Aluminum or Glass – Parshat Vayishlach 5778

aluminum-or-glass

Seemingly incompatible temperaments can work together. My husband Duncan and I are a prime example of this. We could not be more different when it comes to our emotional response and tolerance. We compare ourselves to the way different materials react to heat. I tend to be like aluminum: I get frustrated very easily, but then I usually calm down and relax very quickly. I don’t hold on to my frustration for long periods, except on rare occasions. On the other hand, Duncan is like glass: he’s very patient, and it takes a lot of heat to really frustrate him and get him to combust, but once he’s there, it takes just as long if not longer for him to cool down. This means that when we have a disagreement, we’re often on opposite sides of the emotional spectrum. I’m already on my way to cooled off as he’s just reached his hottest point. I’m ready to forgive as he’s ready to blaze.

In our Torah portion for this week, Parshat Vayishlach, we read about Jacob preparing for his meeting with his brother Esau after their estrangement. Jacob struggles with an angel during his dream before their meeting, and then their meeting is uneventful. Jacob and Esau meet, they hug, they forgive, and they move on. The parshah ends with Jacob’s daughter Dinah having an incident in Shechem and a list of the final events in the life of his family before the Joseph storyline begins.

Earlier in our story, Jacob and Esau anger each other, they have some time apart, and in the buildup to this moment it appears that Jacob is not so sure whether his brother is glass or aluminum, whether he is ready to forgive or might need some more time. These twins are clearly as different as siblings get, and Jacob is fearful of a war being waged, so he prepares himself physically by separating his children to avoid mass casualties. His restless behavior shows his distress. Is he himself ready to forgive? Perhaps he’s not so sure of that either.

It turns out they were both ready to forgive. The brothers meet, they run to each other and embrace, and they forgive and move forward. Yes, for the time in between they carried the grudge, the fear, the concern with them, and it clearly messed with Jacob’s psyche, manifested in his crazy dreams. But in the end, it was family that really mattered to them.

These brothers carried around a lot of baggage leading up to this point. Their family dynamic changed dramatically when Jacob won the birthright, and then again when their parents picked favorites. They were estranged as they entered into adulthood. There was no obvious reason to forgive, but they discovered forgiveness simply felt right and helped them let go of the burden they carried for so long.

Vayishlach means “and he sent.” What is being sent away is not a person or an object, but rather anger and fear. The emotional baggage is being discarded in favor of love. Oddly enough, the more we can learn to let go of certain things, the more we can hold on to each other.

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Blow Me a Kiss – Parshat Vayishlach 5777

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The Bible is a kissing book. Who knew? In fact, kissing in the Bible serves a significant purpose, and it’s not always a romantic one. This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, again shows us interaction between Jacob and his brother Esau. The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t seem too attached to his birthright blessing until it had been given to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t care much about his brother’s right to the blessing until his brother threatened to kill him. Now, twenty years or so later, we find the brothers on a path to meet again. Both are now married and fathers of large clans, and both have large flocks with them.

When the brothers are reunited there is a scene that, on the surface, appears to be a straightforward reconciliation between two estranged brothers. They hug, they kiss, they move on. But anyone who is familiar with sibling relationships knows that this is no ordinary reconciliation. After all, Esau is usually looking out for himself and no one else, and his actions are almost always motivated by hatred. To see him kiss and hug his brother as only a close family member would feels foreign based on previous passages in the Torah.

We often express ourselves more through body language and actions than through words, and a kiss is one of the most intimate forms of expression. But this simple gesture can mean a lot of things. Of course there’s the passion and excitement of a first kiss or the tender kiss from parent to child, but we also use the term metaphorically. “The kiss of death.” “Kiss and tell.”

Shiri loves to give silly kisses. At bedtime we used to go through at least a dozen different silly kisses before she’d finally agree to go to her crib. There was the tiny kiss, the baby kiss, the monster kiss, the pineapple kiss (not even the silliest one, believe me). Each one had some different noise or expression that went with it, and you can bet Shiri would let me know if I did the expression wrong.

Clearly kisses can mean a variety of things, so what did the kiss between Jacob and Esau mean? Was it simply an act of fraternal love, or was it shallow and conciliatory and just for show? Certainly this is one of those Torah portions that asks us to draw our own conclusions. Kisses from mother to daughter, from spouse to spouse, and from sibling to sibling are all very different, even without the baggage that Jacob and Esau brought to their reunion. So perhaps the meaning, like the gesture itself, is to remain between two people and two people alone.


Good luck will rub off when I shake hands with you. Or blow me a kiss, and that’s lucky too. –“Chim Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins.

Forever Changed – Parshat Vayishlach 5776

Forever Changed

Truly life-changing moments are few and far between.  A specific encounter can touch your heart, or a story on the news can make you think, but very few of these moments reach us so deeply that our lives are never the same again.  The instances that typically alter our lives are the ones you’d expect, like significant lifecycle events or major traumatic experiences.  However, occasionally an event which seems superficially insignificant can lead to an unexpected transformation.    

This is the case in parshat Vayishlach, which we read this week. The portion is filled with what should have been huge, life-changing moments for Jacob. Jacob and his twin Esau reunite and make up after a 20-year estrangement.  Following this, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is involved in a violent incident in Shechem that prompts her brothers to take revenge on her behalf, Rachel dies in childbirth, and Jacob’s father Isaac dies.  All of these significant events likely impact Jacob in one way or another, but it’s before these at the beginning of the parshah when his life is changed completely.

Jacob is preparing to meet his brother after decades apart, and he struggles with an angel in his sleep.  This unique encounter changes him in an instant, both physically and emotionally.  The wrestling knocks his hip out of its socket, and Jacob’s name becomes Yisrael, literally “one who struggles with God.”  

When Jacob and Esau reunite, Jacob is overcome with emotion.  In Chapter 33, verse 10, Jacob proclaims, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of God.”  The text in Genesis Rabbah, a 5th century commentary on the Torah, suggests that Jacob is talking about his own transformation, not about his brother’s appearance. Jacob is sharing with Esau that he has seen the face of God and is a changed man, not the deceitful brother who tricked his twin. He no longer sees Esau as a rival, but as an equal, deserving of honor and dignity.  Clearly Jacob is a new person.

It’s a cliché to simply say “people can change.” Our parshah reminds us that change is really about having our perspective shifted so that we may see the world differently.  The hope is that we recognize in ourselves not only these significant moments when they happen, but the potential for them to occur at all.

Because I Knew You – Parshat Vayishlach 5775

In the smash Broadway musical “Wicked,” we learn an important Torah lesson from Elphaba and Glinda.  At a touching moment when they realize what they’ve learned from one another, they sing “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”  These two characters start out as rivals who  judge each other on first impressions alone.  But as the story progresses, the audience sees their relationship change.

Brothers Jacob and Esau have a history much like Elphaba and Glinda.  They begin their journey at their birth, Esau favored by one parent, Jacob by the other.  Jacob seems to win the favor of his mother easily and goes along with whatever plan she sets forth.  When this plan takes the blessing meant for Esau away from him, Esau turns on Jacob, forcing Jacob to run away.  This week’s parshah, Vayishlach, brings the brothers together again.  The last time these two were together, Esau didn’t care much for his birthright blessing until it had been given to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t care much about his brother’s right to the blessing until his brother threatened to kill him.  Now, 20 years or so later we find the brothers on a path to meet again.  Both are now married and are fathers of large clans, and both have large flocks with them.

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