Shhh! This recipe for forgiveness is a family secret, and it pairs really well with Vayishlach. (Yes, this too is Torah.)
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.
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.