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Dan Has Questions About Siblings, Role Models, and Wrestling: Parshat Vayishlach

12/08/2022 09:22:20 AM

Dec8

Dan Leemon

In the last few weeks, we've learned a lot about our forefathers and foremothers, Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, and Leah, Rachel, and Jacob. As we begin this week's Parshah, Vayishlach, Jacob is returning to his homeland with his wives, children, and many flocks and other wealth. Vayishlach means "and he sent", as Jacob has sent scouts ahead to see if Esau is still angry with him for stealing his blessing and birthright. These scouts return to tell Jacob that Esau is approaching with 400 men, which unsurprisingly causes Jacob some concern!

- If you were Jacob - coming back after 20 years and finding out your angry-when-last-seen brother, Esau, is headed your way with 400 men, what would you think? And what would you do?

Jacob does three things: First, he splits his group in half, reasoning that if Esau fights and defeats one half, the other half will get through. Secondly, he prays to God - who told him to go back home in the first place - for protection and safe passage. Thirdly, he sends lots of animals as gifts to Esau, in three groups, so Esau will receive three large gifts before he encounters Jacob. Pretty clever, our ancestor Jacob, not to rely on just one solution to the threat of Esau and his men.

Jacob then sends his family across the river, and is alone. The Torah says that Jacob wrestled with a man all night long, until the man realized he could not defeat Jacob - true to form, thinking about what he might get out of this - says "not until you have blessed me." And the man - whom Jacob believes is an angel sent by God - gives Jacob a new name, Yisrael (Israel), which means "wrestler with God." We Jews call ourselves the people of Israel to this day.

- What other names do we call ourselves - and what other names might we reasonably call ourselves? How might you fill in these blanks when thinking about our people, besides "wrestlers with God" or " the people of Israel"? How many ways could you fill in the blanks "___ with God" or "the people of ___" when referring to the Jews?

- Of all the possible names - the people of the Torah, believers in God, whatever else you thought of - why do you think the name "Israel" (wrestler with God) has stuck over thousands of years?

Esau finally reaches Jacob and runs toward him. But instead of fighting or being angry, Esau hugs and kisses Jacob, and meets Jacob's large family. He refuses Jacob's gifts, saying he has all he needs, but Jacob insists that he accepts them.

- The Torah doesn't explain why or how Esau has gotten over his anger. Why do you think he did?

God appears to Jacob, repeating the blessing of Abraham and Isaac - that the land promised to Abraham and Isaac will now be Jacob's, and that Jacob's descendants will be many, and become a great people. And God makes Jacob's name change official, telling him he will be called Israel from now on. 

- Even God seems to think that "wrestler with God" is a suitable name for Jacob. How many ways can you think of that the Jews so far - Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel - have "wrestled with God", questioning God or questioning tradition?

Rachel then dies - in childbirth, giving birth to Benjamin, Jacob's 12th son and 13th child. In last week's Parshah, we learned that Jacob fell in love with Rachel the moment he first saw her, and the Torah says that the years he worked to gain permission to marry her passed like seconds to him. So Rachel's death is a particularly big loss to Jacob, and her sons, Joseph and Benjamin, are particularly important to him.

Jacob returns to Isaac, who dies soon thereafter and is buried by Esau and Jacob together. So it seems the family has ultimately reached some peace after all.

Let's take a minute to reflect on the story of our people so far: We have Jacob trying to get what he wants and go against tradition by stealing his older brother's birthright and by wanted to marry Rachel even though she was the younger sister (the tradition was that the older sister had to marry first). We have various people (Laban, Jacob, even Rachel - who steals some of her father's possessions in last week's Parshah) not dealing with one another honestly or, like Leah, not feeling loved and respected. We have siblings not getting along (Jacob and Esau, Leah and Rachel, Ishmael and Isaac). All this happens after Abraham has argued with God about Sodom and Gomorrah but seemingly agreed to sacrifice Isaac; after Sarah has insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out of the household; after Rebecca helps Jacob cheat Esau out of the first-born blessing and Jacob buys Esau's birthright for a bowl of stew. We also learn about their good qualities: Their willingness to believe in and honor God; Abraham and Sarah's hospitality to strangers and protection of Lot and other relatives; Rebecca's kindness in providing water to Abraham's servant's camels and the warmth she brought to Isaac's home; Isaac and Rebecca falling in love after their marriage was arranged for them; Jacob falling in love with Rachel and being willing to work hard to marry her. And we are told they are all blessed by God. This is our history and these are our ancestors.

- Why do you think these stories present the conflicts that our ancestors had, and the struggles they went through?

- Why not portray our ancestors as near perfect people full of love and kindness. with happy and carefree lives?

- Would you rather have ancestors who were always good? Would they be better role models?

- What have you learned form these stories of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel? Why is "Wrestler with God" an appropriate name for us?

Someone once said, "history is only as valuable as what we learn from it." With much to learn, think about, and wrestle with, I wish you Shabbat Shalom.

Dan

Sat, February 4 2023 13 Shevat 5783