Vayishlach - SACRED AND PROFANE
ONE SUMMER I spent a number of hours in the company of a successful businessman. During the course of a conversation he recalled with deep nostalgia and tenderness the days of his childhood which he passed in a traditional shtetel in Eastern Europe. There was a lump in his throat and a tear in his eye as he spoke of his father, a venerable talmid chacham , a learned and sincere Jew, and his mother--a revered eshet chayil --a woman respected for her tzeniut , her modesty and piety, and beloved for her kindness and helpfulness. "Ah!" said he with feeling. "Ah, how I have drifted from that kind of life! The non-Jewish environment I have had to live in and the business jungle I have had to contend with have made many demands on me and I had to yield most of the cherished observances and ideals that were taught to me at home and at school in the Old Country." And when I remarked that his excuse was not very convincing, he was disappointed. "Rabbi," he said. "You do not seem to appreciate the pressures I had to face when I came to this strange land as a youth. When I studied chumash as a child, I was taught that even Jacob had to make concessions to Esau when he had to deal and live with him. It was Esau who dominated the scene and it was Jacob who did the bending, the bowing and the yielding."
Hlis reference, of course, was to the incident described in our sidrah which relates how Jacob went out of his way to appease his brother Esau. "And he took of that what had come into his hand a present for Esau his brother.... For he said: I will appease him wich the present that goeth before me, and afterwards I will see his face; perhaps he will receive me kindly" (Gen. 32: 14, 21).
Looking at that gentleman who was pleased with himself that after all these years he was still able to quote a text in support of his laxity and backsliding, I thought of the familiar adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Had the man taken the rime and trouble to check closely on that biblical story, he would have reached the very opposite conclusion, and would see in it an indictment of his conduct as a Jew. Sure, Jacob was willing to give to Esau! But what? He sent Esau rams and goats and camels--material things which the Patriarch had earned with the labor of his hands and the sweat of his brow. But he did not yield any of his convictions or change the mode of his life in order to ingratiate himself in the eyes of Esau.
This thought is stressed in Rashi's comment on the phrase min haba beyado , "from what had come into his hand." He states that it refers to "precious stones and pearls which a person binds in a bundle and carries them in his hand. Another interpretation is that he gave min hachulim , of the profane and unconsecrated things" (Ibid. 32:14). Jacob did not hesitate to give money, jewels and cattle as a price for the goodwill of Esau. He parted with things that pass from hand to hand, items that belong to one today and to another the next day. "Here are my sheep and my camels," Jacob said, "Take my jewels and my precious stones. They are profane items that can be replaced. But my heart and my brain, my neshamah and my faith are sacred to me, and I will not part from them until the very end of my life."
The Patriarch left this legacy to his children. He instructed the bearer of the gifts, "When Esau my brother should meet thee, and ask thee saying: whose art thou and whither art thou going and for whom are these before theel Then shalt thou say: they belong to thy servant Jacob; it is a present sent unto my lord Esau" (Ibid 32:18-19).
I see in these words of Jacob an instruction to his descendants. "If Esau and all whom Esau represents, should cofront you with the question lemi ata veana tolech ulemi eleh lefanecha , to whom do you belong, what is your destination and whom do all these things belong? Your answer should minchah hee sheluchah le'esav . It is a gift sent to Esau. Even though we worked hard for it and earned it honestly, we are willing to give it to you if that will satisfy the demands that you make upon us. But as to the question lemi ata veana tolech , to whom do we belong and what is our goal in life, we wish to make it very clear that we --our hearts and our souls--belong to no one but to Jacob, and our ultimate destination is to return to our ancient home."
This legacy was not limited to one generation. "And so he commanded also the second, also the third, also all the droves that followed" (Ibid. 32:20). Jacob ordered every suceeding generation of his descendants to emulate his example. Jews may have bowed down in Poland to the uncouth poretz and in Russia to an officer of the army and the police; they may have had to give their hard-earned possessions to the vicious Esaus of the generations. They yielded on everything that came under the heading of chulin , profane, material. But when the same nemesis ordered them to violate the Sabbath, or eat non-kosher food, they would permit themselves to be incarcerated or dogged even unto death rather than comply. When the question of kodoshim --sacred matters--were involved, the seeming cowards surprised their enemies with an unusual exhibition of courage and heroism.
See what a picture the full knowledge of the text reveals! What a difference there was between the true meaning of the story of Jacob and Esau, and what my companion saw in it! The fact is that by imputing wrong motives to Jacob he found justification for his own deviations and backsliding. With him ''sheep, and goats and camels" and all that is mundane were of prime importance. What he wouldn't do to protect them! He would fight like a lion if the union would demand an increase in the wage scale or shortening of the hours of his employes. Bur he would never put up even a semblance of a struggle to observe Sabbaths and Holidays or to provide his children with a Yeshiva education.
To sell the kodoshim and to fight for chulim , how typical of Jewish life in America it is! The least discrimination in the commercial arena arouses us to concerted action. This is as it should be. We should protect our hard-won rights. But look how we squander the sacred possessions of the ages! And that at a time when the Esaus of today do not demand of us to renounce our holy faith. On the contrary, a Jew is respected in non-Jewish quarters for remaining true to the tenets of Judaism. Let us therefore resolve to shield and protect our kodoshim , the cherished and sacred treasures of Israel.