In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, which literally means “and he sent,” we learn that Jacob has “sent” for Esau, allegedly because he wants to reconcile for tricking him out of his birthright. We recall from last week’s parsha, Vayeitzei, that Jacob worked for Laban a total of 14 years in exchange for his beloved Rachel’s hand in marriage. Jacob wants to give Esau a portion of the rich array of cattle and livestock he had received from Laban as a peace offering.
Jacob is terrified to learn from the messenger that Esau is on his way with an army of 400+ solders. Not knowing what to do, Jacob “sleeps on it,” praying fervently to God to save him from Esau’s wrath. Also during that fitful night of sleep, we learn that Jacob participates in a wrestling match with an “ish” or “angel,” who possibly could be God, or Esau. Jacob prevails and thus receives a new name, Israel, which means “to wrestle with God.” Israel holds the same meaning today, both for our Jewish homeland and for us as Jews, as we are encouraged to always “wrestle” with our faith, texts, and all elements of our Jewish life.
When Esau and his army arrive, a cowardly Jacob sadly places the women and children in the front lines of danger, then Leah and her children, and at the very back, safer from danger, are Rachel and Joseph. Because we are supposed to “wrestle with God” and our faith, I feel free to opine that I find Jacob’s selfishness and favoritism to be utterly disgusting, almost making me ashamed to call him one of my forefathers. Sadly, some of us within our Jewish tribe have not learned from this, as we need to look no further then to the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem. When my family and I were in Israel last summer I met some of the first-year students of Hebrew Union College. They had just come back from an experience at Women of the Wall, where they went to pray and read Torah on Thursdays. Sadly, they shared that the Ultra-Orthodox women (Haredim) literally threw their children on them, that they instructed their children to hit, accost, and beat those praying in the Egalitarian side (where my future colleagues weres). They showed me their nasty bruises and scrapes from these small children. Why? How could this happen, one might ask? Simply because they were praying at the Western Wall—a place in which the Ultra-Orthodox believe to be only reserved for men. Why were these children, because of their status, of so little value to Jacob that he would put them on the front lines? One can ask the same question of these Haredi women. Why would they put their children at risk like this? Why would they teach their young children to hatefully accost people of their own faith?
In the end, Esau took the high road. When he saw Jacob, he embraced him, as if nothing had happened, truly letting bygones be bygones. Even when guilty Jacob offered his brother not just a portion, but everything he had-livestock, cattle, all of the fruits he had gained from Laban-Esau turned it down, being content with his own portion. What we see so clearly here is that Esau is the bigger of the two brothers. He totally has forgiven Jacob, even though Jacob stole everything that mattered to him when they were young. And even before their meeting, Jacob showed cruelty by putting Leah and her children on the front lines of what he thought would be a great war between he and his brother.
Why? Why was Esau given no kavod, not only in the Bible, but also in our religion today? My colleague tells me it is because we are descendants of him. For me, I would rather be a descendant of Esau.
Perhaps this is why we are Israel…to wrestle with God…perhaps the Bible was allowed to be codified this way so that we could actually be angry at things like this and try to do better than our forefathers and mothers. I pray you will never be afraid to ask these kinds of difficult questions and that as you wrestle with God, you will go from Strength to Strength.
And please enjoy these Chanukah musical resources for your family. They can also be found on our temple Music page.