By Zwi Reznik , November 24, 2018, 16 Kislev 5779
The journey continues. When we left Yaakov last week he was on the run again, as he had been for the last twenty years. In this week’s parsha he stops for a while. The parsha opens with his preparations for meeting his estranged brother Esau. Before they meet Yaakov has a wrenching nighttime encounter which transforms him into Israel. The meeting with Esau actually goes well and they agree to see each other again soon—but we all know how those kinds of plans often work out. This is then followed by a horrific tale of what happens to Yaakov’s daughter Dinah, the subsequent violent conduct of his sons and this story closes with Yaakov being rebuked by two of those sons. The text then returns to Yaakov’s journey, new blessings from God and the deaths of those closest to him. The parsha ends with a lengthy genealogy of Esau. Clearly my first task in preparing this brief drash was to get focused. So let’s get back to just Yaakov.
Yaakov knows he cannot keep running and avoid dealing with his brother and what he, Yaakov, did to him. Recall that Yaakov had once taken advantage of Esau’s great hunger and managed to buy the elder brother’s birthright for a bowl of lentils. That was followed by following his mother’s guidance in a scheme to trick Yitzhak into giving him, rather than Esau, his blessing and his mother’s subsequent advice to run for his life. He can’t avoid dealing with this anymore. So he sends messengers to Esau to let him know that he’s been with their uncle, that he’s done well and (32:6) “…I send this message to my lord in hope of gaining your favor”. The response, via the messengers is brief, (32:7) “… he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him”.
In antiquity these are enough men to constitute an army. Then in (32-8) “Yaakov was greatly frightened…”. So he prepares. Rashii succinctly notes that he does so in three ways—“by war, by prayer and by gifts”. Specifically that is, firstly, with strategic planning by splitting all the people and livestock into two camps; secondly, with prayer. After reminding God that he’s on the move because of God’s advice, he then says—(32-11): “I am unworthy of all the kindness that you have steadfastly shown your servant; with my staff alone I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps”. In other words he’s gone from being homeless with just the clothes on his back to becoming wealthy. This is not just a prayer which is asking for things. It is emphatically a statement of GRATITUDE! Think about how much of our own prayer today, on Shabbat, is just saying Thank You. Something has changed in Yaakov after twenty years of servitude with Laban. He is no longer just the “cheat” or “usurper” that his name would indicate. Finally in preparation he prepares a huge gift for Esau. Five hundred and fifty head of livestock; in the gender proportions that would assure future exponential growth in this herd! Now it is nighttime. There is one more thing to do. He takes his wives, maid servants, his eleven children and all his possessions across the stream. Then, (32:25) “Yaakov was left alone,”. He is alone and in the dark!
We know what’s coming next but, I want to pause here for a moment. Why did he do that and leave himself alone. Was this some sort of protective act? That is, separating himself, the object of Esau’s hate, from his wives, maids and children. We’ll see him doing something similar to that the next morning. Or was it something as simple as wanting to be alone so he can be by himself and think about what is happening and how he got to this point. The last time he was home, twenty years before, his mother told him to run because his brother was coming for him. Now his brother is coming for him and with an army behind him! Now, back to(32:25)—“Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.”.
We know how the fight turns out. This “man” is losing the fight and tries to prevail by injuring Yaakov. That doesn’t work and Yaakov demands a blessing to let him go. So Yaakov becomes Israel—one who strives with God. This is definitely an improvement over “cheat” and “usurper”. Further, a name change is a clear acknowledgement of an overwhelming transformation of the spirit. We’ve seen that before with Avram becoming Avraham and Sarai becoming Sarah. However those were just a change of a single letter. Israel is a much more comprehensive change.
Now the commentaries of the Midrash do identify this man as an angel of a sort. This sometimes included this angel as being specifically Esau’s angel or guardian which would make this a fight between Yaakov and Esau. We must consider that the writing of the Midrash took place in the context of knowing what happens in the future between Esau-Edom and Israel’s descendants, as well as the period following the devastation done by the Romans. There are in the Midrash commentaries which are even critical of Yaakov and berate him for sending gifts and being conciliatory to Esau. A medieval commentary by Rabbi David Kimhi of Provence states that “God sent his angel to strengthen Yaakov’s courage; having overcome him, he need not fear Esau”.
However for a contrast we should consider Nehama Leibowitz. She notes some of these preceding commentaries but her comments take a different direction. Firstly, she states noting Yaakov’s fear, that “Yaakov’s fears were not indicative of lack of trust in God, but rather a lack of confidence in oneself, in one’s own worthiness and conduct”. So suppose lack of confidence in oneself and in one’s own worthiness are at the root of Yaakov’s feelings of anxiety and stress as he waits alone and in the dark for Esau and his army. So, with that in mind let me explicitly state that Yaakov’s struggling with a man is Yaakov struggling with himself. That struggle to transform oneself and rid oneself of undesirable character traits can itself be the cause of great fatigue and even physical pain. Of course these are not new thoughts original to me and there are numerous contemporary commentaries which correspond to my own thoughts and that can easily be found. However let’s continue with commentaries that are both contemporary as well as traditional in outlook.
Rabbi Avraham Twerski, M.D, is both a Hasidic rabbi and a psychiatrist. He had a psychiatric practice that specialized in addiction treatment. He has a large body of work related to his medical practice. Much of it is addressed to general audiences and much of it is also addressed to Jewish audiences. One of those oriented to Jewish audiences contains short commentaries on each of the parshas in the Torah. The one for Vayishlach, titled “Changing Character Traits” includes the following: “ For Torah to transform one’s personality, the study of Torah in the abstract does not suffice. It must be studied with the intent to live up to what it teaches, and it must be implemented in daily living. The study must involve the ethical as well as the formal halachic aspects. Then and only then can we expect favorable changes in our personalities to occur.”
I also like the clarity and simplicity provided by another of Nehama Leibowitz’s comments: “We have merely to try to understand the significance of the struggle and what the Torah wished to teach us through it.”
So if we accept the need to do so, as Yaakov did heading into that lonely night, a transformation of the spirit is possible.
Next the text informs us that with the break of day Yaakov sees Esau and his army approaching. Israel moves out ahead of his wives, maids and children so that Esau will see him first and that he is separated from the others. We thus see again the protective move akin to what Yaakov had done the night before by separating himself from everyone and everything else. He bows seven times. Then (33:4)—“Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and he wept.”. (I have to note that this verse almost exactly describes my father’s description of seeing his brother the first time they met at the airport in Israel twenty-four years after separating in Italy. The only difference was they went to a men’s room first for some privacy). By the way, the Midrash which won’t cut Esau any slack, states that Esau was trying to bite him in the neck. Family is introduced, and after some back and forth Esau accepts Israel’s gift. Rashii notes that Yaakov saying “Please accept my present” is to be understood literally as “Please accept my blessing…”. Both of them know what Yaakov had done, but, with this conversation Esau seems to be saying “I’m doing fine as well, we’re OK!”. They separate and move on.
What happens to Yaakov-Israel next is one tragedy after another in this parsha and the ones to follow. I initially noted the tale of what happened to Dinah and the conduct of her brothers and I will not be talking about that. In the next chapter, 35, there is a seemingly out of place verse which reports that (35:8)—“Deborah, Rivkah’s nurse, died, and was buried…”. We have not seen this Deborah since a brief mention of Rivkah’s unnamed nurse (wet-nurse) who accompanies her on the way to meet Yitzhak. Both Rashi and Nachmanides state that this verse is here to note that Rivkah has died and that Deborah’s death and burial are when Yaakov finds out about it. Yet, Torah makes no specific mention of his mother’s death! I must leave it for others more learned than myself to comment on this erasure of one of the matriarchs. Nachmanides also goes on to comment that this, his mother’s death, is why in the next verse God reappears to Israel. God confirms his earlier name change and promises that a great nation shall descend from him and that the land assigned to Avraham and Yitzhak are assigned to him. However, there is nothing promised to Yaakov in the way of a tranquil life.
Then Rivkah dies.
In another one of his works Rabbi Twerski writes; “We should understand that absolute tranquility is not achievable and that realistic peace of mind exists with some stress and tension”. There are other learned commentaries in a similar vein. For myself I would prefer to close with a poem I first heard at the funeral of a young woman thirty two years ago. At that time I just heard sadness, however, with time I’ve learned it is comforting and provides some measure of hope.
‘Tis a fearful thing
‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
– Yehuda HaLevi