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Parashat Vayishlach 5779 — 11/24/2018

Parashat Vayishlach 5779 — 11/24/2018

L’ilui nishmat Marie Smallow

Bereishit 32:4-36:43

The major portion of our parashah deals with Ya’akov’s confrontation/reunion with his brother Esav. The story begins two parshiyyot ago when Ya’akov deceives his father and receives the blessing that Yitzchak had intended to give Esav. Esav was not pleased and threatened to kill Ya’akov. Rivka arranges for Ya’akov to flee to her brother, Lavan, and to seek a wife there. In last week’s parashah, Ya’akov dutifully leaves for Charan, finds Lavan and his family, winds up with 4 wives, Rachel and her handmaid, Bilhah, and Leah and her handmaid Zilpah, and eleven children (Rachel will die delivering the 12th son, Binyamin, later in our parashah. After having spent 20 years with Lavan, and two years coming home, Ya’akov is ready to face his twin brother. Esav is ready to meet Ya’akov too. He’s already on his way, with a small army to back him up.

Now, on the night before the fateful confrontation, Ya’akov is left alone on one side of the river to wrestle with someone until daybreak. Who he is wrestling with is purposely left vague, although the sparse dialog indicates that this is no ordinary “man.” The commentators are pretty unanimous in following the Midrash and identifying the “man” with the “angel of Esav,” a heavenly counterpart of the earthly Esav, or perhaps a subtle level of Esav’s personality that exists on a level beyond his physical body. In any event, it appears that Ya’akov is not so much wrestling with Esav, but that which Esav represents. In the Rabbinic literature, Esav writ large is Rome, the original “Evil Empire,” which destroyed the Second Temple and oppressed Israel and eventually began the present, seemingly interminable exile.

Who, then, is Esav and what does he represent? In a word, Esav represents the material, surface, outer value of creation, as opposed to Ya’akov, who represents the inner, abstract, spiritual value. We see this in several places. First, when we are first introduced to them, Esav comes out all hairy, as if fully grown – indeed the name “Esav” means “made” – Esav was developed as far as he could develop, rigid, bounded, spiritually immobile. Ya’akov, on the other hand, is a “simple [i.e. innocent] man, dwelling in tents,” which the Rabbis identify as “tents of Torah” (meditation rooms?). When Esav and Ya’akov do meet up, Esav tries to refuse Ya’akov’s lavish gifts, saying, “I have a lot.” “A lot” is still a finite value, and leaves room for more – which Esav winds up taking from Ya’akov. Ya’akov on the other hand, urges Esav to accept the gift, saying, “I have everything.” Ya’akov is rooted in the infinite, transcendent reality of life. He is full; nothing can increase or diminish him. Esav accepts the gift. Shortly thereafter “Ya’akov came whole to Shechem.” Rashi comments that his hip (where the “man” injured him) was healed and his wealth was restored from what he gave Esav.

Finally, in terms of civilizations, Roman civilization, Esav’s spiritual descendants, was known for its engineering marvels and its extreme cruelty, privileging the material over the spiritual. Jewish culture, on the other hand, seeks to create a society that balances order and justice with compassion, based on rooting that society in the innermost spiritual dimension where opposite values are harmonized.

What, then, is the meaning of the wrestling match? Ya’akov is “bloodied but unbowed” at the end, and he does force the angel to give him a blessing, but in the end, it’s kind of a stalemate. Some modern commentators, including R. Goldin, take a psychological approach – Ya’akov was wrestling with his own demons – his doubts about his deceiving his father and “stealing” Esav’s blessing, and they see his extracting a blessing from Esav’s angel as Esav’s acknowledgement that the blessing is Ya’akov’s by right.

I would like to take this insight a bit deeper. Life is composed of two aspects. One is the purely abstract, purely spiritual level of the transcendent, and the other is the obvious, manifest level of creation. The one is represented in human life by the soul, and the other by the body. Some religions hold that the two are opposed to one another, and recommend mortification of the flesh in order to culture the spirit; some go so far as to recommend bizarre and painful practices to subdue bodily desires. Judaism is not one of them. While we recognize that the spirit, which is eternal, is superior to the body, which is transient, both come from Gd and both were created with a purpose. The spirit’s purpose is to expand to its infinite potential, and the body’s purpose is to provide a vehicle whereby the spirit’s unbounded nature can be infused into the material creation.

Apparently Rivka had this insight, whereas Yitzchak did not. Yitzchak sought to give Ya’akov spiritual blessings and Esav material blessings, under the assumption that Esav would support Ya’akov. That, unfortunately, would have put the physical in the driver’s seat and ruined the world. Rivka recognized that the physical and the spiritual had to be integrated in one personality, and that personality had to be Ya’akov, who could be counted on to keep the physical in check and serving the spiritual.  Ya’akov, who was totally committed to truth, had to deceive his father to get both blessings. As a result, he had to go deal with that paragon of material life, Lavan, and then return to the Land of Israel, the realm of the spirit, with his own spirit intact and with an expertise in dealing with the complexity and ambiguity of the material world.

Since the day Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, opposite values, like spiritual and physical, have been mixed up within human beings and in creation. Our job as humans, and doubly so as members of the Jewish people, is to tease apart the contradictory threads and weave them back together in an orderly way to create a rich tapestry of life that exalts and glorifies every thread. For this each of us must wrestle with ourselves until the light dawns.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parsashat Vayishlach

It gave me great joy listening to Rabbi Michael recite this parashah and I felt he was feeling similar joy.

Joy is a sign of Teshuvah, return to the One who/which is all Joy, all Love, Total Balance, Total Integration.

There are two major events in this parashah, each one showing a type of integration of stillness and activity, of partiality and totality.

First, Jacob wrestles with a man who then seems to be an angel and perhaps is Gd, although many commentators consider it a wrestling within himself to overcome his fears, his lower human self and to rise to the level where he acts from a higher level of his personality, one that is more heavenly, more divine, more Gdly.

When Jacob wrestles with someone in the night, the Hebrew says: Genesis, XXXII, 25, that it was a man, but in Genesis XXXII, 29, the man says, (Soncino Press, Pentateuch, Rabbi Hertz translation), “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but ‘Israel’; for thou hast striven with Gd and with men, and hast prevailed.”  From this, we get the higher sense: the man is in some way a representative of Gd, perhaps Gd Himself.

The important point here is that we can overcome our inertia, our lower self and rise to Teshuvah, return to Oneness, Totality. However far Jacob rose in this event, commentators differ and we can differ but the event is an expression within Torah and therefore within Gd so reading it can enliven greater ability within us to live and act as Totality, not merely as an impulse of Totality.

Jacob says of this experience “I have seen Gd face-to-face and lived” though there are those who translate as “I have seen an angel of Gd face-to-face and lived.”

Jacob names the place “Peniel”: Face of Gd. “Panim” means “face” and “El” means “Gd”. So Jacob felt he wrestled with Gd, not just a man, or an angel. “Wrestling” we can interpret as “clinging,” so first Gd clings to Jacob, then Jacob clings to Gd.

It’s encouraging, that however lost we feel, Gd may at any time cling to us and draw us to Him, and we can cling to Him, to Totality, and go beyond loss, confusion, fear and return to Total Awareness, Love, Joy, Confidence, Nothing left out.
Intriguingly, by clinging to Jacob, Gd causes Jacob, the “quiet man who sits in tents”, to strive, to becomes an active man, “one who strives with Gd and with men,” to become like his brother Esau, a man of the fields — although perhaps at a much higher level of activity since we do not see anything in Torah that speaks about Gd speaking or clinging to Esau.

Second, when Esau and Jacob finally meet, Jacob prostrates before Esau seven times and Esau embraces him and kisses him wholeheartedly: they part on good terms. As with everything in life, and seemingly Torah too, there are those who deny the plain meaning and say Esau’s kiss was not wholehearted but the succeeding conversation in which they speak to each other as loving brothers seems to support the wholehearted view.

In these two events we see integration of the opposites that Jacob and Esau are often treated as representing (although these interpretations avoid that which they have in common, as all humans must): Jacob, representing silence, in the direction of “Be still and know that I am Gd” (Psalm 46) and Esau symbolizing striving as in a different translation of this phrase: “Cease striving and know that I am Gd.” Yet the silence bows down to the activity and the activity embraces the silence and we have two brothers, one family.

So can we all do by letting our silence bow to our activity through prayer and other good actions and letting our actions embrace our silence by pausing routinely from action to let our activity settle into silence — and eventually find that the two are one, active silence, silent activity.

Baruch HaShem