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)

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Shabbat BeShalakh: What Do You See in the Sea?

This week, the Shabbat of the parashah BeShalakh, is also called Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of the Song”, in honor of the fact that on this week we read the Song of the Sea in the scroll. The Israelites have crossed over through the Sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians who pursued them have drowned in those same waters.

As our ancestors gather on the far shore, astonished by what they’ve experienced, one might imagine that they were speechless. Perhaps there was no sound at all for a few moments, from that whole motley group. Imagine them: self-identified Israelites (those who held a family memory of descent from the sons of Jacob), and with them, others – those who were attracted to the strong family culture of the people of Israel even under the stress of slavery in Egypt. Finally, there were those who saw a good thing when the Hebrew slaves made their miraculous jailbreak, and went with them through the suddenly-opened gate to freedom.

There were a lot of them. They did not all know each other. And now, with a moment to breathe, they looked back at the way they had come, at the Sea, and then at each other. Now what?

They sang. We call it Shirat haYam, the “Song of the Sea”.

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider G-d has thrown into the sea.” (Ex.15.20-21)

The first expression of the refugees is joy, and gratitude. And within this rejoicing, one finds a very personal expression of religious awakening. First, one becomes aware of one’s own joy; then, upon reflection, one begins to feel gratitude for the happiness. This is the first step toward a personal sense of religious awareness: the dawning knowledge that one is grateful.

Moses and the people of Israel sang: I will sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has G-d thrown into the sea. G-d is my strength and song, G-d is become my salvation. This is my G-d, and I will praise, my parents’ G-d, and I will exalt (Ex.15.1-2)

This song then expresses the next steps in religious awareness: beyond gratitude for my good fortune, and onward to the recognition that I could never have escaped the Egyptians alone. A strength greater than my own, something beyond my own small intellectual capacity, brought me to this moment. I could not have planned this and carried it out alone; circumstances were also aligned just exactly right. I become aware of something beyond me, which is a part of me, and carries me, too.

This is my G-d – I reach my own sense of  awe, of that which I respect as greater than me, but also mine.

my parents’ G-d – only now can I begin to understand what my parents have revered; only now can I start to see the ethics of their lives, that which they care about most.

Now what? what happens after we cross the Sea and realized that now, we are on our own? When this door opens, it shows the Israelites – and us – the way forward into the future. And that future is much wandering, bumbling our way toward a distant vision, with lots of false starts, lots of dead ends, and some days when we’ll wonder if we truly are on the right path. The religiously aware path is a long one, but it does offer us certain steps toward the Promise of wholeness within ourselves, with our families, our tribes, our people, and the world. It begins with G-d and ends with G-d, and every day is one more opportunity to become aware.

This is not esoteric knowledge: all of us cross our own Seas, and all of us have eyes and hearts to see. In a wonderfully subversive ancient teaching, it is written that “a servant girl saw at the Sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all other prophets did not behold”. (Mekhilta)

This Song of the Sea united the refugees on the shores of the sea, and it unites us still. The Song is incorporated into our daily prayers; we sing it whenever we recite the mi kamokha. Wherever you are on this Shabbat, may you find yourself with the Jewish people in spirit as we offer up, once again this year, our chorus of joy for awareness of our reasons for gratitude for that which is beyond us, and blesses our existence.