Not a Time For Humility

Rabbi Zvi Teichman

An attempt is made by Moshe to take a shortcut on the Children of Israel’s journey to the promised land through the territory of Edom. In what appears to be a heartfelt appeal, Moshe sends a three-pronged message to the King of Edom. Firstly, he asserts their familial connection as ‘brothers’. The two nations, Israel and Edom, being the respective descendants of those famous fraternal twins, Yaakov and Esav. Strangely though rather than using the name most familiar to Esav — Yaakov, Moshe refers to Yaakov by his other name, Yisroel. Moshe then notes the travail the Jewish nation has endured in their recent history in Egypt, where evil was foisted upon them and their ‘forefathers’. Rashi points out, that although the patriarchs didn’t experience slavery, as they were already deceased, nevertheless they suffered in their ‘graves’, the pain of their children. Finally, he makes note of the power of this nation’s ‘voice’, having cried out to the Almighty for help in their distress, with G-d coming to rescue them from Egypt. This ‘voice’ echoing the famous words of Yitzchok, ‘the voice is the voice of Yaakov’, that intimated the efficacy of his prayers. Rashi elucidates that Moshe was noting how although at an earlier time there was some debate as to whom the heir apparent to the legacy of the patriarchs would be, it was no longer a question. The reality of the descendants of Yaakov, having exclusively fulfilled the condition of, ‘sojourning in a land not of their own, being enslaved and afflicted’, which was the stipulation, as outlined in the Covenant of the Parts, upon whom the legacy of Avraham would be borne, with its promise of the Holy Land and its associated blessings, it is absolutely clear that Esav and his progeny have opted out and it is the rightful due of the Children of Israel. In that light, Moshe makes a brotherly request that Edom provide some ‘small assistance’ by permitting the entire nation to cut through their country in a more direct and quicker route, to the promised land. Edom adamantly refuses. Did Moshe really expect them to concede? Would pointing out their failure to live up to the requirements to be worthy of Avraham’s legacy be a compelling reason for them to agree? As readily evident in their reaction when they state, ‘You shall not pass through me — lest I come against you with the sword’, defensively expressing their ‘proud’ affiliation with Yitzchok’s prophecy, ‘by the sword you shall live’, they were quite sensitive to Yaakov’s claim of spiritual supremacy. Additionally, the prophet indicates that only in the messianic era would the final accounting with Esav take place, and certainly not at this juncture.  The Shem M’Shmuel claims that Moshe knew that Edom/Esav represents the Sitra Achara, the ‘other side’ negative influences in the world, that would infiltrate into our very souls throughout the long exile ahead, challenging us by thwarting us from our spiritual accomplishments. Moshe had hoped that by presenting ourselves genuinely in our pristine state of moral stature and elevation it might impinge ever so slightly on their power, diminishing its future influence. Although it was not destined and we must still face the full thrust of their negativity, we may though reveal what it is exactly that we need to implement in order to resist their pull and survive intact. In contrast to Yaakov’s initial encounter with Esav, after escaping the clutches of Lavan, the attitude displayed here is starkly different. In Yaakov’s earlier face-off he cowered fearing defeat, whereas Moshe defiantly presents the nation’s strengths. Yaakov feared that he was ‘diminished’, soiled by sin, and unworthy of G-d delivering him from Esav’s hands. Here, Moshe exclaims how we have so admirably endured through our suffering, deserving of an association with the victorious name ישראל, Israel, which Yaakov received after conquering the Angel of Esav, emphasizing our having ‘mastered’ our greatness. Moshe sought to correct the flawed attitude by teaching that when facing an enemy there is no room for humility. The Midrash states the Yaakov was afraid that the merit of Esav’s superlative honor for his father would stand in Esav’s stead, especially since he felt insecure in the fact that for twenty- two years, he himself had been absent from his father’s home and lacking in that opportunity. It wasn’t simply his having missed out on the mitzvah that worried him. It was the lack of consciousness that distance creates of the magnificent legacy he was a part of, that might lead him to lapse in his devotion to the mission. Does not our recent history bear this out in the tales of many who emigrated to new and modern worlds, leaving their parents behind, who slowly eroded in their loyalties to a world they were so committed to formerly? Perhaps it was with this truth in mind that Moshe spoke of the nation’s constant awareness of the pain of their ancestors’ anguish that ‘abided’ in all their experiences, which is what prodded them to remain faithful to the forefather’s noble goals. Moshe taught that only if we maintain our focus on the highest ambitions, realizing how our ancestors still live our joy and suffer our pain, can we remain steadfast and inspired. Yaakov repeatedly bows submissively before Esav, calling him ‘my master’ eight times. We are told that due to this belittling of himself the Edomites would establish and assert their standing through eight kings before the first Jewish king would be enthroned. Moshe fearlessly and without apology asserts the supremacy of the ‘voice’ — the confident assertion of our unparalleled relationship with the Almighty, that fuels our unbending pride in that role. Despite being denied this display of might before the physical Edom/Esav, we must still deal with their powerful forces. We must utilize these strategies in facing the spiritual Edom/Esav we confront daily. We must remember, who we are; who our ‘living’ ancestors are; and the unshakable connection we each have with G-d. Too often we succumb incorrectly thinking we are unworthy of the battle. We lack courage because we forget what stock we come from. We retreat because we think G-d is not listening. We must never bow our heads apologetically before the ‘outside’ world. We must only humble ourselves before G-d and our fellow Jew. We reach out with sincerity and warmth to all of humanity. But we may never lower our head in submission to their values, lest we forget the greatness we come from. My dear friend, Rabbi Velvel Belinsky, shared a beautiful anecdote about the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose yahrtzeit was just this past Shabbos. The Rebbe would often walk from his home to his headquarters at 770, taking a route that passed by a grocery store owned by Jewish man, a holocaust survivor, and a florist shop next door, owned by a gentile woman. Each time the Rebbe would pass by he caught the eye of the grocer and respectfully bowed his head in greeting. The Rebbe also acknowledged the florist by walking a slight step closer and engaging in a brief and cordial greeting. For years this exact routine repeated itself. One day the Jewish grocer became upset. He realized that while the Rebbe always bowed his head towards him, he always engaged in a brief exchange of words with the lady at the florist shop. One day he mustered the courage to ‘bemoan’ his plight before the Rebbe, approaching the Rebbe humbly and asking why he, his fellow yid, got just a nod while the non-Jew got to speak daily with him. The Rebbe smiled and gazed his sparkling blue eyes warmly at his friend and shared with him wise guidance his dear mother imparted to him. One must never bow before anyone other than G-d and one’s brother, one’s fellow yid. Little did the grocer realize that in the slight bow of the Rebbe’s head was a profound gesture of love, appreciation, and acknowledgment of his personal greatness that deserved the Rebbe’s humble reverence. The exchange with the florist was a display of the Rebbe’s great humanity, sensitivity and respect for every human being. But, the reaction to the material world beyond must be couched in a protective layer of an Ohr HaMakif, a surrounding light, that stems from an unbowed and enthused sense of the greatness inherent within each one of us.

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