Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman (Ramban or Nahmanides) commits himself to the concept of “ma’aseh avot siman labanim,” finding in the patriarchs’ stories predictions of Jewish events centuries later.
It is no wonder he finds the opening of Vayishlach especially significant. We are already familiar with Esau’s enmity toward his brother Jacob. Two weeks ago, in Toldot, we read: “Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, ‘Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.’” The brothers’ mother, Rebecca, knew of Esau’s hostility, and it was at her urging that Jacob fled, sojourning many years in faraway Haran.
This week, we read of Jacob’s return to Canaan, but not before he must deal with encountering his hostile sibling. The Torah tells us that Jacob readies himself for battle, sends gifts to mollify Esau, and prays.
Esau approaches Jacob and his camp, accompanied by an army of 400 men.
At this point, Jacob “went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother.” Esau embraces and kisses him and weeps with him. But the bowing doesn’t end; Leah and her children and Joseph and Rachel all bow low. Jacob repeatedly refers to Esau as “my lord,” subjugating himself before his brother.
Eventually, Esau offers, “Let us start on our journey, and I will proceed at your pace.” But Jacob refuses: “Let my lord [Esau] go on ahead of his servant, while I travel slowly.” Jacob seems to prefer a subsidiary status.
To take “ma’aseh avot siman labanim” seriously, Jacob’s behavior must be viewed as a blueprint for the Jews’ relationship with other nations for all time. Are we to bow and beg forever, ignoring conciliatory behaviors by other nations? Are we to reject offers of equality and insist upon subsidiary status?
Even today there are those who, on religious grounds, insist we follow Jacob’s example and not assert ourselves in the international arena. Others vehemently disagree; for them, this behavior was a nearly fatal flaw that has haunted us throughout the centuries of galut.
Ramban himself criticizes Jacob; in Midrash Rabba he states: “The moment that Jacob referred to Esau as ‘my lord,’ the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him, ‘You have lowered yourself and designated him as your master eight times. I swear I will install eight kings from among his descendants before your descendants ascend to positions of royalty.’”
Many of our sages do not see Jacob’s behavior as the perfect model. They find his behavior weak and ineffective. Instead, they glorify Mordechai and Matityahu, heroes of, respectively, Purim and Hanukka. The Book of Esther teaches that Mordechai was chosen as the hero because as a descendant of Benjamin — the only one of Jacob’s children who did not bow before Esau; he was not born at the time of the encounter — he could courageously defy Haman.
The commentary by Ba’al Haturim puts it harshly: “Jacob’s fear of Esau, addressing him as ‘my lord,’ caused his descendants to become exiles among the nations.” Another commentary reminds us: “He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.”
Other commentaries do recommend Jacob’s behavior. The Midrash Lekach Tov suggests that all Jewish leaders in dealing with those of other nations should learn from it strategies of appeasement and compromise.
Today’s leaders would be well advised to study the parsha and decide which tactics to choose; they may find there were times when Jacob’s way was sadly necessary. But I wager that they will find the strategies of Mordechai and Matityahu more compelling. I pray they will find them effective.