Softening the Hearts

What can you do when you find yourself suddenly, and unexpectedly, in the power of someone you have offended, and they have revenge in mind? Assume the situation is one in which they can ruin your reputation, or deprive you of your livelihood, or take your life. Are there ways to handle the situation, to protect yourself, to increase your odds of survival? If so, are any of them more effective than others?

Montaigne, the 16-century French philosopher and essayist, addresses this topic in a piece titled, “We reach the same end by discrepant means.” In it, Montaigne identifies what he describes as two contrary approaches to solving the problem. Although he doesn’t say that one method is more effective than the other, he does say that one is more common. He writes:

The most common way of softening the hearts of those we have offended once they have us at their mercy with vengeance at hand is to move them to commiseration and pity by our submissiveness.

Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays (p. 3). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. Translated and edited with an Introduction and Notes by M. A. Screech.

Submissiveness. This approach, it seems to me, is the one taken by the Patriarch Jacob upon returning to Canaan and encountering his brother Esau. Years earlier, Jacob had left Canaan in a bit of a rush. As a youth, Jacob had, in Esau’s view, extorted the birthright, which was Esau’s entitlement as the family’s firstborn son. Later, he had deceived their father Isaac and stolen the blessing Isaac intended for Esau. Following the latter incident, “Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him. And Esau said in his heart: ‘Let the days of mourning for my father be at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob.’” (Gen. 27.41).

As Jacob nears Canaan on his return after an absence of several years, he learns that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men. In a footnote in his translation, The Five Books of Moses, Robert Alter states that Esau’s “rapid approach with four hundred men looks ominous, especially since that is a standard number for a regiment or raiding party.” Jacob has good reason to be frightened.

So what does he do? He divides his people and herds into two camps, hoping that at least one will survive. He prays to God to save him. He sends servants ahead in waves with gifts for Esau. At night, he brings his family and servants across the Jabbok River. He spends the night wrestling with an angel, and the following morning arranges his wives and children behind him with his preferred wife Rachel and their son Joseph, at the rear. Then, placing himself at the head of this congregation, and advancing in Esau’s direction, the text tells us that Jacob “bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.” (Gen. 33.3)

Well, did it work? In spades! “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” (Gen. 33.4).

So much for the first approach, submissiveness. However, Montaigne points out that submissiveness doesn’t always work. What is the contrary approach?

Yet flat contrary means, bravery and steadfastness, have sometimes served to produce the same effect.

Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays. Ibid.

Montaigne holds, sometimes bravery works. He gives several examples to illustrate his point. Here’s my favorite one.


The Emperor Conrad III had besieged Guelph, Duke of Bavaria; no matter how base and cowardly were the satisfactions offered him, the most generous condition he would vouchsafe was to allow the noblewomen who had been besieged with the Duke to come out honourably on foot, together with whatever they could carry on their persons. They, with greatness of heart, decided to carry out on their shoulders their husbands, their children and the Duke himself. The Emperor took such great pleasure at seeing the nobility of their minds that he wept for joy and quenched all the bitterness of that mortal deadly hatred he had harboured against the Duke; from then on he treated him and his family kindly.

Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays. Ibid (p. 4).

The question that remains unasked, so unanswered, of course, is how do you know when to use which method—submissiveness, or bravery. The short answer is that you don’t. At times, so it seems to me, something else determines what happens. And this something else is outside of our control and the control of the person in whose power we find ourselves. A striking example of this occurs in the movie “Schindler’s List.”

Rabbi Menasha Lewartow, the man portrayed in the clip, survived the war.


May you have the wisdom and strength you need in this difficult time to do what needs to be done, both for yourself and all those who need you.

Best wishes,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics). His writing has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, The Rappahannock Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.

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