Thoughts on Parashat Vayishlach

This week’s Parsha, Vayishlach, Genesis 32.4 – 36.43[i] continues the narrative of Jacob’s life, travels and trials, which includes struggling with his fears of returning home and meeting with his brother Esau, followed by the rape of his and Leah’s daughter Dinah and the subsequent revenge exacted by her brothers Levi and Simeon. Next is his rededication to the God of his fathers at Beth-El where for the second time in this Parsha ADONAI proclaimed his new name – Israel. Then after recounting the death of Rachel during Benjamin’s birth and Jacob’s return to his father Isaac’s tent before Isaac’s death; the Parsha ends with a detailed listing of Esau’s genealogies, many of which would be future enemies of Jacob’s descendants.

Earlier this week, I was privileged to attend a lecture by Rabbi Reuven Hammer as he introduced his new book, Akiva: Life, Legend, and Legacy, published in 2015 by JPS. I mention this because in a class I am taking I used one of the “legends” about Akiva’s life that Rabbi spoke about. As the story goes, once Rabbi Akiva was traveling in the company of Rabban Gamaliel, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah. When they reached Mount Scopus, three of the sages rent their garments in mourning, when they arrived at the Temple Mount and saw a fox running out of the (ruined) area of the Holy of Holies, they began to weep. During this time, Rabbi Akiva laughed. Shocked and dumbfounded, the three asked Rabbi Akiva why he laughed instead of mourning and weeping. He said it was because the destruction affirmed the promises of the Holy One. Just as sure as destruction was prophesized (Jeremiah 26.18) and happened, so would the restoration (Zechariah 8.4).[ii] I thought this was a fantastic display of trusting in the promises of the LORD. A very good friend however, was no so impressed. She felt that Rabbi Akiva was out of touch with reality and was more focused on the possible future than the real and agonizing present. My friend and I both saw the same thing but our perspectives were diametrically opposed to one another.

Returning to this week’s Parsha, there are numerous perspectives on Jacob’s actions. In Genesis 32.8, after hearing the report of Esau’s approach with 400 men, “…Jacob became extremely afraid and distressed.” Most commentators speak of Jacob’s fear of his brother Esau. But Rashi indicates that this is only part of the story.[iii] Yes, Jacob was concerned for his life and that of his wives and children, but also, he was concerned for Esau’s life. The LORD had promised Jacob that He would bring him back to the land of his father in safety. If Esau stood against the plans of Adonai, Esau could very easily be killed, either by God’s hand or Jacob’s – and this distressed Jacob. Different perspective. Next, Jacob divides all he has into two, thinking that if attacked, maybe one of the two groups would survive. He then prays, reminding the LORD of his promises but this time instead trying to bargain with the LORD (cf. Genesis 28.20-21) he unashamedly admits, “I am unworthy of all the proofs of mercy and of all the dependability that you have shown to your servant” (Genesis 32.11). Gone is the trickster, what’s left is a man recognizing his need. Then Jacob spent the night wrestling with what he originally thought to be a man, though he later realized that he had wrestled with the LORD (Genesis 32.31). Finally, he prepares to approach Esau, with himself in the lead, followed by his servant wives and their children, then Leah and her children and finally the furthest from the potential danger was his favored wife and son.

Although it seems like Jacob was depending on his own plans while hoping against hope that the LORD might come through as well, it’s possible that Rav Shaul would have a different perspective. In his letter to the believers in Rome he offers numerous words of encouragement that in hindsight Jacob may well have been walking out. First,

I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think—but to use sound judgment, as God has assigned to each person a measure of faith. – Romans 12.3

While it is possible that Jacob is acting on the measure of faith God has assigned him, his acknowledgment of his unworthiness for sure sets him in agreement with this adage. Then later in the same section Rav Shaul motivates his readers,

If possible, so far as it depends on you, live in shalom with all people. – Romans 12.18

“As much as it depends on you” means anything you can do – pray, uses your own wisdom and knowledge, seek counsel and guidance from others, most anything (legal and ethical anyway) that is in your power to do, do it. This it seems is what Jacob was doing – exercising everything in his arsenal of lifetime experiences, trying to be at peace with his brother Esau.

A final encouragement from Rav Shaul, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men… (Colossians 2.23, ESV) which seems to echo King Solomon as he wrote, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your all strength, for there is no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9.10). In other words, when we, like Jacob, face a dilemma, whether of our own making or not, we should use every option in our arsenal – prayer and human wisdom and understanding to face up to the trail – knowing that ultimately the victory will be the LORD’s as His words to Israel are efficacious for us today,

“For I know the plans that I have in mind for you,” declares Adonai, “plans for shalom and not calamity—to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29.11

Sometimes, we should look at our situations as well as the way through them, from a different perspective, so that we can see the plans and the hope that the LORD has for each us.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] Gleaned from Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy. Translated from Hebrew with Introduction and Notes by Rabbi Reuven Hammer. Yale University Press, New Haven 1986. p 91

[iii] Rashi on Genesis 32.8, “And he (Jacob) became frightened – lest he be killed; and it distressed him (Jacob) were he to kill others (specifically Esau).” (Torah with Rashi’s Commentary: Bereshit by Rabbi Yisrael Isser Zvi Herczeg. Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn, 1995. p 361)

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Michael Hillel with his wife Vered and their three children, made aliyah from the US in late 80s, and in biblical fashion has, for the last 27 years, done whatever his hands have found to do. In 2013 Michael began working on a MA degree in Messianic Jewish Theology. Using the tools learned from his studies, he has been writing teaching and devotional materials from both the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. Since Messianic Judaism shares a communal context with both Judaism and Christianity, he incorporates material from both traditionally Jewish and Christian perspectives.