Investing in the Unseen

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Parashat Vayishlach, Genesis 32:4 – 36:43, is an interim conclusion of a relationship that started in the womb of Rebecca and in fact is still not really ended. However, in our Torah portion Vayishlach, we have a kind of reprieve, a period where the two brothers, Esau and Jacob, find a moment of reconciliation.

I believe that it is important for us to study this Torah portion for the very simple reason of understanding the dynamics of reconciliation between two bellicose parties. We have two brothers, twins, who didn’t start on the right foot from the very beginning of their relationship.

The text tells us:

“The children struggled together within her, and she said, ‘If it is thus, why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her: ‘Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.’” – Genesis 25:22,23 [NKJV]

Yes, two twins born by the same parents, Isaac and Rebecca. Born just seconds apart, but they started their competition and struggle in their mother’s womb.

Notice the words of the text from Genesis 25:22, “The children struggled together within her.” This text and this story might have almost made me a Calvinist, believing in predestination.

Praise the Lord that it didn’t make me a Calvinist. But, it did teach me that children are born and carry with them some of the character of their parents. Jacob is more like his father Isaac, and Esau is more like Rebecca’s side of the family.

We could blame the bitter hate and murderous intentions of Esau on the fact that Jacob sold him a bowl of soup in exchange for his inheritance. This event was a pivotal and an important event, but as the text has already told us the struggle between these two brothers actually started much earlier in the womb of Rebecca their mother.

This business deal between Esau and Jacob would not have happened if Esau wouldn’t have despised his inheritance. Here is the text and the context of this Black Friday sale:

“But Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright as of this day.’ And Esau said, ‘Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?’ Then Jacob said, ‘Swear to me as of this day.’ So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.” – Genesis 25:31–34 [NKJV]

Normally scholars condemn Jacob for this very great business deal between him and Esau his brother! I would like to first try to understand Esau in this context.

Esau is described in the book of Genesis as a person of the outdoors, a hunter, a rough character. Esau is interested in the physical, momentary, instant satisfaction of his appetites and passions. He is what in the 1960’s, when I was in college, we would have called a jock, an athlete, a person devoted to a single pursuit or interest.

From Esau’s own words we learn that he didn’t think much of tomorrow and of his future. He was living the moment. He was hungry now and at the top of his priority list was “give me food now!”

This is what Esau said to Jacob at that very moment: “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” In that moment there was no future for Esau. He is hungry, and tired, and his stomach was gurgling and he wanted to put food in his belly.

Jacob on the other hand is not thinking of the now and this moment. Jacob is considering, maybe in his subconscious and in his latent memory the struggle in Rebecca’s womb.

Maybe Jacob, in that hidden prenatal memory from the womb, remembers how Esau elbowed his way and pushed Jacob aside in order to come out first into the daylight. Jacob knows his brother well and he offers him the food in exchange for his birthright.

Contrary to Esau, Jacob was thinking of the future, of the promises that God made to Isaac their father, of the inheritance that Isaac received from his father Abraham. There is a principle that the world often uses in business: “The tangible is more secure than the intangible!” Buy something that exists physically rather than the promises of the developer or the visionary.

This principle is not always true, some of the richest men on the planet Earth started with a dream and sold that dream to also make others very wealthy. However, the first principle is much more secure. For every person who made much money buying a dream there are hundreds who paid believing in big success and ended with egg on their face.

Jacob is taking a gamble in this business. Jacob is giving something physical, a real bowl of soup, and receiving a promise an intangible inheritance that no one knows when or how or if it will actually materialize.

Now in our portion of the Torah from Genesis 32, Jacob is returning home to the land of Canaan, the land that was promised by God to Abraham his grandfather, and also the promise was repeated to Isaac his father. Jacob is not returning to the land of Canaan in the same way that he left this Promised Land.

When Jacob left the land in chapter 28 of Genesis, he was alone, full of fears, with only his backpack and his staff. He was running away from his brother’s intent to kill him after the death of Isaac. Now more than 20 years later, Jacob is returning with two wives, 12 sons and some daughters – great wealth.

However, the greatest weight on Jacob’s shoulders was not his wealth, or the number of sheep, goats and camels that he was bringing back to the land of Canaan. The greatest weight was his fear of his brother Esau.

Here in this intersection of crossing the Jordan river from east to west the memory and fears from Esau were there and were filling Jacob’s heart and mind with the same type of fear that he experienced years earlier when he left the land of Canaan. Jacob knew three things that are carnal and which are important for us to learn:

  1. The wonderful business deal that he did with Esau his brother was not considered fair and just by his brother. He made a good and fair business deal legally, but any judge in the land would have considered it taking advantage of a person at a moment when that person was weak and needy and not thinking straight. The principle that we all need to remember and put to practice is that there are things that might be legal, that you might have a solid ironclad signed and sealed contract in your hand, but they are still not fair or honest.
  2. Even though the deal with Esau was fair legally Esau didn’t think so for the following reasons:
    • Esau was experiencing a low and miserable moment in his life, he was hungry. Hunger can make people do some stupid things, like take a piece of bread without permission. Books have been written about such things.
    • This is no way to treat a brother!
    • The seed of discord and the feeling that I have been cheated by my own brother, my own flesh and blood will not be forgotten or leave you! It is the kind of feeling that will never leave you, even if you have moments of reconciliation. Moments like funerals of loved ones, and maybe weddings of your brother’s children!
    • You will always have no trust and no peace with your brother who took advantage of your weakness. What’s more is that your own mother helped your brother by cheating your old and blind father to give your blessing to your cheating brother Jacob.

Dear brothers of today in the Jewish nation and in the Arab nations around us, shouldn’t we today, after thousands of years have passed, the Jews, the sons of Jacob, and the Arabs the sons of Esau and Ishmael, not find a way to reconcile and restore our true brotherly relationship between us! Is it impossible? Couldn’t it happen?

I can honestly say that I believe that it can and ought to and should and might happen if we learn the following lessons from our Torah portion of Vayishlach.

Here is what happened when Jacob crossed the Jordan River with his family:

  1. He prepared for the worst. He took precaution, considering every possible scenario.
    • Jacob prayed to God and remembered and reminded himself in the prayer, of God’s wonderful promises and prophecies that He had promised him. This was a great encouragement to Jacob and gave him strength. This is something that we always ought to remember, God’s promises to us as His children. They are a source of strength and courage and hope on which we can rely and trust:

      “Then Jacob said, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, the Lord who said to me, “Return to your country and to your family, and I will deal well with you”: I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; for I fear him, lest he come and attack me and the mother with the children. For You said, “I will surely treat you well, and make your descendants as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”’” – Genesis 32:9-12 [NKJV]

    • He divided his camp into two halves to minimize his risk. In case one half of the camp is attacked, then second camp would have a chance to run and to survive. It is not out of mistrust in God and His promises that Jacob did this, but out of wisdom and strategy.
    • He sends messengers of peace and gifts to his brother Esau offering the hand of peace and reconciliation. By doing this there was a tacit confession that there was some irregularity in their previous relationship.
    • Jacob sends gifts to his brother, rich and expensive gifts, to show how much he respects and appreciates his brother Esau. This, in the Middle East, is a very important part of both peaceful business relationships and of the “Sulcha” (The reconciliation and peace-making experience).
    • Jacob spoke words that brothers ought to speak when there are problems between them:

      “But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. And he lifted his eyes and saw the women and children, and said, ‘Who are these with you?’ So he said, ‘The children whom God has graciously given your servant.’ Then the maidservants came near, they and their children, and bowed down. And Leah also came near with her children, and they bowed down. Afterward Joseph and Rachel came near, and they bowed down. Then Esau said, ‘What do you mean by all this company which I met?’ And he said, ‘These are to find favor in the sight of my Lord.’ But Esau said, ‘I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.’ And Jacob said, ‘No, please, if I have now found favor in your sight, then receive my present from my hand, inasmuch as I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me. Please, take my blessing that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have enough.’ So he urged him, and he took it.” – Genesis 33:4-11 [NKJV]

      • Note the first scene. Esau sees his brother Jacob and the first thing that he does is run to meet his brother and embrace him.
      • Jacob introduces his family to his brother Esau. This move is of great importance for the establishment of peaceful trust between enemies. Make yourself vulnerable before your enemies in moments of negotiation for peace. If you don’t the distrust and the fears are only going to increase.

Blood is blood and reconciliation and peace between brothers is of great importance and never impossible. But, we learn from these biblical texts that when the conflict is so bitter and so long, even making a momentary peace like between Jacob and Esau his brother there is no guarantee that the next generations will not awake the demon from the bottle and release it to not only start the enmity over and again, but make it more bitter and violent than before by repeating some of the mistakes of the past on either or both sides.

There is much more that we can learn from these texts, but I skipped and jumped over one of the fascinating events in Jacob’s return to the land, the crossing of the river Jabbok. The river Jabbok is a small tributary from the east to the Jordan River.

Jacob is coming from the Northeast, and before crossing the Jordan River with his camp, he decided to cross the Jabbok river (in other parts of the world the Jabbok would not even be called a river. It would be called a creek).

Jacob decided to take his closest family during the night and help them cross the Jabbok. He helps Leah and her children cross and next Rachel and her sons cross and he is last standing in the small river getting ready to cross the river himself before morning.

Suddenly out of nowhere a man appears in the middle of that small river:

“And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then Jacob was left alone; and a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as He wrestled with him. And He said, ‘Let Me go, for the day breaks.’ But he said, ‘I will not let You go unless You bless me!’ So He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Jacob.’” – Genesis 32:24-27 [NKJV]

This very curious event and the description of the struggle between that Man and Jacob until dawn is a source for many stories and speculations, and much of Jewish Kabbalah is occupied with this event. The most important for me right now is to stress that again in the book of Genesis we have a name change initiated and executed by a divine presence, a Man (God) who is struggling with Jacob in the waters of the Jabbok river, just before Jacob has to cross the Jordan River and have his encounter with his brother Esau.

What was the purpose of this struggle and the change of name from Jacob (which implies “second, a follower”) to Israel, someone who struggled with God and survived or succeeded? The purpose of this very interesting even, an event that many books have been written about it, in my opinion is not so complicated.

Jacob the man who is described earlier, as sitting in his tent and contemplating, is now a man who has struggled with God and was not defeated. A man who’s seed will carry the Abrahamic promises all the way unto the end of this Earth, and the ushering in of the New Heaven and the New Earth. The recreation of the world without sin, without illness, and with eternal peace.

As we pray several times each day:

“The One who makes Peace in the Heavens, He will make peace upon us and upon all of Israel! And we say ‘Amen!’”

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.