This week’s sedra, Vayishlach, would make an exciting film. It has everything: from death, violence, abduction and revenge, to the supernatural and even family discord.
It tells the story of Jacob’s and Esau’s reunion. After many years of separation, Jacob hears that his brother is on his way to meet him with an army of four hundred men. So, he decides to do three things. 1. He divides his camp into two separate group. 2. He prays to G-d for help. 3. He sends servants to deliver gifts to Esau.
That night he is attacked by a mysterious stranger, who he fights. He refuses to let the stranger go until he is given a blessing. Instead, the stranger gives Jacob a new name – Israel, which means “someone who fights with G-d and with men and wins.” Our Rabbis teach us that Jacob had been re-named by an angel.
The next day the two brothers meet, and hug. Jacob had been scared they would fight but instead there is only love between them.
The sedra ends with the death of Isaac, and a list of all of the descendants of Esau.
The moment during which Jacob would confront his brother Esau after years of escape, was a key event in this sedra. For Jacob everything and everyone was at risk.
Rabbi Soloveitchik, identified two separate threats. One would emerge as the hand of Esau, the second could arise as a hand of a brother. The hand of Esau is a physical assault on Jacob and his family. The hand of a brother, however, is a cultural threat, in which Esau invites him to adopt his lifestyle.
Esau greeted Jacob with 400 men, possibly indicating his violent intentions. But he soon abandoned this and instead encouraged Jacob to journey together as brothers, but with Jacob adopting his culture. The enemies of the Jewish people have often adopted the ‘hand of Esau’ to literally kill us. In other times, we were threatened not by bloodshed, but by assimilation.
In the 20th Century, the Jewish people endured both threats to our existence. Nazi Germany planned the complete extermination of our nation, leading to the murder of 6 million, and the Soviet Union banned all religious activity, thereby erasing Jewish identity from millions of Jews living there.
The recent generation has witnessed the consequential devastation which these twin threats have imposed. On the positive side we have also shown and continue to show our ability to endure, build and thrive.
In the words of the late Rabbi Lord Sacks, in his Covenant & Conversation: “We all have opportunities in our lives to step up and be proud to be Jews, whether in conversations, or with our external appearances, in our actions and in our choices.”
“We each need to feel proud of who we are and how we live our lives.”
In loving memory of my father, Yehoshua ben Harav Yeshiah, whose Yahrzeit is on the 21 Kislev