As the situation for European Jewry began to deteriorate, the Chofetz Chaim was asked in 1933 about the fate of the Jewish people. As recorded by one of his close disciples, the revered rabbi answered, “Hitler shall fail! No one has ever succeeded in destroying our nation in the lands of our dispersion. The verse in parshat Vayishlach says so explicitly, “If Esau comes to one camp and smites it, then the remaining camp shall escape.” His students pushed further. “But if Hitler does succeed in destroying a portion of the Jewish people, who will be the remaining camp that will escape?” The prophetic words of the Chofetz Chaim sent chills down the spines of his students: “This too is stated explicitly in the haftarah for parshat Vayishlach, “On Mount Zion there will be refuge…”
The haftarah for parshat Vayishlach (Sefer Ovadya) tells of the final confrontation between the descendants of Yaakov and Esav. The text does not tell us about Ovadya’s personal or family history, or when he prophesied; however the Gemara (Sanhedrin 39b) reveals that Ovadya lived during the time of Sefer Malachim.
The Book of Kings describes how the wicked Queen Jezebel, the wife of the evil King Ahab, wanted to kill the many true prophets of Hashem. At great personal risk, the head of their royal household, Ovadyah, defied his patrons and saved the lives of many Neviim through a curiously familiar strategy that the gemara states was learned from Yaakov: “Ovadyah took a hundred prophets and hid them, fifty men to a cave and sustained them with food and water” (I Kings 18:4). According to the Talmud, Ovadyah was a convert who descended from Esau. He was rewarded with the gift of prophecy on account of this courageous act in saving the Neviim and becomes God’s messenger to prophesize about the downfall of his own ancestor. With this background in mind, we have a more complete understanding of our haftarah and its connection to parashat Vayishlach, for in action and in word, Ovadyah is the embodiment of Yaakov Avinu.
However, a closer look at the haftarah provides a deeper appreciation of this idea. The parsha begins with Yaakov preparing for his meeting with Esav by dividing his camp in two, for ‘If Esav comes to the first camp, and strikes it down, then the remaining camp shall survive (PLEYTA)” (Breshit 32). Rashi points out the wisdom and humility shown by Yaakov in diversifying his resources, as opposed to Esav who arrogantly consolidates his 400 fighting men. While the story in the parsha ends without aggression, the haftarah describes the dramatic denouement, thousands of years later, of this unfinished episode.
In describing the End of Days, Ovadya writes, “The house of Jacob will be fire, the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esav for straw (KASH) and they will ignite them and devour them” (1:18). Like the stories in Bereishit and Melachim, Yaakov and Yosef are described separately, in two camps, while Esav is consumed like bundled straw. The gematria of KASH is 400, precisely the same as the number of soldiers accompanying Esav! The Navi is emphasizing that this battle is the conclusion of the war that was never fought, and Esav’s destruction is due to his continued arrogance and self-assuredness.
Ovadya promises that ultimately Yaakov will be successful and will find refuge. Once again, the Navi invokes the original confrontation between the two brothers by using the same language as our parsha when he says, “On Mount Zion there will be refuge (PLEYTA) and it will be holy.” With this final parallel, Ovadya is emphasizing that the ultimate refuge and secret to survival for Jacob’s descendants, the Jewish people lies in the Land of Israel, where “the kingdom will be the Lord’s” (1:21).
The Chofetz Chaim made this very connection in 1933 when he predicted that the survival of the Jewish people would be through Eretz Yisrael. A student of his, Rabbi Shlomo Kahanaman took the saintly sage’s words to heart and escaped to Bnei Brak in 1940 to be the “remaining camp” that would survive the enemy. Rav Kahanaman started the Ponevezh Yeshiva and on the front wall etched the words from our haftarah, “On Mount Zion there will be a refuge, and it will be holy.” By emulating Yaakov in deed and in word, Ovadya established that we must never forget that Zion is our only safe refuge and that so long as there are Jews in the Land of Israel, our future is secure.
Rabbi Tuly Weisz is the director of Israel365 and editor of “The Israel Bible,” and Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen is a psychologist and a new Oleh to Israel, as well as a rebbe in Yeshivat Lev Hatorah. Please send comments to Haftarah@TheIsraelBible.com