Knowing When to Fold by Binyamin Jachter


Oftentimes we find ourselves in an argument, and need to decide whether we should press the issue or just let it go. It’s not just us; poker players, Israel’s Prime Minister, and even one of our great ancestors, Ya’akov Avinu, have struggled with the case, “Should I hold ‘em or fold ‘em?” In this week’s Parashah, Ya’akov Avinu is faced with this decision and quickly makes the choice to fold. When Eisav approaches his camp, Ya’akov sends him presents as a tribute, and humbles himself before Eisav: “Koh Amar Avdecha Ya’akov… VaYhi Li Shor VaChamor Tzon VeEved VeShifchah, VaEshalchah LeHagid Ladoni Limtzo Chein BeEinecha,” “‘So says your servant Ya’akov… And I will give you cattle and donkeys, sheep and servants and maidservants to find favor in your eyes” (BeReishit 32:5-6). Many rabbis debate the validity of Ya’akov’s decision to be subservient to Eisav. Perhaps he should have shown some backbone instead of giving in so quickly. In Unlocking the Torah Text (Bereishit pp.177-181), Rav Shmuel Goldin presents the different sides of the case.

We start with the side in favor of Ya’akov being subservient to Eisav. Rabi Yehudah HaNasi had to send a letter to his friend, the Roman Emperor Antoninus, and asked his secretary to write the letter. Suddenly, Rabi Yehudah stopped him in his tracks. The secretary had written: “From Yehudah the Prince to his Majesty, the Emperor Antoninus…” Tearing up the letter, Rabi Yehudah told his secretary exactly how to write the introduction: “From your servant, Yehudah, to his Majesty, the Emperor Antoninus…” When he was asked why he lowered his honor, he simply replied: “Am I better than Ya’akov Avinu? Did he not say to Eisav, ‘Thus says your servant, Ya’akov?’” (Midrash Rabbah BeReishit 75:5). Using simple acts like this, Rabi Yehudah continued a strong relationship with the emperor and was able to protect the Jewish interests.

Other rabbis like to make comparisons to other parts of Tanach. The Sforno quotes: “VeHikah Hashem Et Yisrael KaAsheir Yanud HaKaneh BaMayim” “And Hashem will strike Israel like a reed is shaken in water” (Melachim I 14:15). This curse is preferred over Bil’am’s curse/blessing: “KaArazim Alei Mayim,” “Like cedars on the water” (BeMidbar 24:6). Reeds survive because they are flexible, but cedars are sturdy and must be uprooted completely. That is, it is better to bend and agree than press issues.

Rav Goldin cites other sources that criticize Ya’akov’s actions. A Midrash states: “Rav Huna applied the following verse: ‘One who passes by and meddles in strife that is not his own can be compared to an individual who takes a dog by the ears.’ And Hashem said to Ya’akov, ‘Eisav was going on his way and you dispatch a delegation?’” Ya’akov could have easily gone into Eretz Yisrael without meeting Eisav. Ramban follows with a crushing statement that when the Kings of Yehudah decided to make a covenant with the Roman Empire, as when Ya’akov made one with Eisav, it was a catastrophe: The second Beit HaMikdash was destroyed as a result. Ramban also notes that many hold that Rome is part of Eisav’s lineage.

The Midrash HaGadol goes even deeper than Ramban. Ya’akov bowed to Eisav seven times during their encounter. Each of those times represents a different loss of Bnei Yisrael. Based on this Midrash, it is clear that Ya’akov did not act correctly.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch compares this incident with Ya’akov’s encounter with Lavan. The difference between the two incidents is that Ya’akov stood up to Lavan. Rav Hirsch poses the difference as guilt. Ya’akov felt sorry for taking the Berachot and Bechorah from Eisav. Rav Hirsch states: “Better to endure corruption and injustice for twenty years than stand one moment before an individual whom we know has been injured by our hands.” Ya’akov stood up against Lavan for those twenty years, but when it came to Eisav, he couldn’t put up a fight. He just couldn’t face his feelings towards his brother with the same strength.

There is a time when we should stand our ground and there is a time when we must let things go. Reb Ya’akov Yitzchak, better known as the Chozeh of Lublin, had many Chassidim coming to him for Berachot every Yom Tov. The Chozeh’s only problem was that he didn’t believe he was great enough to give the blessings and advice. So he went to the Rabbi of Lublin, Rabi Ezriel. The Chozeh spilled out his feelings to Rabi Ezriel, and after a little bit of thinking, Rabi Ezriel told the Chozeh that the next Yom Tov he should tell all the Chassidim how he felt about himself.

Of course the Chozeh did as he was instructed, and the news quickly spread: the Chozeh was so humble, not just a Tzaddik like they had thought. The next Yom Tov even more people came to the Chozeh, so again he went to Rabi Ezriel. The Rabbi said he should now be boastful and tell everyone that he is a great person. The Chozeh questioned Rabi Ezriel, not believing what he just heard. He asked: “Rebbe, how can I do this? When you told me to say I was ignorant and unworthy it was the truth, but I cannot pretend to be a Tzaddik.” It was then that Rabi Ezriel realized how great the Chozeh truly was.

The Chozeh wanted to show how unworthy he thought he was. He was willing to say almost anything, but he knew when to put his foot down. Speaking a lie couldn’t even enter his mind. We should learn from our Rabbis and Avot, to become greater in this aspect.

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