In this week's parashah, Torah portion, we are witness to a very human moment in the life of our patriarch, Jacob. Convinced by his mother, Rebecca, that he had alienated his twin, Esau, Jacob had fled to the land of his mother's birth and settled there. Years later, a husband and father, Jacob is on his way back home.
As he draws closer to his homeland . . . and to his twin, Esau . . . Jacob begins to worry about the welcome he will receive from his disaffected brother: will Esau wish him ill? will Esau attempt to attack him physically? will Esau turn him away? Jacob prays: "Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. (Breishit/Genesis 32: 12)
The closer the brothers become, geographically, the more terrifying the figure of Esau becomes to his twin, Jacob. Jacob has convinced himself that his and his family may be in mortal danger from the hand of Esau and in order to preserve at least part of his family, Jacob divides his camp into two. At least one half of his family and his estate will survive Esau's attack.
Now within sight of each other, Jacob prostrates himself seven times and he approaches Esau . . . who embraces his long lost twin with passion. Not anger. Not jealousy. Just love.
How often have you found the anticipation to be worse than the event? How often has the voice inside your head convinced you that you are about to face the insurmountable . . . only to discover yourself in a situation that is easier, more manageable, less intimidating than you allowed yourself to imagine?
The imaginings of Jacob, compared with the reality of Esau, provide us with the encouragement to resist talking ourselves into fear. With some faith, some perspective, and some effort to truly understand the other, we can move through this world with a bit more confidence, a bit less of the fear that turns us into people we'd rather not be.
Parashat Vayishlah Torah Reading: Genesis 32:4-36:43
In this week's parashah / Torah Reading, the patriarch Jacob is on his way home. After decades in the land of his mother's birth, having acquired two wives, two concubines and thirteen children, Jacob is coming home. Man of means though he may be, homecoming is a source of tremendous anxiety for Jacob: he left as a young man having stolen the blessings due to his older twin Esau and he is not sure of the reception he will receive from his long-estranged twin.
With all this on his mind, in the middle of nowhere, Jacob is accosted in his sleep by a "being", an angel . . . if you are so inclined, you can read the story as a dramatic working out of Jacob's inner struggle. Whether God's angels are representative of elements of our own personalities or whether they are beings external to us, Jacob encounters one and wrestles with one in the middle of the night. The human and the angelic encounter and struggle with each other.
The Chasidic Koretzer Rebbe said: Within us are all the worlds, and we can therefore be in contact with them all. With us are all the qualities, good and evil, but they are unborn, and we have the power to beget them. We can transform evil qualities into good, and good into evil. By studying Torah and performing commandments we give birth to the angelic within us.
Why is Judaism such a holistic tradition? Why do we need guidance from the Torah and from Jewish law (halachah) about our relationships with our parents? our business dealings? our diets? our dress? Does God think we're stupid and immoral?
God knows that there are moral and good atheists (God made them, too!).
God, Torah, our tradition, the sages who have built layer upon layer of our rabbinic tradition all know that it's not easy being the best we can be. The holistic, comprehensive scope of Jewish tradition is here for us not because we can't be trusted, but because we do struggle all the time. The major figures in the Torah are not perfect human beings because there is no such thing as a perfect human being. The Torah allows us to witness how their lives are enriched when they let God into their lives . . . .
The gift of this week's parashah? We are encouraged to keep up the struggle, to let the angelic impulse prevail, to embrace Judaism in all it's range instead of compartmentalizing it into something we do at 330 Park Avenue or with the family at a holiday or simchah. Don't forget: Jacob was embraced by Esau when they met. If we let God in, we win.
Parashat Toldot Torah Reading: Genesis 25:19-28:9
The more I study Torah the more the divine source of the text proclaims itself. There is one moment in this week's Torah reading in which the Torah's insight into the human soul offers us a key to one of life's most difficult challenges . . . moving past the hurt someone has done to us.
Towards the end of the parashah, we witness a key moment towards the end of Isaac's life: the moment when he blesses his progeny and, in a sense, appoints the son who will carry the responsibility for sustaining the covenant with God. Through a ruse (justifiable or not, pre-ordained or not), the younger twin, Jacob, secures the blessing that by birth order should have come to his brother Esau. When Esau comes to his father's bedside to receive his blessing, he learns that his brother Jacob has maneuvered him out of his rightful blessing and Esau begs his father for a blessing for himself.
The words of Isaac's blessing are a bit cryptic. He begins by declaring that Esau will prosper, that he will live by his sword and that he will serve his brother until he . . . and then there's a word that is open to interpretation . . . at which point he will throw off the yoke of his brother.
One interpretation of this word is "restive" . . . when you grow restive you will throw off the yoke of your brother. Someone else interprets it as "humble". Yet another interpretation seems to be "troubled."
What impresses me about Isaac's blessing to Esau is that the yoke of Jacob, the resentment and hurt that will chain Esau to his brother in a relationship of "servitude" will be broken when something in Esau changes. When you hit bottom and are tired of carrying this weight around in your heart, Isaac seems to be saying, you'll finally be free of the yoke of your resentment.
Because our narrative follows Jacob rather than Esau, we do not meet up with Esau again until many years later (in another week's Torah reading!) when Jacob is on his way home and is anxiously protecting his family and possessions in anticipation of a reunion with an angry Esau. But when the brothers do come face to face again, we see that Esau steps forward to embrace his brother Jacob . . . Esau has achieved his father's blessing after all, has moved past the hurt Jacob saddled him with and embraces him free of the yoke of resentment.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.