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 Pinhas: Peace in the Midst of Violence?

This week’s parashah is startlingly appropriate to our current situation. We are all aghast at the violence that has broken out in Israel – although the fact that Israel remained relatively quiet as the region seethed struck many as a miracle that could not last – and our hearts are broken for the suffering and death, not only in Israel but in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and throughout.

When I work with those who consider converting to Judaism, I always remind them that Judaism includes a people and a land. For some of us, Israel is a distant and difficult reality which feels far from any sense of the Jewish ethical life we strive to live. But life is complicated, and to be a Jew is to be connected to Israel, for better and for worse.

How to approach this difficulty? This week two of my colleagues in Israel shed light for us by offering learning. Please join me in considering their words carefully.

We need to be very careful about how we, as Jews, might learn, and consider, and thoughtfully to react to this difficult challenge. We are Jews, we have a significant relationship as American Jews to the Land of Israel, and we have the right and the responsibility to own it and to act within it according to our ethical sense – but knowledgeably, and carefully, and compassionately toward all. That, after all, is who we want to be, and the challenge is to remain reliably ourselves even as we meet the challenges of our lives.

Light is seen only in contrast to darkness, and according to our creation story light comes from darkness (darkness precedes it). Perhaps peace can only come from violence. If this be true, let us learn what we have to learn from it, and bring peace.

The following messages are reposted in their entirety:

This war hurts all of us who are caught in the crossfire and our hearts go out to the innocent people on both sides who are suffering.  

The ability to balance passiveness and action is the theme of this week’s parashah. As an Israelite and a Midianite flagrantly sin in front of all of Israel, and law and order break down, one man–Pinhas–acts decisively, killing them both.

The complexity of the moral issues is not wasted on the rabbis. They refer to a biblical verse which implies the language of justice in the heavenly court:

Then Pinchas stood up and executed judgment, and so the plague was stayed. This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come. (Psalms 106:30)

According to the rabbis, the angels wish to condemn Pinchas, but he defends his violent response, on the basis that 24,000 people had already died; it was necessary for him to act boldly in order to prevent more deaths. While vindicating Pinchas’s zealoutry, God rewards him with a Covenant of Peace. (Sanhedrin 82b) He was right to take action in the moment, but ultimately, he must pursue peace.

We share the vision of the angels; a world which is filled with peace and tranquility. This is the messianic ideal that: “Nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor will they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)

Sometimes, it is necessary for nations to respond with force. Israel, like all sovereign nations, has the right to defend itself from targeted attacks on its civilians—a basic violation of human rights. Even in this violent moment, though, we need to keep asking and searching for a path to bring about a brit shalom—a covenant of peace.

Rabbi Gideon D. Sylvester, Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel  (

Shalom Friends,

I hope that you are all well. Here in Israel it is one of those periods in which the news is happening so quickly that it seems impossible to keep up. We are now under rocket attack by Hamas terrorists from Gaza and pray that the IDF will win a decisive victory over them with minimal casualties on our side so that we can resume “normal life” (which of course doesn’t exactly exist here). During the shiva for our three murdered boys we were also shocked to the core to discover that the vicious murderers of the Arab boy from East Jerusalem were in fact Jewish. In certain ways this was more shattering than the murder of our own boys. When I discussed this horrific profanation of God’s Name with the Komarner Rebbe shlit”a he quoted Golda Meir that “we can forgive the Arabs for killing us but not for forcing us to kill”. In light of this I want to share three pertinent sources with brief translations.  I think they speak for themselves. May we be blessed to sanctify God’s Name in our daily lives and with true peace.

Shabbat Shalom, Rav Zvi Leshem

תנא דבי אליהו רבא פ’ כח

ולא נתנה התורה אלא על מנת לקדש שמו הגדול. מכאן אמרו ירחיק אדם את עצמו מן הגזל בין מן הישראל בין מן העכו”ם ולא עוד אלא משום שכל הגונב מן העכו”ם לסוף הוא גונב מן הישראל ואם הוא נשבע לעכו”ם לסוף הוא נשבע לישראל ואם הוא מכחש לעכו”ם לסוף הוא מכחש לישראל ואם הוא שופך דמים לעכו”ם לסוף הוא שופך דמים לישראל ולא נתנה התורה אלא לקדש שמו הגדול שנאמר (ישעיה סו) ושמתי בהם אות ושלחתי מהם פליטים מהו אומר בסוף הענין והגידו את כבודי בגוים.

Tania d’be Eliyahu Raba 28: The Torah was given to sanctify God’s Name…one who sheds the blood of a gentile will in the end shed the blood of Jews. The Torah was only give to sanctify God’s Name…so that My [God’s] Name will be honored among the Gentiles.

רמב”ם תשובה א:ד

במה דברים אמורים בשלא חילל את השם בשעה שעבר אבל המחלל את השם אע”פ שעשה תשובה והגיע יום הכפורים והוא עומד בתשובתו ובאו עליו יסורין אינו מתכפר לו כפרה גמורה עד שימות אלא תשובה יום הכפורים ויסורין שלשתן תולין ומיתה מכפרת שנאמר ונגלה באזני ה’ צבאות וגו’ אם יכופר העון הזה לכם עד תמותון:

Rambam Hilchot Teshuva 1:4: One who profanes God’s Name, even though he repented and Yom Kippur comes and he is still repentant and has suffered, he does not achieve full atonement until he dies.

משך חכמה משפטים ד”ה ויתכן

ויתכן משום דישראל שהרג בן נח איכא מלבד חטא הרציחה עוד עון דחילול השם ית’ וכמו שהפליגו בירושלמי אלו מציאות (ה”ה) ניחא ליה לשמוע בריך אלדדון דיהודאי מן כל אגר עלמא, כ”ש ברציחת גופו החלול השם, ובזה אמרו (יומא פו) אין יוהכ”פ ותשובה ויסורים כו’ רק מיתה ממרקת כו’ אם יכופר לכם העון עד תמותון, נמצא דיש עונש מיתה על חילול השם ואיך יכופר לו ע”י מיתה חטא הרציחה ועל כרחין דינו מסור לשמים ודו”ק.

Meshech Chochmah Mishpatim s.v. Vayitachen: When a Jew kills a gentile, there is, in addition to the sin of murder also the sin of profaning God’s Name…and for this there is a [Divine] death penalty.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem – and may we work for the peace of all the world because the peace of Jerusalem is not separate but central to it.