmud tells us that before the Sages would meet with the Roman leaders of their day, they would study this section of the Torah to glean various insights from Yaakov’s strategy in his confrontation with Esau. To answer our questions above, let me share with you an insightful explanation I heard from my mentor and teacher, Rabbi Yisroel Chait.

 Yaakov understood that every emotion needs an outlet. An exciting event or situation must occur before the person can release energy to satisfy the desire. Hatred too needs an avenue or exciting cause before it can be expressed. Usually some fault must be found in the other person that allows this feeling to transform into action. It could be something petty such as skin color or accent when speaking; it could be due to a simple misunderstanding blown out of proportion. In any case something must release these hostile forces. A psychological permit must be found that allows the person to exact his “pound of flesh.” Then not only does the person release his aggression, but he feels justified in doing so as well.

Yaakov was well aware of Esau’s nature and he also knew Esau is an intelligent man. Even in Esau’s world of material success and power you cannot become a dominant player through impulsive behavior. Yaakov’s message was calculated to deliver exactly the right counter measure to his brother’s enmity. The underlying communication conveyed by Yaakov was geared to hold in check Esau’s hostility toward him. Being a good citizen, having broken no laws, any hostile action against Yaakov would be viewed as irrational even in his realm and sphere of influence. No leader wants to be seen as acting irrationally. 

Through Rashi’s comment, Yaakov is teaching an insight into anti-Semitism that at first seems counter-intuitive. When is it worse for Jews in world affairs? Not when we keep the mitzvot but when we visibly break the mitzvot. Jews represent to the world a system of justice and chessed. The moment we violate it, the permit is there for the outlet of all the pent up frustration felt by those who really know their lifestyle is corrupt. But what do they say, “You Jews, who claim to be righteous and fair, are no different than we are. In fact you are worse. You are frauds because you preach one way of life but you really live another. We, at least, never made that claim.” At that point all the anger other nations have deep down against the Jews comes flowing out. 

This is the message behind the message Yaakov was sending to Esau. I have kept the system in word and deed despite living many years with a corrupt person, Laban, in a corrupt society Padan-Aram. I am still honest. I did not become politically corrupt and become a leader in their society. My wealth, which is meager compared to yours, was earned through labor and hard work. The world is watching. You have no justification to try to destroy me. 

Now we can also understand Yitzchak’s blessing to Yaakov and Esau that we read wo weeks ago in Parshat Toldot. You, Esau, will only have dominance over Yaakov, when he fails to uphold the Torah; but if Yaakov abides by the Torah, he will dominate you. Where does Esau look to see if Yaakov is abiding by the rules? Primarily he looks at the world of commerce and business Why that realm? That is the very domain in which Esau dwells. While he may be corrupt, he is always looking to catch Yaakov being corrupt as well. Do the names Madoff and Rothstein ring a bell?

Yaakov’s message wasn’t just a diplomatic move. It was an action lesson in our philosophy of life. Strangely enough as a people, we are stronger and safer when we keep the Torah in every realm, than when we project a false attitude of ethical morality but act corruptly. Esau is always waiting for our slip up, for us to fail. Then he has a permit to pounce, dominate and even destroy us. Let’s resolve collectively and individually not to let that happen. Following in the footsteps of our father, Yaakov is our only safeguard.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan