Shabbat VaYishlakh: Gratitude, Not Fear

As Parashat VaYishlakh begins, Jacob survives a confrontation with his brother Esau, from whom he has been estranged for twenty years – a generation, a lifetime, of distance. Jacob has prepared himself for the worst, splitting his family into two camps and sending lavish gifts to his brother in advance – according to the Midrash, he even hides his daughter Dinah in the luggage lest Esau, his disgusting thug of a brother, see her and want to marry her. 

Yet Jacob finds his brother forgiving and welcoming. Upon meeting him, Esau folds him in a loving embrace. What does Jacob make of this surprise? Generations of commentaries have related to this encounter in ways that reveal more about the commentator than the story.

One asserts – with a complete absence of evidence – that Esau’s embrace was meant to kill his brother, and only G*d’s protection of Jacob saved his life. Another insists that Jacob was punished for hiding Dinah, and in so doing manifesting his contempt for the brother who was so different from him, rather than believing that a match between Dinah and Esau could possibly have redeemed Esau, bringing him back into the main narrative of the family.

Unable to believe in the peace that Esau is apparently offering, Jacob makes excuses, falsely assuring his brother they will meet again soon, and then heading as far away as he can get. Jacob settles his miraculously intact family in Sh’khem, where the townspeople seem friendly enough. 

Jacob’s punishment then arrives. As often happens in families, the effect of his behavior falls not upon him but on Dinah. What happens is unclear in the text; Dinah goes out to see the town, and either falls in love and elopes or was kidnapped and raped. The Torah does not record her own feelings about the situation, only those of the men between whom she is caught. 

Jacob’s sons falsely assure the men of Sh’khem that it’s all right, and they then fall murderously upon the unsuspecting some in their beds. Many die in the ensuring conflict, and Jacob and his family flee, wanderers again, this time in their own home country. Jacob’s experience has gone from mistrust of a brother to misunderstanding with an entire community.

Was all of this inevitable, as the plight of homeless wanderers often seems unrelievedly tragic? Or was it possible that Esau and Jacob – twin brothers after all – really could have been reconciled? And that perhaps the tragedy of Sh’khem never needed to happen at all….

In a time of fear it is easy to assume that violence and hatred are around every corner. If only Jacob could have kept in mind the prayer of gratitude with which he traveled to meet his brother: קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת שעשית את עבדך – “I am too small (i.e. unworthy) for all the true kindness You have done for Your servant”. (Bereshit 32.11) If he had managed to maintain a sense of gratitude for all the miracles he had already known, could he have approached Esau with hope in his heart, rather than (just) fear?

Yes, for Jacob the world may have been ending, but he had known so much good until that moment. What shall we feel, those of us who have known so much good in our lives, and still do – gratitude for all the years? or shall we allow it all to be erased in moments of darkness and fear? What evil do we bring upon ourselves and our loved ones because we expect it? What good is murdered in its bed before it can be born?

We may be unworthy, but we have known so much good. On this Shabbat, may your gratitude overcome your suffering.

(Here is an amazing recording of Jacob’s prayer of gratitude by Israeli composer and musician Yonatan Razel: Katonti)

Shabbat VaYishlakh: What Message Do You Carry?

Two opposing sides confront each other; one has been wronged and is angry, and the other is guilty, afraid, and feels that it must defend its very life. Ferguson? New York? Portland Oregon last night outside the Moda Center?

No, the situation described is part of this week’s parashah; in it, Jacob and Esau walk toward their fateful confrontation. The wrong has been festering for twenty years; now is the moment of truth.

Esau is the wronged: as our commentators have put it, he was not the right person to carry on the legacy of the People of Israel, so that prerogative, in the form of the Blessing of the First Born, was taken from him by guile, against his well, without anyone even bothering to try to talk with him.

Jacob represents the side in this conflict which clearly has “systemic deficiencies”. He deceives his brother when they are young, he does it again with his mother’s collusion later in their early life, and when he has to escape the “situation” for which he is responsible, he continues to live and act in a world full of deceit in his new surroundings. 

Yet Jacob is not “all bad”; he learns from his very bad mistakes, he struggles with his own inner nature, and he does make progress. In this excellent example of teshuvah that takes a lifetime, he does begin to behave better; he does become a better person. 

And Esau is not “all innocence”; his response to being wronged is not to seek redress but to seek to murder. He may be justified in his anger, yet killing leads only to more killing, and war to more war, when what both sides need is peace, safety and mutual respect.

As we try to understand the outrage and protests erupting all around us in instance after instance of police violence and the suffering of the African-American community, we hear these same ideas voiced in every conversation: the Cleveland Police Department is found to have “systemic deficiencies”. Of course, that does not mean that the police department is all bad. Most police officers are good, and try their best to serve their community. Yet for many generations much hurt has been caused, and teshuvah is clearly necessary. The African-American community and all those who stand in solidarity with them are naturally, righteously angry. Yet anger is destructive, the Rabbis teach; it is the most dangerous emotion of all, and must be channeled lest it lead to sin.

Many years later, Jacob approaches a face-to-face confrontation with Esau. In our parashat hashavua that is precisely the scene, and it echoes the protests which bring protesters and police face-to-face. Years of righteous anger and defensiveness underlie such a meeting; days of brooding, nights of obsessing over possible outcomes. 

What should Jacob do? How might Esau choose to act? In the first verse of our parashah, we read (Genesis 32.4):

ד  וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם.

4 Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom.

The word for “messengers” in Hebrew is מלאכים, mal’akhim, which is also the term used in the Torah for “angel”. This is because the function of an angel in ancient Israelite belief was primarily that of being a messenger for the word of G-d. For us the coincidence of these two translations offers a significant insight: what seems to you to be simply a messenger sent by someone else to you is actually, just possibly, also someone who bears for you a word of G-d, that is, a message from the Universe that you need to hear.

Jewish mystical speculation suggests that each of us, reflecting G-d’s image as we do, function as messengers to each other, in ways of which we are unaware. Both in word and in act we send the message forth of some truth about the world as it is, or as it should be. And of course, we do so also by the act of inaction, or by withholding a word.

We are told that on the night before the fateful meeting, Jacob is up all night wrestling with a messenger. We are not told what the message is, only that Jacob needs the encounter, yet is wounded by the encounter, and limps forever after. This is the harsh reality: our nation will never completely overcome the racist “limp” inflicted upon us by the slavery our predecessors practiced. But the only way forward is to hear the message, to wrestle with it, not to turn away.

That is what Jacob finally does. He stops running away from the encounter, and he faces Esau. The key is this: what makes the encounter successful, what allows the two brothers to recognize their connection rather than that which distanced them, is the messengers that are sent first.

All of us find ourselves in the position of messenger at some point. Our Jewish tradition obligates us to step forward and recognize our responsibility in social discourse and political action. When you find yourself confronted with a messenger, can you listen? When you realize that you are in the position of messenger, what word are you carrying? By your words and acts, are you taking sides, judging justifications, and reveling in the gory details of anger and fear – or are you helping to bring Jacob and Esau together toward their longed-for reconciliation, toward the peace of wholeness and trust?