Two Camps of Contemporary Jewry: VaYishlah 5775

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA“And Jacob split the people with him…into two camps…saying ‘if Esau comes upon one camp and smites it, the other camp will be a remnant.’” The ancient sages discerned that Jacob prepared for his fraught fraternal encounter with three strategies—with gifts, with prayer and with battle preparations. He sent generous gifts to placate Esau, he prayed to God for help, and then, should all else fail, he strategically split his camp to avoid a complete massacre of his family.

 On a literary level, this division of camps continues a theme. Robert Alter writes, “A law of binary division runs through the whole Jacob story: twin brothers struggling over a blessing that cannot be halved, two sisters struggling over a husband’s love, flocks divided into unicolored and particolored animals, Jacob’s material blessing now divided into two camps.” Indeed, Jacob is renamed Israel after his wrestling match with the angel, which repeats his struggle in utero with Esau. The man with two names and two wives and two sparring partners now has two camps.

But Jacob’s division of his camp is not merely a literary motif. It is a survival strategy. Midrash Bereshit Rabba credits the Torah with teaching “practical advice” (דרך ארץ) not to store all of your wealth in one corner (eggs in one basket, investments in one stock etc.). Likewise in the book of Kings I, ch. 18, when the wicked Jezebel starts killing prophets of God, Obadiah rescues 100 of them, hiding 50 in a cave with bread and water. I hope Obadiah had another cave for the other fifty! It is good guidance for anyone to diversify their assets, and to have a back-up plan should calamity strike.

Writing in medieval Catalonia, Nachmanides (1194-c.1270) found a hint here that throughout Jewish history, Esau (by which he meant Christendom) would not utterly wipe out the Jews, but would strike them in one country, while leaving a refuge elsewhere: “If a [Christian] king in one country makes a decree over our money or our bodies, a king in another land has compassion and rescues the refugees.” Indeed, Ramban himself was forced to flee Catalonia at age 73, making his way to Israel for the end of his life. Since he continued to edit his Torah commentary in Israel, it is possible that his identification of Jacob’s “first camp” with “the south” alludes to Provence and Spain, which had become inhospitable (although much worse was yet to come). The twelfth century Sefer Gematriot by Yehudah Hasid finds a hint in the numerology of the two camps to mean “in the south” and “in the exile.” Dr. Benjy Gampel confirms that the image of the “surviving camp” was a common trope among medieval Jews who alternated exiles under crescent and cross.

Across the centuries and the millennia, Jews have maintained the strategy of Jacob, dividing their communities among different lands so that if things got very bad in one center, there would remain a second for refuge. While this practice reflects a tragic history of disruptions, it also has been an effective strategy for survival. And following the destruction of most of European Jewry during WWII, the growing strength of the Jews of North America and those in the State of Israel became an extraordinarily partnership. It is not just that each community could be a “back-up” plan if the other one fails. The two communities, for all of their differences, have been extraordinarily helpful to each other. Most American Jewish leaders have enjoyed formative experiences in Israel, and all American Jews accrued greater confidence and respect in the years that “the embattled democracy” of the Middle East defied the odds and survived. Israelis have enjoyed not only the political and financial support of American Jews, but also our modeling of different forms of Jewish vibrancy. In American summer camps and synagogues Israeli Jews often discover for the first time the beauty and importance of their own religion.

American Jews and Israeli Jews are each facing challenging times now, and in some ways, our problems are mirror images. For American Jews, universalism has become such a mighty attraction that maintaining particular Jewish beliefs and practices is often seen as irrelevant or even offensive. Democratic rights and individual freedoms are the most cherished gifts of American life; but without the anchor of Jewish norms, American Jewish identity is adrift and in danger of disappearance.  For Israeli Jews, the experience of physical conflict from the very day of independence has been formative. So too has global hostility to Israel, which seems to be accelerating in our time with no sympathy for the impossible situation Israel has often faced. As a result Israeli Jews, even those who are secular, have come to think of Jewish national identity and security as their most cherished gifts, with democratic rights for minorities seen as a luxury. The problem of course is that without a vigorous defense of democracy, especially for minorities, Israel will lose its coherence as a modern state, and what support it retains in the West. While some American Jews are egging Israel into a more belligerent and intransigent posture, many others are alienated by this dynamic.

Right now it seems that the two camps of American and Israeli Jews are drifting farther apart. This is bad for both camps. American Jews need a healthy relationship with Israel to remind us of the blessings of particularism. And Israeli Jews need our support to remind them that democratic government with the strong articulation of minority rights is essential to thrive in the modern world. We need each other more than ever, and it is therefore essential that we take this time to listen closely to other voices, to engage in conversation, and to knit the two camps together once more.

Jacob’s division of his family into two camps was never meant to be permanent. After the danger passes, he will try to become whole once more. It won’t be easy for him, but by the end of his life, he will be surrounded by his family, the children of Israel, united despite all of their tense history. So too must we deepen the engagement between American Jews and Israel, so that we may challenge one another and create a vibrant Jewish future together.


בראשית פרק לב, ח-ט

(ח) וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּוֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּאן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת: (ט) וַיֹּאמֶר אִם־יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל־הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה:

מלכים א פרק יח, ד

(ד) וַיְהִי בְּהַכְרִית אִיזֶבֶל אֵת נְבִיאֵי יְקֹוָק וַיִּקַּח עֹבַדְיָהוּ מֵאָה נְבִאִים וַיַּחְבִּיאֵם חֲמִשִּׁים אִישׁ בַּמְּעָרָה וְכִלְכְּלָם לֶחֶם וָמָיִם:

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשת וישלח פרשה עו סימן ג

ג ויחץ את העם, לימדך תורה דרך ארץ שלא יהא אדם נותן כל ממונו בזוית אחד ממי אתה למד מיעקב, שנאמר ויחץ את העם וגו’, וכן הוא אומר (מלכים א יח) ואחביאם חמשים איש במערה, ויאמר אם יבא עשו אל המחנה האחת והכהו, אלו אחינו שבדרום, והיה המחנה הנשאר לפליטה, אלו אחינו שבגלות, א”ר הושעיה אף על פי שנשארו לפליטה מתענים היו עלינו בשני ובחמישי.

רמב”ן בראשית פרק לב פסוק ט

(ט) והיה המחנה הנשאר לפליטה – על דרך הפשט אמר זה באולי, כי אמר אולי ינצל המחנה האחד, כי בהכותו האחד יברחו האחרים, או תשוב חמתו, או תבא להם הצלה מאת השם. וכן אמרו בבראשית רבה (עו ג) למדתך תורה דרך ארץ לא יניח אדם כל ממונו בזוית אחת:

ורש”י כתב, והיה המחנה הנשאר לפליטה, על כרחו כי אלחם עמו, התקין עצמו לשלשה דברים, לתפלה ולדורון ולמלחמה. וראיתי במדרש (קה”ר ט יח) מה עשה, זיינם מבפנים והלבישם בגדים לבנים מבחוץ, והתקין עצמו לשלשה דברים. וכן עיקר. והכונה בזה, כי יעקב יודע שאין זרעו כלו נופל ביד עשו, אם כן ינצל המחנה האחד על כל פנים:

וגם זה ירמוז שלא יגזרו עלינו בני עשו למחות את שמנו, אבל יעשו רעות עם קצתנו בקצת הארצות שלהם, מלך אחד מהם גוזר בארצו על ממוננו או על גופנו, ומלך אחר מרחם במקומו ומציל הפלטים. וכך אמרו בבראשית רבה (עו ג) אם יבא עשו אל המחנה האחת והכהו, אלו אחינו שבדרום, והיה המחנה הנשאר לפלטה, אלו אחינו שבגולה. ראו כי גם לדורות תרמוז זאת הפרשה:

ספר גימטריאות פרשת וישלח אות ד

[ד] “אל המחנה האחת” (בראשית ל”ב ט’), בגימטריא שבדרום.

והיה המחנה הנשאר לפליטה” (שם), [ראשי תיבות] בגימטריא בגולה.