There are certain confrontations in life that are seemingly unavoidable. Yaakov flees from his parents’ home in order to avoid confronting Eisav over the matter of the birthright that Yaakov purchased from Eisav and the blessings that Yitzchak bestowed on Yaakov. But after twenty years of separation and avoidance of Eisav, Yaakov now confronts Eisav, not knowing what Eisav’s response to Yaakov’s gifts and flattery will be. But Yaakov knows that there is now no escaping the confrontation and he therefore steels himself for it with gifts to Eisav, with prayer, and with even preparations for conflict. Eisav cannot be permanently finessed. He demands answers and policies and Yaakov cannot ignore him permanently.
In the Torah reading of Vayishlach, Yaakov successfully disarms Eisav by showering him with gifts and compliments. He does not really have a serious discussion with him about their outstanding differences. Yaakov is convinced that Eisav will react negatively to his placing all of their differences out in the open. Therefore, Yaakov employs diverse tactics to really avoid Eisav once more. Eisav knows that he is being had but chooses to let the matter rest temporarily. In the long history of the Jewish people, Yaakov has consistently attempted to avoid dealing directly with Eisav. Whether Eisav too, in the guise of Roman Emperor or Christian Pope or German Kaiser or Russian Czar or Commissar, Yaakov always attempted to appease Eisav and not confront him. This was always the political policy of the Jewish community and our survival is certainly indicative of its soundness. But there has arisen over an Eisav in a different guise who will not be put off with gifts and blandishments, who demands the confrontation that Yaakov dreads and postpones. This guise of Eisav may be entitled “modernity”. It is the modern world of democracy and freedom, of new ideas and constantly advancing technology, of not only freedom of religion but freedom from religion as well. What does Yaakov have to say to this new Eisav? The main problem in Jewish life over the past two centuries is exactly that – how does Judaism, the Jewish people, the individual Jew, confront the problems raised by modernity?
There is a section of traditional Jewry, which until today emulates the tactics of our father Yaakov and avoids confrontation with the modern world. It simply attempts to shut that world out from its life and society. This approach has met with varying degrees of success and has not been universally adopted, even in the Orthodox Jewish world. At the other end of the spectrum there has been an attempt by a section of Jewry to embrace and include the ideas of modernity and even the life style and attitudes of the modern world into its Jewish life. This trend has also experienced many failures and problems and has many times been overwhelmed by the modern world to the detriment of its Jewish component. There are now and there have been till now, many attempts to find a middle ground between traditional Judaism and the ideas of modernity and behavior of the modern world. But, the truth be said, no universal successful formula for confronting the modern world has as yet been formulated by the descendants of Yaakov. Meanwhile, the modern world and its ideas are ripping gaping holes in the fabric and population of the Jewish people. Not everyone can and/or should divorce one’s self from the modern world swirling about us. And, again, not everyone can successfully reconcile a Torah life-style and commitment to the realities of the modern world. One thing, though, is clear and that is that the traditional Torah way of life should be given priority in Jewish affairs, both public and private.
David Ben Gurion came to see Rabbi A.Y. Karelits (Chazon Ish) in the beginning years of the State of Israel. He asked the venerable rabbi, “How shall we live together in our new state? Who should give way to whom?” Rabbi Karelits responded by saying that the Talmud posits a case where two camels meet on a narrow road. One is laden with cargo and the other is not. The Talmud’s decision is that the loaded camel has the right of way. The traditional, even isolationist, world of Jewry is laden with the load of 3,400 years of Judaism and Jewish life. It certainly is entitled to appreciation, recognition and support, if not even to the right of way.
Rabbi Berel Wein