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B'resheet/Genesis 32:5 And he commanded them to say, "Thus you shall say: 'To my lord; to Esav. Thus says your servant Ya'akov ...'"
To whom was Ya'akov speaking here? Grammarians disagree over how much of the reported speech in this verse should be in single and double speech marks. The particular issue is whether the words are spoken to Ya'akov's messengers - directing them to be suitably deferential to Esav - or whether the words are a formal part of the message that is intended for Esav's ears. Nahum Sarna explains that "'To my lord Esav' is a 'prescriptio' or introductory prepositional phrase identifying the recipient, is part of the message. It conforms to the standard epistolary style of the ancient Near East" and adds that the repeated use of "'lord - servant' ... normally formal and deferential, becomes ingratiating in the mouth of Ya'akov, who repeatedly refers to Esav as 'my lord' and to himself as 'your servant'. This language, used by a vassal to his lord, is motivated by fear and intended to be conciliatory." Ya'akov's approach is, however, widely criticised by many of the rabbinic commentators.
In the Midrash, for example, "Rabbi Huna commenced thus: 'He that passes by, and meddles with strife not his own, is like one that takes a dog by the ears" (Proverbs 26:17). Nahman ben Samuel said: This may be compared to the case of a robber who was sleeping on a path, when a man passed and woke him up, saying, 'Get up, for there is danger here.' At that he arose and began beating him, at which he [the victim] cried out, '[G-d] rebuke this wicked man!' 'I was asleep,' he retorted, 'and you woke me up.' Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to him [Ya'akov]: He [Esav] was going his own way, yet you sent to him, saying, 'Thus says your servant Ya'akov!'" (B'resheet Rabbah 75:3). A little later the commentary attributes specific consequences to Ya'akov's actions: "When Ya'akov called Esav 'my lord', the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: 'You have abased yourself and called Esav "my lord" eight times. By your life! I will raise up eight kings of his descendants before your descendants,' as it says, 'And these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel' (36:31 ff.)" (B'resheet Rabbah 7:11). TheRamban goes as far as to say, "In my opinion this hints at the fact that our fall at the hands of Edom (Rome) was due to the kings in the Second Temple making advances to Rome." Nechama Leibowitz comments that "Ramban sees a parallel between Ya'akov's behaviour and the behaviour of the Hasmoneans in seeking the good offices of the Romans. By this, they hastened the downfall of Israel and its exile."
RabbiJudah the Prince, on the other hand, supports Ya'akov: "Rabbi Judah instructed Rabbi Aphet: Write a letter in my name to our lord the Emperor Antoninus. He arose and wrote: 'From Judah the Prince to our Sovereign the Emperor Antoninus.' Rabbi Judah took and read it and tore it up and wrote: 'From your servant Judah to our Sovereign the Emperor Antoninus.' 'My master,' Rabbi Aphet asked, 'why do you treat your honour so lightly?' 'Am I then better than my ancestor?' he replied; 'did he not say thus: Thus says your servant Ya'akov?'" (B'resheet Rabbah 75:5). Leibowitz compares this to this saying from the Sages "For the L-rd will smite Israel as a reed is shaken in water. As the reed grows by the water and its stock grows new shoots and its roots are many, and even though all the winds of the universe come and blow at it they cannot move it from its place for it sways with the winds and as soon as they have dropped the reed resumes its upright position" (b. Taanit 20a) and suggests that Ya'akov's behaviour is archetypical of Israel's throughout the centuries: we have always bent and survived, while stronger and mightier nations have disappeared and succumbed.
The Shabbat that always falls in the ten days between Yom Teruah (Rosh HaShanah) and Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shuvah because of the starting words of thehaftarah portion that is read on that day. - "Return, Israel, to the L-rd your G-d" - comes from the last chapter of the prophet Hosea and continues: "Take words with you and return to the L-RD. Say to Him: 'Forgive all guilt and accept what is good; instead of bulls we will pay the offering of our lips'" (Hosea 14:3, JPS). The prophet seems to be saying that the correct way to approach HaShem is with words of repentance and humility; that the words are more important - a more acceptable sacrifice - than the commanded bulls as sin offerings. The value of ritual without the right heart attitude is criticised and used at the reason for G-d to intervene in Israel's affairs: "And the L-rd said: 'Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden'" (Isaiah 29:13-14, ESV). The people have lost the reality of their relationship with G-d and are simply performing ritual because that was what society expected and the priests taught; G-d is therefore going to shake them out of their complacency by performing miracles and breaking through into their world. As a result, the words and wisdom of the scholars and learned men will disappear.
Rav Sha'ul said a very similar thing in his first letter to the Corinthian congregations: "But G-d chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; G-d chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; G-d chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of G-d" (1 Corinthians 1:27-29, ESV). He is speaking of the expectations that both the Jewish and Gentile worlds had - "Jews demanding signs and Gentiles wisdom" (1:22) - about what G-d would have to do to "prove" Himself. On the contrary, Sha'ul says, G-d wasn't going to play any of those games; He did what needed to be done in a completely unexpected, but absolutely consistent, way so that those who saw were confounded in their own thoughts and had to acknowledge that G-d was amazing. While fulfilling prophecy and other words of Scripture, Yeshua nevertheless completely blind-sided the Jewish leaders and the philosophers with one stroke.
We are just as liable to being wrong-footed ourselves today, when we build castles in the air and decide to implement them on our own. Sometimes we simply act unilaterally, assuming that we can do no wrong because we are G-d's people; other times we ask for G-d's blessings on our plans once they have been drawn up and completed, as if all that is needed is that He should rubber-stamp our ideas; still other occasions feature a big show of asking G-d for guidance and leading, but we then rush confidently ahead without giving Him an opportunity to answer.
Ya'akov had a problem: how to re-enter the Land of Israel and re-establish a working relationship with his potentially angry and volatile elder brother. Ya'akov decided upon a course of action: he sent his family and household on ahead so that he could spend time with G-d alone; he spent the night wrestling with G-d until he got an answer, refusing to give up until he got one; he then adopted an extremely humble attitude towards his brother, offering both physical gifts and words of apology and contrition. We too often have a problem: how to re-establish a working relationship with our heavenly Father. The solution seems to be very similar: spending time alone with Him; wrestling with Him and refusing to give up until things are resolved; humbling ourselves before Him and seeking His face and will for our lives. "To my L-rd, to Yeshua: thus says your servant ..."
Further Study: Psalm 17; Zechariah 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 2:6
Application: Do you feel estranged from Father G-d at the moment? Are you aware that the communication with heaven isn't all that it might be? Take the time to step aside today and make sure that you re-engage with Yeshua because your life depends upon it!
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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