'Vayishlach': Don't do as I do

Lesson that should be deduced from stories of Jacob in this week's Torah portion is how not to raise children, how not to raise girls and how not to be a son or brother

This week's Torah portion, "Vayishlach," evokes the cynical saying: "Never feel useless; you can always be used as a bad example."


It seems that this is exactly the lesson that should be deduced from the stories of Jacob in "Vayishlach": How not to raise children, how not to raise girls, and how not to be a son or brother.


From this depressing Torah portion we will also learn how genuine change does not happen overnight, even if that night peaks with a successful struggle over an angel. It therefore seems that the directive for us from this Torah portion is this: "Don't do as I do" or "when you see this, do it differently."


(A play on words of the modern Hebrew phrase indicating a thing to be accepted without doubt or question, based on the Talmudic phrase: "When you see this (shaped moon), you must sanctify (the month)." Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 20A and Rashi on Exodus 12:1-2).


'Follows after deception'

(Thoughts on name changing ceremonies)


It is not infrequent to hear of mature adults that change their name because they believe their name is bringing them misfortune. Just how unfavorable Jacob's name (Yaakov in Hebrew) is can be learned from the words of the prophet Jeremiah (9:3):


"Everyone should be wary of his neighbor, and do not trust in any brother; for every brother follows after deception (Aa'kov Ya'akov) and every neighbor goes about slandering."


With Jacob's successful conclusion of the struggle at the Jabbok river, the angel asks him to change his name to Israel. Rashi explains the significance of this name change:


"'Not Jacob (Yaakov)' - it will no longer be said that your blessings were acquired through deception (a'akva) and deceit but through power and openness."


However, as has been stated, change does not occur in a "blink" of a night, or in the "blink" of an angel. Jacob remains Jacob. That is how we call him. That is how all the generations who have preceded us called him and prayed and blessed with that name. Words do not always create a new reality, and Jacob (Yaakov) will continue to pay the price for his deception (akvoovyotoe).


Better a close neighbor than a distant brother

Jacob, who is worried about his impending meeting with Esau, sends ambassadors to test the waters with his brother. When Esau responds positively to the gesture, and goes out to personally greet Jacob.


Surprisingly, it is actually the deceived brother that had the blessing of the firstborn stolen from him, who is content, and even happy, with his good lot. Esau runs to Jacob, hugs and kisses him. When Jacob asks to grant him the gift offerings he prepared for him, Esau takes the opportunity to explain that his own life is going well and that he no longer holds a grudge.


In this context we have one of the most beautiful verses in the Torah (Genesis 33:9): "And Esau said, 'I have enough; my brother, let that which is yours be yours.'"


Thus it follows that there is no magical cure - Jacob steals the blessing of the firstborn, yet despite that it is surprisingly Esau, cheated and deprived of the "blessing," who experiences blessedness. Father's blessing, name change - Jacob utilizes an abundance of "magical cures," his life continues to be saturated with suffering.


At the conclusion of the emotional reunion, Esau offers to accompany his brother on the continuation of his journey through the desert. Esau's generosity continues. And Jacob? He continues to be Jacob (Genesis 33:12-14): "And he (Esau) said, 'Let us take our journey, and let us go, and I will go before you.' And he (Jacob) said unto him, 'My lord knows that the children are tender.. .Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant; and I will journey on gently, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come unto my lord unto Seir.'"


Since we do not want to be disrespectful with our forefather and ask why Jacob deceptively responded to his brother with false promises, we will take assistance from a Midrash that asks that question for us (Genesis Rabbah, Vayishlach, 78):


"'Until I come unto my lord unto Seir,' Rabbi Abahu said: 'We have reviewed the Torah and we could not find anywhere therein that Jacob ever returned to visit his brother at Seir. Is it possible that Jacob was both honest and dishonest with Esau?'"


The above Midrash, in a Jewish mixture of embarrassment and humor, offers the following solution: "'Rather he (Jacob) was honest with him (Esau) and was really referring to a visit in the eschatological future mentioned by the prophet Ovadiah (1:21): 'And saviors shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau...'"


How not to be a son

Jacob willingly departed from Laban's house (Genesis 31:18): " go to Isaac his father unto the land of Canaan." Despite this and despite Isaac's extremely advanced old age (that already many years ago he thought that he was close to death), Jacob never hurried on his way.


After his meeting with Esau, Jacob stops in Succot, in Shechem, in Beit El, and in a number of other places as well. Many storms disrupt the family life. Benjamin is born. Rachel dies. Dinah is raped. Jacob's son's take revenge on the people of Shechem. Reuben sleeps with Bilhah. Then, only then, does Jacob take the time to visit his father (Genesis 35:27): "And Jacob came to Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiryat Arba – the same is Hebron – where Abraham and Isaac sojourned."


In the description of the long lost son, the specific phrase "to Isaac his father" is a repetition that brings backs memories and explains why the journey took so long.


This specific phrase appears for the first time at the height of the fraudulent theft of the firstborn's blessing (Genesis 27:22): "And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said: 'The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.'"


There is no blessing nor name change that will be strong enough to overcome Jacob's deceptive heart and life. Jacob knows this and therefore lacks the courage to face his father.


How not to be a father

It appears that the most difficult and most painful lesson learned in the Torah portion is how not to be a father (Genesis 33:1-2): "And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids. And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hinder most."


These verses evoke a powerful urge to cry. It is as if nothing has been learned from the suffering that Isaac and Rebekah brought to the world with the competition they created between their children. It is as if the expulsions of the sons among those adopted by Abraham hadn't already been too much. Jacob as well falls into the same trap as the rest of his family and creates a hierarchy of love and bloodshed. On this Rivkah Lubitch writes the following Midrash:


"What is being said with the verse, 'And he divided (vayachatz) the children' (Genesis 33:1)? The wording 'and he divided' (vayachatz) is based on the word 'arrow' (chetz) to teach you that he shot 'arrows' into the hearts of his children. There are those that say Jacob distributed 'arrows' among his children. Jacob allocated ten arrows on that day to his sons, an arrow to each son.


"The handmaidens' children said, 'Prior to this we knew that our father loved Rachel and Leah more than our mothers, but we held a hope in our hearts that our father loved all the sons equally. Now we know that our father prefers the sons of Rachel and Leah over us and loves them more.'


"The children of Leah said, 'Prior to this we knew that our father loves Rachel more than he loves our mother Leah, but we held in our hearts hope that he loved all of his sons equally. Now we know that our father prefers Joseph and loves him more.'


"And of Joseph, in Jacob's blessing to his sons scripture tells us (Genesis 49:23): 'The archers have dealt bitterly with him, and shot at him, and hated him.' These are the arrows that Jacob divided among his sons. They drew them out, and used them on Joseph."


How not to protect your daughters

Dinah, Jacob's only daughter mentioned in the Torah, is not mentioned on the list of children who cross over the Jordan River. To where has Dinah disappeared? The Midrash (expansive rabbinic exegesis( offer an explanation. Genesis Rabbah, Vayishlach, 76 reads, "And Dinah where is she? She was placed in a box and locked therein so that Jacob's 'wicked' brother would not see her and take her from him in marriage. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to Jacob, 'You have withheld her redeeming kindness from your brother... Because you didn't offer her for a permitted marriage, she will be taken for 'marriage' in a forbidden fashion.'"


The deeds of the forefathers foreshadow the deeds of their descendants. The Midrash tells that Abraham placed Sarah in a box lest Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, fall in love with her. Here in a similar fashion Jacob puts Dinah in a box lest his brother fall in love with her. This is a tried and tested, although not a tried and true, family method among the patriarchs that never bore the desired fruits.


Trading in rape

Last week we read a difficult Midrash according to which the rape of Dinah was Divine revenge for Leah. Now, in this presumptuous Midrash before us, Dinah's rape is a punishment for Jacob's denying his daughter to his brother.


On the way we also learned that excessive defense of women's and girls' modesty, is actually likely to cause promiscuity and tragedies. Would that the leaders of the Bnei Akiva youth movement read these Midrashim, then the Bnei Akiva girls would be dancing in the vineyards and at "organizational Shabbats". In so doing they would prevent a few, very difficult, tragedies.


Jacob (Yaakov) traverses on twisted (akooveem) trails on the blood of victims in the next generation. The man that dreamt of ladders and angels, the man that knows how to roll back heavy stones that cover wells, the man who wrestles with angels and God and wins, falls for his own lies. Jacob's failure's come to warn us of the terrible life one can expect if he or she chooses a similar life of playing the victim and as their moral compass, deception as a means of redemption.


Special acknowledgement

This piece is an adaption from a sermon given by Reform rabbinical student Tamara Shifrin at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Thank you, Tamara.


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas


Click here to read this article in Hebrew



פרסום ראשון: 11.17.13, 09:07
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