Photo Credit:
Rabbi Avi Weiss

Is public protest an effective means of bringing about change? While many insist on its value, some have argued that demonstrations on behalf of Jewish causes precipitate anti-Semitic backlash. This week’s Torah portion offers an insight into this debate.

After 22 years of separation, Yaakov prepares to meet his brother Eisav and is told that Eisav is geared up to do battle (Genesis 32:7). When they meet, however, the opposite occurs. Eisav embraces Yaakov (Genesis 33:4). What prompted the change?

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Commentators point to a pivotal incident that took place between Yaakov receiving the report of Eisav’s war preparations and the actual encounter. This is the episode of the struggle between Yaakov and a mysterious being in the middle of the night. Yaakov wins the struggle but in the process is wounded. He leaves the battle limping (Genesis 32:25-33).

Benno Yaakov, the German Jewish commentator, feels that Yaakov’s limping precipitated Eisav’s change of heart. According to his comments, when Eisav saw Yaakov struggling to walk, he felt compassion for him. In Eisav’s mind Yaakov had been defeated. From Benno Yaakov’s perspective, the heart of the adversary is won by bending and ingratiating ourselves. This approach makes sense as Benno Yaakov lived in Germany in the early 20th century – a time when the Jews were seeking good relations with the German government.

Rashbam sees it differently. He is bewildered by Yaakov’s desire to be alone just before the struggle with the mysterious being (Genesis 32:25). If Yaakov was intent on protecting his family, why did he abandon them at that crucial time?

Rashbam suggests that up to this point, when faced with a challenge, Yaakov always ran. He ran after he took the blessings from Eisav. He said nothing when he found Leah and not Rachel the morning after his wedding night, and he fled from his dishonest father-in-law Lavan’s house in the dead of night. Just hours before confronting Eisav, Yaakov seemed to have no choice but to stand strong. At the last moment, however, Rashbam insists that he was alone because once again he was seeking to flee. As much as Yaakov had carefully prepared for the inevitable confrontation with Esav, his nature took over and once again he saw fleeing as the only solution.

For Rashbam, the mysterious being was an emissary of God sent to Yaakov. In the end, the emissary wounds Yaakov, making it difficult for him to walk. This was God’s way of telling Yaakov that he no longer could run. When facing an adversary, it’s important to stand fast.

Thus, when Eisav sees Yaakov standing with pride, unwilling to run, he gains respect for him and embraces him. Sometimes the only way to gain respect from others is by exhibiting a healthy dose of self-respect. Witnessing his preparedness to stand tall, Eisav gained new respect for Yaakov. He was no longer a brother who could be pushed around. It was that new resolve on the part of Yaakov that earned Eisav’s respect and caused him to decide to embrace Yaakov rather than fight him. Rashbam, living during the Crusades, may have been offering advice to his own generation of persecuted Jews, letting them know that if you cave in to anti-Semitism, you arouse more anti-Semitism.

Interestingly, after struggling with the mysterious man, Yaakov is given another name, Yisrael. No longer was he only Yaakov, which comes from the word akev (heel), one who, even as he negotiates, runs on his heels. Now he is also Yisrael, which means the fighter who has the strength to prevail.

We are told that Yaakov retains both names. This is unlike other characters in the Torah, such as Avraham and Sarah whose old names, Avram and Sarai, were never used again after God gave them their new identity. The message of the dual name is clear; both the Yaakov approach of behind-the-scenes discussion with authority and the Yisrael component of outspoken advocacy are crucial. They work in sync, each complementing the other to achieve the goal of justice and tikkun olam.

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Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.