Parashat Vayishlach: Searching for the Vanished Jacob

This is the sermon that I delivered this Shabbat at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem. It was my first of the year, and my first official d’var torah at Rabbinical School.

“Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽”

Thirteen years ago, late in the afternoon of a cool autumn day, I was waiting at a bus stop with a friend. A large group of teenagers approached us, asking if they could borrow some money. All that was in my pocket was an empty wallet and bus tickets. I said I didn’t have any cash. “Don’t you see how many of us there are, and there’s only two of you‽” Within seconds, my friend was on the ground, being kicked and beaten, and I was running for help from nearby strangers.

In the aftermath, there were some who thought it unbelievable that I ran, instead of staying to defend my friend. At times, I had my own guilt about the situation. But I was reassured that my reaction was the normal, human response to the situation, and very well could have saved us from more harm.

In 1932, Walter Bradford Cannon, an American Physiologist, coined the term “fight or flight response,” to describe the physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived harmful events or threats to survival. This is our body’s way of protecting us when it senses danger. We give ourselves over to something more powerful than our consciousness to hopefully emerge safely.

This Shabbat, we read: “לו וַיֵּצֶר ,מְאֹד יַעֲקֹב וַיִּירָא – Jacob was greatly frightened and anxious”[1] and “לְבַדּו יַעֲקֹב וַיִּוָּתֵר – And Jacob was alone.”[2]

Confronted with an approaching force of 400 men sent by Esau who had vowed to kill him,[3] what does Jacob do? He splits his camp in two to protect his family,[4] sends envoys to Esau,[5] and prays to God for protection.[6] He doesn’t flee, nor does he prepare to fight. Perhaps, Jacob isn’t the wisest person.

We can forgive Jacob for not being familiar with the body’s Autonomic Nervous System, but how are we to understand his reaction to his fear and loneliness? This isn’t just a frightening situation that confronts Jacob; it is a dilemma of existential proportions. And there is a significant difference between fear and existential dread. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches:

A [moral] dilemma is not simply a conflict. There are many moral conflicts. [But] these questions have answers. There is a right course of action and a wrong one… A dilemma, however, is a situation in which there is no right answer… A moral system which leaves room for the existence of dilemmas is one that does not attempt to eliminate the complexities of the moral life… Judaism recognises the existence of dilemmas… we may be faced with situations in which there is an ineliminable cause for distress.[7]

Certainly, there are moral complexities confronting Jacob. He is faced with a potentially violent standoff against Esau, yet he wants to reconcile and make peace with his brother. Rashi teaches that the Torah says Jacob was both frightened and anxious to evoke the dread that Jacob must be feeling: frightened that he might be killed, and anxious that he might have to kill others.[8] Rabbi Jacob bar Idi, an Amoraic sage, elucidates this dilemma, noting that in his stunning vision of the ladder, Jacob was promised by God that his offspring would be as numerous as the dust of the earth and the sand in the sea,[9] but now he faces potential death and the destruction of that promise.[10]

How does Jacob reconcile this existential dilemma?

We read that as part of Jacob’s peace overtures, he sends messengers to Esau with messages of reconciliation. But the Torah’s word for messengers – מלאכים – may also be read as “angels”. The Rambam suggests that as angels are non-corporeal beings, they can be understood more broadly to refer to other non-corporeal phenomena, such as human intelligence and intellect.[11] The very name of this parasha, וישלח (and he dispatched / and he sent out), conveys the idea that when assessing and dealing with a potentially life-altering challenge, we must dispatch our own “non-corporeal” beings – such as intelligence and intellect.

Defying an instinctual fight or flight reaction, Jacob hatches an ingenious plan. Hopeful that peace will be reached, he is also pragmatic and protects his family – and through them, the realization of God’s promise. Jacob’s actions are a model of how to avoid reactionary extremism, and use our intellect to overcome existential dilemmas.

We know that Jacob’s life is one of great struggle. Many look up to him as a leader and father, but he is a complex man who spends much of his life searching for things seemingly out of his grasp. To be sure, struggle is something that is baked into Jacob’s essence from his time in Rebecca’s womb. He physically struggles with his brother even before they are born. He struggles for a birthright. For his father’s love. For a wife. With an angel of God. He struggles for his distant son. Jacob is not a comfortable man.

Rabbi Levi Lauer, Director of the Israeli human rights organization, Atzum, teaches us that in fact, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.”[12] While too much fear, struggle, and discomfort may be debilitating, these can also be forces of good when they keep us safe, when they expand our horizons, and when they open the doors to new journeys, as in Jacob’s story.

Jacob’s story is not the first in the Tanakh of a volatile, discomforting conflict between brothers. Nor is it the last. But his is one which offers a compelling vision of how to reconcile an existential dilemma of two competing truths. When the lines between good and evil are not black and white, Jacob forges a pragmatic, centrist path that avoids both idealistic naiveté as well as a hard-line, extremist reaction. His is a solution that results in life renewed.

We should know that this centrist approach has deep roots in Jewish spirituality. The kabbalistic teaching of tikkun olam is not merely a social-justice, “feel good” philosophy. It is an expansive cosmology, which teaches that at the beginning of creation, the world was in a spiritual state of chaos, called Tohu. This state of existence was full of Divine light and energy, but lacked balance and order, and ultimately collapsed in on itself in a cosmic shattering. But this collapse was part of a Divine order so that our universe could be rebuilt through humanity’s fixing of this shattering – through tikkun.

Rabbi Yanki Tauber teaches that “the Kabbalists see Jacob and Esau as the embodiment of this cosmic twinship.[13] Esau is the chaotic energy of Tohu, while Jacob represents the opportunity for tikkun. The challenge is to bring together these twins and the forces they represent. As Rabbi Tauber argues:

The struggle to achieve this synergy is the life-history of the biblical twins, and the essence of human history as a whole. Esau and Jacob emerge from the same womb (where they were already fighting), and the rest of their lives is defined by the effort to bring them back together.

The quest to unite Esau’s Tohu and Jacob’s tikkun continues today. On a daily basis, we are confronted with realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, this is a struggle based on an almost familial relationship. Israel – like Jacob – is faced with two competing truths. One the one hand, we long to heed the Psalmist’s call: “ורדפהו שלום בּקש” – seek peace and pursue it,[14] yet at the same time, Israel cannot be naïve about the threatening realities of life in this neighbourhood.

Can we turn to Jacob, the primordial political centrist, for some wisdom? Yossi Klein Halevi makes the case for such a paradigm. In a recent article, he writes:

I am looking for the vanished Israel. To be an Israeli is not like being a centrist in any other political context. There is nothing wishy-washy about being an Israeli centrist. An Israeli centrist embraces two strong, diametrically opposed conclusions about the Palestinian problem. One is that a Palestinian state is an existential need for Israel, and the other is that a Palestinian state is an existential threat for Israel. That’s what it means to be an Israeli centrist… I see the emergence of a political center as an expression of Israeli maturity.”[15]

Klein Halevi’s moral charge is made all the more powerful when we read it keeping in mind Jacob’s other name. Klein Halevi isn’t just looking for the vanished Israel; he’s looking for the vanished Jacob, searching for a solution to a moral dilemma that stretches back thousands of years into the womb of our history as two peoples. Just as Jacob matured through his pragmatic, centrist approach to reconciling with Esau, Israel must mature through a similar paradigm.

There is a Chassidic teaching that Jacob’s name change to Israel marked this point of maturation from a childhood of struggle and strife to a more harmonious realization of his relationship with God. But this is also a mystery: even after he is named Israel, Jacob continues to be Jacob. The Torah continues to use his old name throughout the rest of his life.[16]

Leonard Fine, the preeminent MIT, Harvard and Brandeis professor, and profound Reform thinker, questions this peculiarity in the text: “How is it that Jacob, who is twice told that his name has been changed to ‘Israel,’ continues to be remembered in our liturgy by his former name?[17]

It is a simple truth, yet often forgotten: when we pray the Amidah, we refer to “Elohei Ya’akov,” not “Elohei Yisrael.” I believe this seeming inconsistency recognizes the profound truth that Jacob continues to struggle and wrestle, even after he is transformed into Israel.

This remains true for us in our day, as well. As residents of Jerusalem, we don’t have to search far for cases where it appears that Israel has forgotten itself and is acting like the old Jacob. But can we look inward as well, and see the same struggle in ourselves? Certainly, Jacob did. HUC Professor Norman Cohen suggests that Jacob “was conscious of all the different forces in his life with which he struggled: God, Esau, the side of himself that haunted him like a shadow,” and that these forces manifest together as the being with whom he wrestled.[18]

So let us learn from Jacob – from Israel – someone with whom we can identify. Someone whom, as Rabbi Sacks notes: “…we understand. We can feel his fear, understand his pain…[19]

We are all Jacob, struggling to find the holy space between the chaos of Tohu and the reconciliation of tikkun. When Jacob himself first finds that place, the Torah says “the sun shone on him.”[20] Rashi teaches poetically that this refers to the process of healing that was beginning to take place. So may we continue to search for the vanished Jacob, for his healing, and for the holy space between Tohu and tikkun.

[1] Gen. 32:8
[2] Gen. 32:25
[3] Gen. 32:7
[4] Gen. 32:8-9
[5] Gen. 32:14-22
[6] Gen. 32-12
[8] Based on Gen. R. 76:2
[9] Gen. 28: 14-15, 32:13
[10] BT Berakhot: 41
[11] Maimonides, Moses: Guide to the Perplexed (2:10)
[12] As quoted by Rabbi Avi Orlow:
[14] Ps. 34:15
[18] Cohen, Norman J.: Voices from Genesis. Vermont: Jewish Lights, 1998. Pp 125.
[20] Gen. 32:32

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