THE THREE INSTRUMENTS OF PERFECTION
November 29, 2012
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #858, Parsha Thought, VaYishlach

Although Jacob certainly preferred to work things out with his brother, as he eventually did by way of his elaborate gift, Jacob had to be fully prepared at the outset to fight. If Esau would have detected Jacob’s reticence and vulnerability in the face of war, he would have taken advantage of it and attacked him.

RETURNING

Jacob is now returning from his twenty-two year sojourn away from home and is prepared to meet his brother Esau. Jacob sends scouts to determine if his brother still harbors hatred towards him for having taken the blessings and is dismayed to learn that his brother is coming to greet him with 400 heavily armed men.

Jacob then undertakes to deal with this crisis by doing three things. The first is to prepare for battle by dividing his camp into two so that if Esau should attack, one half of his camp will definitely survive.

Jacob then turns his attention heavenward and proceeds to pray a heartfelt prayer to G-d followed by his preparation of an elaborate gift to send to Esau to pacify him.

 

Rashi summarizes all three things Jacob had undertaken as follows:

“He prepared himself for three things: for a gift, for prayer, and for war.”

The question can be asked, why does Rashi reverse the order? Rashi lists the gift first, when, in fact, it was the last thing he did. And war, which was the first thing he prepared himself for, Rashi lists as the last.

Another question can be raised concerning Rashi’s choice of language.

Rashi states that “he prepared himself for three things.” The common Hebrew term for “he prepared” is “heichin.” However, Rashi employs the word “hiskin” which is translated more accurately as “he perfected himself.” This word is cognate to the word Tikkun, which means repairing or perfecting; it is a term that is used by the prophets to describe the Messianic Era when the entire world will be perfected to serve G-d. Why does Rashi employ that term rather than the more conventional one, which actually means “prepared?”

THE TORAH’S ATTITUDE TOWARDS WAR

One can offer the following explanation that conveys a double lesson concerning the Torah’s attitude towards war:

Jacob was first and foremost a man who detested war and violence. Isaac, his father, said so much when he declared the famous words, “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau.” Esau, the hunter, identifies himself with warfare and violence. Jacob, in stark contrast, is depicted as a “sincere person who dwells in the tents.” And our Sages tell us that that is a reference to the “tents of Shem and Ever” where he studied Torah. Jacob was a man of prayer and Torah study, not a man of war.

Yet, Jacob knew that he had to prepare for the eventuality that he might have to engage in battle with his brother to preserve the lives of his family.

DISPELLING THE MYTH

Contrary to the popular myth that Jews are pacifists and do not believe in self-defense, Jewish law, as stated in the Talmud, makes it clear: “One who comes to kill you, wake up early to kill him.” This is enshrined in Jewish law regarding individuals who find themselves threatened by others and it has been applied equally by our Sages to the Jewish people as a whole when their lives are threatened. As distasteful as it may be to Jews to engage in battle, survival and the saving of lives takes precedence over our sensibilities.

It is true that throughout Jewish history, Jews did not take up violence against the anti-Jewish forces of persecution. And it is also true that many Jews would eschew violence because it was against their nature, even when it was to their detriment. However, the main reason Jews did not resist was because in most situations resistance would have been futile, and the Jewish credo does not countenance fighting simply for the sake of showing our valor and might.

Even when we did resist in the past—such as the battles associated with Chanukah and Purim—it was not for political freedom and independence. The battles associated with Purim were for our survival and our very existence and the battles connected to Chanukah were to overthrow the Syrian Greek domination of Israel because they made it impossible for us to live as Jews. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, who lived through and led the Jews during the terrible destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, was against the efforts of the zealots to overthrow the yoke of Roman domination. As long as the Romans did not threaten our lives and our Torah way of life, Rabbi Yochanan was content to live under Roman domination.

But when the Romans, subsequently, ruthlessly massacred untold numbers of Jews and banned the study of Torah, Rabbi Yochanan’s disciple’s disciple, Rabbi Akiva, supported the ill-fated rebellion of Bar Kochba. His approach was not at odds with that of Rabbi Yochanan. The circumstances were totally different.

Jacob thus prepares himself, albeit reluctantly, to fight.

This, then, is the first lesson that we have to be prepared to fight for our survival and security as much as we would rather sit in our comfortable houses and houses of worship and study.

And this explains why Jacob prepared for battle first. Although Jacob certainly preferred to work things out with his brother, as he eventually did by way of his elaborate gift, Jacob had to be fully prepared at the outset to fight. If Esau would have detected Jacob’s reticence and vulnerability in the face of war, he would have taken advantage of it and attacked him.

Jacob’s tough stance, placing the emphasis on preparations for battle, was, ironically, the reason he did not have to fight.

WAKE UP EARLY

This idea can actually be traced back to the aforementioned Talmudic dictum, “One who comes to kill you, wake up early to kill him.” It does not say “Wake up early and kill him,” but rather, “Wake up early to kill him.” The difference is significant. If it had said, “Wake up early and kill him” it would have implied that one must actually get up early and kill his enemy. By phrasing it “to kill him,” it suggests that all that is necessary is to show your enemy that you are fully prepared to do battle. That alone can deter the enemy from attacking.

We can now understand why the Torah places the three in the order that war came first, whereas Rashi reverses the order mentioning the gift first and the war last.

When dealing with the actual situation, it is crucial that we do not allow our natural resistance to fighting weaken our position and show our vulnerability, thereby increasing the chances that there will actually be a war and a war in which we might, G-d forbid, have the upper hand.

However, from the vantage point of one’s inner soul and aspiration, Jacob certainly considered battle to be the very last and least preferable thing.

We can now also answer the question why Rashi uses the term “hiskin” which actually means “he perfected himself” rather than the word “hechin” which means “he prepared for.”

Rashi is trying to convey that Jacob, notwithstanding his uncompromising readiness for battle as a deterrent to violence, was spiritually not in the mode of battle. And, indeed, he made sure that his personality would be perfected so that battle was the farthest thing from his heart and soul, although it was the closest thing in terms of preparedness. On the outside, Jacob was a fierce soldier; on the inside, he was the ultimate man of peace.

PERFECT YOURSELF

On a deeper level, we might suggest that by employing the term “hiskin-he perfected himself” which is related to the concept of perfecting the world in the Messianic Age, Jacob was actually laying the ground work for the age in which Jacob and Esau would experience a complete rapprochement.

Before we can repair the entire world, including the Esau’s of the world that seek to harm us, we must perfect ourselves. We must undergo an internal transformation that involves the three elements of gifts, prayer and war. And, in truth, all three are associated with and contained within prayer.

The “gifts” are representative of all the acts of kindness that we show others. Before we pray, the Talmud instructs us, we should give tz’daka. This is based on the verse in Psalms, “I come with righteousness to see Your face.” Before we come face to face with G-d in prayer, we must first do an act of kindness. And although the primary objective of tz’daka is to help another, it is also central to one’s own self perfection. And more specifically, the way we prepare ourselves to be liberated from our internal exile—which is how we also get out of the physical constraints of exile—is to give tz’daka, as the Talmud states: “The Jewish people will be redeemed only through tz’daka.” When we help someone materially or spiritually to get out of his own straits, it elicits G-d’s force of liberation to help us be liberated from all that keeps us in our internal and external exile.

However, tz’daka must be followed by prayer. Prayer is described by our Talmudic sages as “service of the heart.” It is the spiritual exercise that “messages” our heart to create feelings of love for and awe of G-d. It helps to release the hidden love that we all possess but is in captivity. The word for prayer in Hebrew is T’filla, which has a dual meaning of judgment and attachment. Prayer is a time of self-examination and self-judgment.

And finally, liberation from our internal exile requires engaging and fighting the internal Esau. The Zohar states that prayer is a time of battle. And while prayer is ultimately an intimate conversation and relationship with G-d that transcends war, we cannot ignore the intensity of the exile mentality within us. If we are not prepared for battle—though it is not our primary desire and objective—the internal exile conditions will color and taint our ability to reach the ideal state of communion with G-d during our prayers.

 

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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