the hardest battle
20 years after fleeing from his brother Esau who has sworn to kill him, Jacob prepares to meet him again. For the Rabbis this meeting became the prototype showdown between Israel and the nations. Before the meeting with Esau, the Rabbis point out, Jacob prepares in three ways: He divides his camp in two, he prays to God, and he sends Esau gifts and conciliatory messages. These three tactics mirror the basic strategies that Israel has adopted in dealing with potentially hostile situations throughout the ages: preparation for battle, prayer, and diplomacy.
But before the showdown with Esau can take place, another battle has to be fought…
The night before Jacob’s fateful meeting with Esau, a strange encounter takes place.
After helping his family to cross the River Jabok, Jacob finds himself alone on the other side. There, in the midst of the night, a stranger wrestles with him till the morning. As dawn breaks the adversary begs Jacob to release him, and blesses him with the name ‘Israel’ when he does so.
It is a haunting and mysterious encounter. Who was the strange adversary? At the outset of the story, he is described as ‘a man’, at the end as ‘Peniel’, an angel. But most strangely of all, the Bible takes pains to stress that the struggle takes place when Jacob is alone [“And Jacob remained alone’]. It seems that, on one level at least, this is an internal conflict; Jacob is struggling with himself.
It is a struggle from which Jacob does not emerge unscathed. Before he releases his antagonist, he is injured in his thigh. The injury to Jacob’s leg closes a circle in his relations with his brother Esau.
When he was born, Jacob came out of the womb grasping on to his brother’s heel, prompting his name Yaakov (from ekev , a heel) and setting a pattern of trying to overtake his brother that will recur throughout his life. Esau himself recognizes this pattern, and after discovering that through trickery Jacob has stolen both his birthright as well as his firstborn blessings, he bursts out: “Rightly was he called Yaakov, since twice he has overtaken me (vayaakveni )”.
Now, before he can confront Esau, Jacob has to confront himself and the justice of his cause. Only when this internal moral struggle has taken place, can Jacob go forth to the external confrontation.
The message of the Bible seems to be that inner conviction is a key to success in any contest in which we find ourselves. Before entering into a battle, we must first battle within ourselves to be convinced of the justness of our cause.
This message has gained powerful relevance for Israel in recent years. During these years Israel has been waging an unceasing battle to defend the lives of its civilians from terrorist groups. These groups recognize no law or humanitarian principle; not only do they deliberately target Israel’s civilians, but they place their terror bases and bomb factories in the heart of civilian areas. These despicable tactics place Israel in excruciating moral dilemmas. But Israel cannot absolve itself of the need to confront them. This continual struggle takes place at every level of society – in public discourse, within the military and in the High Court of Justice.
It is a painful and unending struggle. But, as the Biblical account makes clear, it is this internal moral struggle that makes us worthy of the name “Israel”.
In others’ words
Yitzhak Rabin on Israel’s victory in the Six Day War:
“In every sector our commanders of all ranks proved themselves superior to those of the enemy. Their resourcefulness, their intelligence, their power of improvisation, their concern for their troops, and above all, their practice in leading their men into battle: these are not matters of technique or equipment. There is no intelligible explanation except one — their profound conviction that the war they were fighting was a just one. “All these things have their origin in the spirit and end in the spirit. Our soldiers prevailed not by the strength of their weapons but by their sense of mission, by their consciousness of the justice of their cause, by a deep love of their country, and by their understanding of the heavy task laid upon them: to insure the existence of our people in their homeland, and to affirm, even at the cost of their lives, the right of the Jewish people to live its life in its own state, free, independent and in peace.”
Yitzhak Rabin, receiving an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1967
On a lighter note
Comedian Jackie Mason on Jews and violence:
“Jews don’t fight. I don’t know if you noticed that. In this country they almost fight. Every Jew I know almost killed somebody. They’ll all tell you. “If he had said one more word … he would’ve been dead today. That’s right. I was ready. One more word…” What’s the word? Nobody knows what that word is.”
Jackie Mason, “ The World According to Me ”, quoted in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Humor