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Torah Portion: Vayishlach

Book of Genesis

Chaps. 32:4-36:43

November 27, 2015

            How far are you willing to go to preserve your honor and respect? When should one stand their ground and when should one compromise? Does there come a point when, in the interest of peace, we set aside self-respect? Compromise dignity?

According to biblical and rabbinic interpretations, Esau-Jacob’s twin brother-is an impulsive, immoral, violent and unintelligent person. Jacob, on the other hand, is lauded as being a person of great esteem, a role model for his family and the Jewish people.

The two brothers have been estranged for many years. Finally, in an act of reconciliation, Jacob is bringing his large family back home to where he grew up and where his brother Esau still lives. Fearful of the reception he may receive from Esau, Jacob first sends messengers to his brother instructing them to say, “To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob. . .” (Gen. 32:5). “Your Servant”? Jacob is no “servant” and especially not to the likes of Esau! How can he demean himself in this manner? What self-respecting leader presents himself before someone of low moral standing as being “his servant”?

In an ancient Midrash (Jewish legend), the famous Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi sent a letter to Antoninus, the emperor of Rome. His letter began, “From your servant Judah to our Sovereign, the Emperor Antoninus.” When his scribe saw the Rabbi’s salutation, he was horrified and exclaimed, “My master, why do you treat your honor so lightly?” To which the rabbi responded, “Am I better than my ancestor Jacob?”

Among the greatest challenges to people of high station is knowing when to come down. At what point is one’s perceived notion of self-importance trumped by the need to elevate others. Rabbi Brad Artson writes, “In the interests of human harmony, in pursuit of peace, a willingness to compromise our own dignity may indeed constitute the highest service of God, the most powerful assertion of the dignity of all humankind.” Artson profoundly notes, “Not that dignity is so cheap, but that peace is so precious.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel



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