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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Breaking Up – Parshat Vayishlach 5774

Cartoons have a clever way of symbolizing the two inclinations that each of us has within us.  They place the tiny image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other.  Our rabbis refer to this as the yetzer hatov, the inclination to dogood, and the yetzer harah, theinclination to do evil.  These are considered the primary forces that tug on our consciences each time we are faced with a decision.  Of course,there’s a whole spectrum of emotions that influence our decisions.

Weare lifelong decision makers.  Adam andChavah, the first people in Gan Eden,were faced with decisions.  Chavah had asnake pushing her to make a bad choice, and she chose to eat the fruit of thetree.  Abraham, the first monotheist, isfaced with many decisions, from the choice to listen to God and go to a newland, to deciding between his two wives and sons as Sarah, Hagar, Isaac andIshmael can no longer live together. Esau, Jacob’s older brother, also has to choose between doing what isright and what feels good at the time when he sells his birthright.  Each of these biblical figures has been tornbetween right and wrong, between pleasure and pain.

This week, parshat Vayishlach shows us that Jacob is no different.  Jacob ispreparing to see his brother for the first time since he was forced to run awayafter receiving the blessing of the first born. The imagery leading up to this meeting shows us Jacob torn betweenextremes both physically and mentally. And Jacob must choose between listening to his mother, lying to hisfather, and receiving the blessing as an imposter or holding true to what isright, not deceiving his father, and risk being history’s first son todisappoint his mother.  In this week’s parshah, Jacob is again torn between hisphysical needs and the subconscious fight he has with God as his hip socket iswrenched.  Then finally, we see Jacobhaving to divide his family in preparation for meeting his brother.

Afterhis godly encounter, Jacob’s name is changed to Yisrael, “he who wrestles with God.”  This wrestling is different from thedivisions and fighting we have seen prior with Jacob.  In this part of the text, Jacob makesdecisions not based on his own gain or loss, but based on what will betterserve his entire family.  Jacob is nolonger forced to divide himself between doing what his mother asks and doingwhat he feels is right.  Instead, hemakes his decisions based on what will bring him the most completion.  As he moves his family into two separatecamps, he does this not to save one over the other but to protect themboth.

Decision making can often leave us feeling torn, with thegood inclination on one shoulder and the evil intent on the other.  Our parshah teaches us that while it can be difficult to do the right thing, the wrestling that comes with making the decision is what helps keep us balanced and focused on being true to ourselves.

Too Little, Too Late – Parshat Vayishlach 5773

The saying goes “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”  And it’s often at the moment when you feel like you might lose someone or something that the most effort is put in to save the situation.  In romance movies the guy only realizes how much he loves the girl when she’s walked away and is almost completely out of his life.  In a trial a defendant might push a plea agreement to the back of his mind until he realizes what the punishment might and fights to get the better deal.  Whatever the circumstances, we often don’t see the good in a situation until we’ve had something happen that gives us a new perspective.
As we read the narrative of the lives of our patriarchs, it becomes clear that learning from their past mistakes helps them to put into perspective what life is all about.  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. 
Jacob and Esau’s meeting is filled with pleasantries and what feels like a forced benevolence between them.  They offer each other gift after gift.  “You take my flocks, brother,” one says.  “I couldn’t possibly do that,” the other responds, “God has given me too much, you take from me.”  While these pleasantries may seem somewhat insincere, they are signs the brothers have changed.  Jacob is the most convincing by alluding to the incident with the messenger of God that took place immediately prior to this meeting.  He says, “No, I pray you; if you would do me this favor, accept from me this gift; because to see your face, I have seen the face of God and you have received me favorably.  Please accept my blessing which has been brought to you, for God has favored me and I have plenty.” 
In this statement to his brother, Jacob sees that he has an opportunity to prove himself as a changed individual.  He remarks that he has seen God’s face and knows that he is a changed person.  No longer can he go around acting as though he himself didn’t do anything wrong, now he must acknowledge his actions and convince Esau that he has changed.  One commentator reads this verse as Jacob proclaiming to Esau and the world that he has learned to see his brother not as an intimidating rival, but as a person fashioned in God’s image.  Furthermore, Jacob extends a blessing to his brother: Take my blessing now because I stole a blessing from you years ago out of jealousy.  Please now, take a blessing from me.  At this, Esau accepts Jacob’s offer, and they move forward.
Since the brothers are now family men, they both seem to have an understanding of the importance of forgiveness and friendship.  Jacob’s act could have been “too little too late” had Esau not understood that his brother was truly a changed man.  And Jacob might have approached his brother with force or terror had he not had a life experience that allowed him to see others as holy beings.  
What is remarkable about this narrative is that each brother was willing to give the other a second chance.  Too often we close ourselves down when someone has deceived us or hurt us.  It’s easy to say that efforts to reconcile are “too little too late,” and much more difficult to forgive and keep an open mind.  Reading this narrative teaches us that even in situations that we might think can never be fixed, we would be well served if we kept our minds and hearts open to the possibility of change and forgiveness.   As we enter into the darker, colder period of the year, may we be blessed with warm hearts and acceptance of those who have changed for the better. 
THIS TOO IS TORAH: Brothers Jacob and Esau have a history much like the characters Elphaba and Glinda from Wicked.  We learn an important Torah lesson from the two witches.  These two characters start out at bitter odds with one another, giving each other the evil eye, ignoring one another, not giving the benefit of the doubt that either one is genuine.  But as the story progresses, the viewer sees their relationship change.  At a touching moment when they realize what their relationship has meant to them, they sing, “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”  A relationship like this is rare, as too often we find ourselves holding back the benefit of the doubt and standing in our own, biased vision of reality.

The Worst-Case Scenario Torah Survival Handbook – Parshat Vayishlach 5772

I find it a bit humorous when someone asks “What’s the worst that could happen?”  Usually this phrase comes up when you’re about to take a risk or decide to do something you’re unsure of.  It’s meant to sound comforting, the encouragement to move forward and take the risk, and yet when you stop to think about it, there are plenty of worst case scenarios that aren’t comforting at all.  In life, when we’re faced with a challenge, a decision to make, when we need to face our past or an uncomfortable situation, we often prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
This week we read parshat Vayishlach, the continuing narrative of Jacob’s life.  The text tells us of Jacob’s preparation to meet with his brother Esau, the dream he has that changes his name to “Israel,” and Jacob’s move to Shechem where his family encounters drama and finally the death of Isaac, Jacob and Esau’s father.  We read about the death of Rachel and the birth of Benjamin.  While the text is filled with decisions and reminders of life’s ups and downs, the text begins with Jacob considering his own worst case scenario.
If you recall, Jacob was forced to flee from his home after his mother Rebekah conspired with him to get the birthright that belonged to his older brother, Esau.  Jacob runs to the wilderness, where he has vivid dreams of angels on ladders and a few additional epiphanies as he tries to figure out what to do with his life.  Parshat Vayishlach begins with the reunion of Jacob and Esau after this long absence.  Jacob, trying to figure out how this meeting will play out, sends messengers ahead to his brother to test the waters.  The messengers tell Esau about Jacob’s wealth and request for peace; they return sharing news that Esau himself will come to meet Jacob.  You can imagine at this moment Jacob has a million different scenarios running through his head, and hearing his messengers share that Esau has 400 men with him was probably not reassuring.  Jacob reacts by separating out his camps; he splits his family on opposite sides of the river, a clear sign that he expects the worst from this encounter. 
It is in this moment of fear and dread that we see a significant change in Jacob.  The last time he was scared, he turned to pray to God, but his prayer was like a bargain.  God, if you do this for me, I will setup an altar to praise you.  This time, Jacob’s prayer changes.  He prays for safety and security rather than making a bargain with God because he realizes that he has nothing to offer.  Instead, Jacob reminds God of the promise to protect him, to bless him with many children, wealth and love.  Jacob knows that trust in God means understanding that God’s promise will not be fulfilled if Esau kills him. 
As it turns out, all of his imagining a worst case scenario was merely a mental exercise because when Jacob and Esau are reunited, they embrace and cry.  Often, thinking of the worst case scenario gets us all riled up to expect the worst, so we are not able to be clear headed and hope for the best.  This week, Jacob not only shows us how his prayers have matured, but how he’s able to confront his fears. 
Being prepared for a potentially bad situation is a helpful defense, but being able to give something – or someone – the benefit of the doubt is equally as important.  We have to remember not to let our imaginations run away with us.  If we prepare for the possibilities, but still expect the best in people, we might be surprised. 
ללמוד  To Learn: ללמד  To Teach: לשמור  To Keep:  לעשות  To Do:   As we read this week’s parshah, we see that Esau is willing to change.  He takes a step back from his anger, from his rage against his brother from their childhood and embraces his own flesh and blood with warmth.  Often in our lives we hold on to the negative and forget to embrace change.  Later we see Joseph forgive his brothers for an even worse transgression.  We learn the power of forgiveness from these role models.  As we approach the end of the year, start to talk as a family about letting go and moving forward.