How the Bible story of Jacob and Esau shows we sometimes have to fight for survival

The synagogue reading for this Shabbat includes the story of Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau are twins with opposing tendencies: Jacob is studious while Esau espouses physicality, which his very name implies in Hebrew.

Esau however is his father, Isaac's, favourite (as well as being the elder twin), and Jacob has to resort to trickery to wrest Esau's inheritance from their father.

Wikimedia CommonsAbraham Willemsens's, The reconciliation of Jacob and Esau.

This trait is also bound up in the Hebrew name Ya'akov.

In a famous scene Isaac (whose eyesight is not as good as it was) doesn't recognise Jacob, who has dressed in the animal skins normally worn by Esau. But what he does recognize is Jacob's voice:

'The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.'

What does this mean? There are some things in life that we simply cannot hide, try as we might. And Judaism emphasises hearing over seeing. One of the interpretations of this phrase is that even when Jews have to take on the mantle of Esau and fight for what is right, they should still do this with 'the voice of Jacob', not because might is right, but because sometimes self-defense is the only solution.

This seminal biblical teaching is taken further by Rav Avraham Kook (1865-1935). During the first world war, Rav Kook (who had emigrated from Russia to Jaffa in 1904) was stranded in neutral Switzerland and had the time to think about these sorts of questions. In 1915, he concluded that:

'The Jewish people ... are the foundation of the entire Torah' and if they could survive only by doing that which was otherwise forbidden – just as a surgeon can save a patient only by inflicting violence of his own – then that necessity and the actions taken in response would themselves be the workings of Providence, whose seeming contradictions only G-d can understand.' (Rav Kook: Yehuda Mirsky, Yale University Press, p.139).

Later, as first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel under the British Mandate, Rav Kook advocated strike action when necessary and refused to cooperate with the British authorities whenever he thought they were complicit in actions detrimental to the Jewish community.

In 1948, as a twenty-year old determined to fight for the future of the incipient State of Israel (which he deemed at that time to be more necessary than studying Talmud or pursuing the other activities beloved of observant Jews), the 20-year-old Shear Yashuv Cohen, future Chief Rabbi of Haifa, and representative of that country on all international matters pertaining to the status of Jerusalem, wrote the following in his poem Man in Battle after he has killed a man:

'He lifts his hand and reflects. He examines his fingers, pale in the moonlight, and thinks: 'These hands have shed blood.' It is not a matter of logic: it is that his heart rises up, the humanity in him demands its due. With head bowed, he falls to the ground and shudders like a sinner. He seeks out refuge. He is all regret – all man.

'His lips utter a silent prayer, giving thanks to the Creator for keeping his humanity alive, for the fact that he does not rejoice at killing during battle. For each battle, he recites a prayer, a blessing and supplication: 'O God, watch over us so that we may preserve our humanity, our image of G-d during battle; strengthen us, so that we may overcome the savage enemy, and avenge the spilt blood of our brothers, and defend our stronghold. Give us courage, dear God, Amen.'

This is the passage which was chosen by former Archbishop of Canterbury to read out at the book-launch held last February at Magdalene College Cambridge, hosted by Dr Rowan Williams himself and for good reason.

For in these few lines are contained the essence of Judaism.

Jacob, as the eternal Jew, who fathers the nation named after him as 'Israel' (I struggled with G-d and prevailed') tries everything rather than fight. Israel cajoles, takes precautions and hopes for the best. But when 'the best' means utter destruction, it is the duty of Jews then, and only as a last resort, to take up arms.

And that is what we Jews have done throughout the ages, and not least in the only Jewish state in the world, the State of Israel, which has found itself not only rebutted, but threatened with extinction, while the world looks on, completely unmoved.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She lives in Greater Manchester and is chair of the Broughton Park Dialogue Group which just celebrated its ninth anniversary.