As Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to face the difficult challenges that will face him as Prime Minister, he can form Yaakov Avinu’s encounter with Eisav.
In this week’s parshah, Yaakov Avinu sent a large tribute to his “lord” Eisav. Nechama Leibowitz pointed out that our sages disagreed over whether Yaakov was right in trying to appease Eisav.
In B’reishis Rabbah, Rav Huna and Rav Yehudah ben Shimon said that Eisav was going on his own way and that Yaakov paved the way for Eisav and his descendants to lord it over us by referring to himself as Eisav’s “servant.” They called to mind the saying from Chazal, “One who makes himself a kid will be devoured by the wolves.”
The Ramban went even further. He wrote that Yaakov’s appeasement of Eisav, the ancestor of the Romans, set the stage for the Hasmonean kings to invite the Romans into Israel, leading to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.
When we celebrate Chanukah next week, we will remember the courage of the Maccabees and their devotion to Torah. Unfortunately, their descendants did not follow in their footsteps.
The Torah was the first legal system to separate religious and secular leadership. Secular leadership is entrusted to the kings, the descendants of David. Religious leadership is the prerogative of the kohanim, the descendants of Aharon. The Chashmona’im were kohanim. They usurped the role of kings. In assuming both k’hunah and the monarchy, they corrupted both.
When Queen Shlomzion Alexandra died in 67 BCE, her oldest son, Hyrcanus II, should have inherited the throne. But his younger brother, Aristobulus, with the support of the army, deposed him. An all-out civil war ensued, destroying much of Jerusalem. The two brothers submitted their dispute to the Roman general, Pompey, who ruled in favor of Hyrcanus. Hyrcanus invited the Romans to occupy Jerusalem. Pompey entered the Har HaBayis, after a three-month siege in which several thousand people were killed. Judea became a Roman province, paving the way for the Churban of the Beis HaMikdash.
The Diaspora that we have endured over the past 2,000 years has been called Galus Edom. Rav Huna, Rav Yehudah ben Shimon, and the Ramban have said that the persecution we have suffered at the hands of Edom were a result of Yaakov debasing himself to appease Eisav, the ancestor of Edom.
Yet some of our greatest scholars expressed a very different point of view. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai stated that the refusal to reach an accommodation with the Romans during the Great Revolt led to the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai saw that the fate of Jerusalem was sealed, he tried to save what he could by meeting the Roman general, and later Emperor, Vespasian. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai greeted Vespasian as the Emperor and was successful in saving Yavneh and its scholars, ensuring that Torah and the Jewish people would survive the Churban.
Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the compiler and editor of the Mishnah, had a close personal relationship with the Roman Emperor Antoninus. In his correspondence with the Emperor, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi referred to himself as the Emperor’s “servant.”
While we admire the righteousness of Rabbi Akiva and the courage of Bar Kochba, the revolt of 132 CE led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of Jews, the execution of Rabbi Akiva and other great talmidei chachamim, and the banning of Jews from Jerusalem. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi realized that a different approach was needed. By befriending the Roman Emperor, he enabled Jewish life in the Galil to flourish, and he paved the way for the compiling of the Mishnah and eventually the Gemara.
Interestingly, the Mishnah only mentions Chanukah a few times in passing. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi worked hard to build a positive relationship with the Roman authorities. Emphasizing a holiday that commemorates a successful revolt against the leading imperial power of the day would have been a red flag to the Romans, undoing much of his work.
By pursuing positive relations with the Romans, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai and Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi made it possible for Torah and the Jewish people to survive for two thousand years without a Beis HaMikdash and without a land.
Rav Yonasan in the Midrash wrote that one who has to deal with kings should read the beginning of our parshah to learn from how Yaakov dealt with Eisav.
When Menachem Begin was first elected Prime Minister, he was vilified by much of the American press as a Fascist and a warmonger. The leaders of a large segment of the American Jewish community predicted that Begin’s policies would lead to an estrangement between Israel and the American Jewish community. On his first trip to the United States as Prime Minister, Begin met with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe to seek their advice before his meeting with President Jimmy Carter. All three advised him to read about Yaakov’s encounter with Eisav before the meeting.
Yaakov prepared for his encounter with prayer, tribute, and planning for war. There are times when dealing with our enemies calls for accommodation, and times when it calls for concentration. Yaakov was prepared for both.
Prime Minister Designate Benjamin Netanyahu faces many challenges. He is vilified by the media, the American administration is warning against the appointment of certain Ministers, segments of the American Jewish community are proclaiming their estrangement from Israel, leftists are declaring that democracy in Israel is in danger, his coalition partners are making demands for positions and ideological concessions, Iran is moving ever closer to the ability to produce nuclear weapons, Palestinian terrorism and anti-Semitism in America are on the rise.
Netanyahu will need to be prepared for both accommodation and confrontation as he prepares to meet those challenges.
Going exclusively down the road of either accommodation or confrontation will not work. There will be times when one approach is called for and times when the opposite approach will be needed.
We all have our opinions about when to accommodate and when to confront. But the people of Israel have entrusted Benjamin Netanyahu and his colleagues with the responsibility for making the difficult decisions that await them. What we can all do is pray.
May G-d grant Benjamin Netanyahu and his partners the wisdom to make the decisions that will lead to a brighter and more secure future for Israel and the Jewish people.
By Manny Behar