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Thoughts on Vayishlach

Summary | פָּרָשַׁת וַיִּשְׁלַח

December 10th 2022 – 16. Kislew 5783 8. Week section | Bereshit 32,4-36,43 In Parashat Vayishlah, Ja'akov reconciles with Esav after wrestling with a "man". The prince Shechem rapes Dina, whose brothers sack the city of Shechem in revenge. During the family's subsequent flight, Rachel gives birth to Benjamin and dies in childbirth.

Foto: Kämpfende Bisons
Foto © Richard Lee [Unsplash]

The parashah Vayishlah involves a reunion of the quarrelling brothers Ja'akov and Esav after 30 years. In the second aliyah, Ja'akov prepares large gifts to appease Esav and has his servants deliver them one by one with the message to Esav that they are "gifts from his servant Jacob". He takes his wives, maids, children and belongings across the river Jabbok and stays behind alone. The following night, Ja'akov wrestles with a figure referred to in the Torah only as a "man". The fight is described as fierce and lasts until dawn. In the end, neither of the two can win, the man severely injures Ja'akov's thigh tendon but has to beg him to let him go. Ja'akow forces a blessing from the man and is given the new name Yisra'el (ish-ra'a-el: the one who sees God) for the first time, for he had "wrestled with God and man and prevailed."

Hidden within this story and its text in the Torah is an almost unmanageable number of questions. For several thousand years, learned, wise, unlearned, benevolent, malicious, insightful and simple-minded people have worked their way through the answers. This has resulted in many instructive, wonderful and wondrous midrashim, explanations and clarifications.

I imagine: Ja'akow is now a very successful, respected man with a large family and business. He has repeatedly shown that he has a talent for getting himself into problematic interpersonal situations and, in resolving them, likes to deal imaginatively with social rules - such as morality and justice. Perhaps he could be called a "doer". He seems to be very rarely afflicted by self-doubt or insecurity, but rather makes his way through life with self-confidence.

Now he faces a real challenge. He confronts his brother, who he knows is on his way with men (soldiers?), but has no idea whether he himself is still angry with him. After all, he himself had deprived him of the birthright 30 years earlier and had to flee. Esaw had also apparently become an influential man and leader. So the meeting could bring dramatic twists and turns - for Ja'akow and his whole family.

I further imagine that Ja'akow seeks retreat the night before the important meeting to figure out his course of action. He cannot sleep and eventually has to confront his inner demons. Should he, a proud, seasoned man, act submissively for the sake of peace? Surely this would not be an easy exercise for him, as he probably rarely does it - to show himself humble, guilty and submissive. How can he show his attitude without making it seem like a sheer gambit - after all, the other person is his brother who knows him well. How can he show that he has become a different person?

For a man like Ja'akow, these are troubling questions. In my imagination, he struggles with them until early in the morning, cannot get any rest and feels worn out in the morning. At least two sides of him have been fighting with each other all night. Neither has clearly prevailed, but they had to come to an agreement somehow. That sounds exactly how a conflict should end in the best case. The new name symbolises in a profound way the new inner attitude that has emerged from the agreement. Thus, he can face his brother as a different, new person and credibly convey that he is very serious about his seven bows without denying himself as a strong and self-confident man.

This experience of Ja'akow reminds me that it is important to put one's feelings and thinking to the test again and again - in a sense: to face one's demons - if, on the one hand, I want to be successful and, on the other hand, I want to follow good paths. And perhaps this is especially true when it comes to attitudes and feelings that are very strong in me and therefore difficult to question.

Ja'akow has shown me that one can face this struggle and even if one suffers injuries in the process, one emerges from it as a new, hopefully better person - namely as Jisra'el.

So in the future it will be enough to say: "Think about Ja'akow's struggle!" and I know that it might be time to review my convictions and actions and to find a new attitude in an inner confrontation.

What fight would you have at night with the "man" in you at the moment?

I wish us all inner confrontation with less drastic injuries than Ja'akow has suffered and hope for me and you that we are brave enough to follow the example of our progenitor in this matter now and then.

I wish you Shabbat shalom!

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