Monument To You – Parshat Vayishlach 5782

In my work as a rabbi I often have the honor of assisting families as they create the grave marker for their loved ones. In case you’re wondering, this is not something that’s taught in rabbinical school. This is an act that is unique to each family and, understandably, holds a lot of emotion. The creation of a marker stone is a finality in the process of loss and grief. Granite is final, the carving doesn’t change over time. This is the stone you’ll see every time you visit the cemetery.

These stones, though brief in their wording, often tell a story. We use descriptions both of character and relationships. Does the family prefer “beloved” or “loving”? How about “cherished”? Should we be generic in relationships and just say father, son, brother, grandfather? Or, should we use our personal terms of endearment like “Daddy” or “Zayde” or “Papa”? And what color should the marker be? Does it matter if the font is different from the other family members nearby or next to them? Should we put an image on it? Is it better to keep it simple? These are just a few of the many questions that go into the process of choosing this final marker for loved ones. It makes sense that there would be so many questions. After all, we get one shot to do this, and the honor and memory of our loved one is at stake. 

As we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Jews have been traditionally marking the resting places of family members since the time of the Torah. As an overview, our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayishlach, reminds us of what it might be like to live fully as yourself, even as the world around you is changing. Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau after their fallout and struggles in his dream with the angel who changes Jacob’s name to Israel. The brothers meet and part in peace, and the story continues with the birth of more sons to Jacob and the different ways in which his children misbehave. 

In the middle of this section of text, Rachel dies in childbirth, and the Torah magnificently moves from death to life in the course of about three verses. Benjamin is born, but Rachel doesn’t survive, and as the clan is on the road, Rachel is buried along the way. In chapter 35, verse 20 we read, “Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. Israel journeyed on.” A simple, yet stunning tale of the burial of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved.

The Torah goes back and forth between calling Jacob by this name and using Israel, the one who wrestles with God. Interestingly, he is called both at the passing of his beloved wife. In this moment he is both the little boy who is born holding on to his brother, and the grown man wrestling with the reality of the world. It is somewhere between these roles where he sets the grave marker for his wife. 

Our markers are eternal, no matter how fleeting life is, and our portion suggests that this marker is one that is on her grave to this day. While we don’t read about the inscription upon the stone, we understand that Jacob knew that it was intended to forever symbolize his love for his wife.

Parshat Vayishlach is a reminder that there’s little that’s truly permanent, but establishing a permanent marker to know from where we’ve come and from who we’ve come is an essential part of our journey. The marker for Rachel happens in a blip in the Torah, just one verse. They didn’t agonize over the words, the color, the placement. Instead, the focus is on her legacy and the children who became leaders in our tradition. May we learn from Jacob how to both mark a moment and move forward, and may we do that knowing that while stone might last forever, our stories can outlast even the stone. 

Grudge Match – Parshat Vayishlach 5781

I admit I can be a grudge holder. Holding grudges requires so much mental and physical energy, and yet I just can’t let it go sometimes. My memory tends to hold on to incidents and moments like glue, so it becomes very difficult to forget something that has happened in the past, especially when it upsets me. 

If there’s one thing that the countless viewings of the animated Disney movie Frozen have taught me, it’s to let it go. If you’re not blessed with the same intimate understanding of the film, the song “Let It Go” is the Oscar Award-winning turning point musical number, when Queen Elsa leaves home, now free of the secret that she kept hidden away for so long.

The song isn’t strictly about letting go of a grudge. It’s more about letting go of fear. But the lyrics still speak to me when I think about unburdening myself of whatever is weighing me down, whether it’s anger, fear, or insecurity. The lyrics also remind me of our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayishlach. I recommend that you find a clip of the movie to listen to as you follow along:

Let it go, let it go
Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free

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. 

What I find most remarkable about this moment of reconciliation is that apparently both Jacob and Esau have decided to let bygones be bygones. They don’t bring up their rocky past or ask for any sort of closure. They are simply able to embrace one another as siblings, and let it go. 

To truly “let it go,” as in Jacob and Esau’s example, is not easy, but not impossible. It takes acceptance, it takes love, and it takes two people.

Worst Case Scenario – Parshat Vayishlach 5780

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I have a terrible habit of always imagining the worst possible scenario in any instance. When Matan was a baby and I constantly had to get him in and out of the car, I’d envision myself tripping on the stairs and taking a tumble with him in my arms. And whenever the school number pops up on my caller ID, I always assume it’s because one of my kids is sick and has to come home. While my rational mind knows there’s not a lot to be gained from imagining these negative situations, other than at best an abundance of caution and at worst an ulcer, I still can’t help myself from doing this. 

Frequently, these scenarios will play out in our heads in anticipation of an event. When you’re planning a major function, you worry about the weather. When you’re pregnant, you’re concerned about going into labor somewhere not so convenient. When you’re seeing a friend for the first time in forever, you fear that you’ll have nothing to say, or the reunion will be awkward.

It’s this last version that happens in this week’s parshah, Vayishlach, which again shows the 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. 

As Jacob is preparing to meet his brother after their extended absence from each other’s lives, he is running through all of the worst case scenarios in his head. Chapter 32, verses 8-9 reveal that “Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, ‘If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.’”

The Hebrew words va-yira and va-yeitser literally mean “he was frightened and upset.” According to Genesis Rabbah, that means that Jacob both feared that he and his family might be harmed and was upset that he might harm his brother in self-defense. Either way you look at it, Jacob was living in the world of worst case scenarios.

But in reality, Jacob took his fear and anxiety and put them into action, making a rational plan for protection and acknowledging how he was really feeling. That way he actually stood a chance at stopping some negative behavior from occurring. Worst case scenarios might just mean your subconscious is trying to remind you to be careful or change your attitude or look at a situation differently. Rational or not, just as Jacob did, we can still learn from the lessons our emotions have to teach us.

True to Myself – Parshat Vayishlach 5779

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A while back someone asked me what I like to do with my free time, and it took me a second to come up with an answer that was simply about me. Before having kids, I loved going on long walks, cooking, reading a book (often in just a day), learning, and going to movies. Since having kids, I’ve read three books in five years, I rarely cook something other than the necessary dinner cooking, and I can count on one hand the number of movies I’ve seen in a theater since Shiri was born. And I don’t remember the last time I stayed awake through a movie at home. About the only thing I still do for me alone anymore is long walks. Those are essential.

When the world around us gets busy, and life starts to consume us, sometimes we have to let go of pieces of ourselves in order to continue growing. Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Vayishlach, reminds us of what it might be like to live fully as yourself, even as the world around you is changing. Jacob is preparing to meet his brother Esau after their fallout and struggles in his dream with the angel who changes his name to Israel. The brothers meet and part in peace, and the story continues with the birth of more sons to Jacob and the different ways in which his children misbehave. But before all the fun begins, Jacob has a realization about his character while living with Laban.

In Chapter 32, verse 5 we read Jacob’s message to his brother: “To my lord Esau, thus says your servant Jacob: I stayed with Laban and remained until now.” In Hebrew, Jacob uses the word garti, as in “I lived there.” Rashi, the great Medieval commentator, reminds us that garti is actually an anagram of taryag, the numerical value of 613 used to represent the 613 commandments in the Torah. Rashi extends this by teaching that Jacob’s words actually mean “I stayed with Laban, but maintained my integrity; I was not corrupted by him.”

There are so many ways in which our interactions in the world are influenced by those around us. From the ways in which we behave day to day to the hobbies we take on, we are influenced by our status in life, and the relationships in which we find ourselves. When we’re around people who make bad choices, we’re often more likely to do the same. But, when we surround ourselves with positive role models, we may follow suit.

What can be difficult is choosing to do the right thing, even when depravity seems to surround us. As Hillel teaches in Pirkei Avot, “In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” May we all be like Jacob, hold true to ourselves, our values, our core beliefs, and may we help others to shine out in the world around us.

Aluminum or Glass – Parshat Vayishlach 5778

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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.