Friday, November 23, 2018

The Oldest Book of Diplomacy

In the beginning of Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob is confronted by the news that his estranged brother, Esau, is approaching with an army of 400 men under his command. Prior to this meeting, the last time Jacob and Esau saw each other, Esau was furious that Jacob had “stolen” the blessing of the first born from their blind father Isaac. Esau swore that he would one day kill his brother (Genesis 27:41). With Esau’s advent, Jacob famously approached the impending rendezvous with a three-pronged plan: appeasement, prayer and physical confrontation. First, Jacob dispatched gifts (Genesis 32:6) to his brother, then he offered overtures for peace, and finally, he prepared for war, should that option be necessary.

In Jewish tradition, Jacob’s approach toward his brother serves as a paradigm for strategic planning, and dealing with potentially belligerent sovereigns. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 78:18) records that Rabbi Yannai would always review this passage about Jacob’s strategy vis a vis Esau prior to representing the Jewish community in Rome (which the rabbis identified as the offspring of Esau). Nachmanides suggested that Rabbi Yannai consulted this passage because it represents the paradigmatic Jewish guide for living in the exile.

Centuries later, in 1744, Empress Maria Theresa, Queen of Austria and the Archduchess of Hungary and Bohemia, issued a decree to expel the Jews from Prague. A Rabbi Zalman went to see an Austrian diplomat regarding canceling the expulsion, while the aforementioned official was visiting a Jewish woman romantically. The Austrian official expressed anger at Rabbi Zalman’s audacity to approach him during his “personal time,” and challenged the manner in which he confronted him. When Rabbi Zalman explained that he was following the lead of his ancestor Jacob, the official found the response fascinating and helped the Jews return to their homes.

The actions of the matriarchs and patriarchs serve as signposts for their progeny. Future Jewish leaders would be prudent to study and implement Jacob’s approach to prepare for his meeting with his brother. In a similar vein, the famed General Moshe Dayan, a student of Jewish history, understood that the only successful military campaigns to conquer Jerusalem came from the north. As such, when he approved the plans to attempt to regain Jerusalem during the Six Day War, he made certain the Israeli paratroopers came via the North, which they did, via the Lions Gate.

Every episode in the Torah is pregnant with meaning.

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