Parashat Vayishlach

Sermon Sinai Synagogue
Parashat Vayishlach
Esther Hugenholtz

Overcoming Our Fears

Like many of the Torah’s characters, Jacob invites feelings of ambivalence on part of the reader. On the one hand, we feel a certain warmth and reference towards him – he is one of our patriarchs, after all.
On the other hand, Jacob elicits a less charitable response as well. He is a perennial trickster, a conman, a thief of birthrights and a breaker of women’s hearts. Does he do justly, we are left to wonder. He dupes his ‘all brawn-but-very-little brain’ brother Esau out of his birthright. Then his uncle Laban tricks Jacob in return. Swapping Leah for his beloved Rachel at his wedding, demanding an extra seven years’ hard labour. Jacob does gets his own back. He in turn swindles Laban. Meanwhile, his wives vie for his attention and clamour for his love. Just as Jacob and Laban have a stand-off through the amount of livestock they can produce, Leah and Rachel, with the help of mandrakes and handmaids engage in a fierce breeding competition of their own.

In short, the Jacob narrative is blighted by avarice and jealousy, pettiness and deception, passive aggression and greed. None of the protagonists involved manage to hold onto higher moral ground. All are less-than-perfect human beings, driven on in search for recognition and validation. The Torah almost seems to warn us: the family unit is not always the safest place to be. Families can be battlefields, cruel and treacherous lands.

Of course, we can explore the dysfunctional dynamics further. We only need to skip back one generation back to the troubling relationships between Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar. There is plenty in the narratives of B’reishit to be ambivalent about.

And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) the pain, conflicts and struggles, there is an emotional depth to be found as well. It is easy to dwell on the theme of conflict. After all, conflict reigns supreme and is externalised further when Jacob wrestles the anonymous angel on the bank of the River Jabbok. But what about if we see this parashah in light of overcoming fear?

The pivotal moment, after all, is when Jacob stops running away from what he fears most: the confrontation with his alienated brother. When Jacob is presented with the reality of being reunited with his twin, he is afraid. The Torah states:

“Vayira Ya’acov me’od va’yetzer lo’ – ‘And Jacob became very afraid and was distressed...’ (Gen. 32:8).

A bit further on, the text elaborates his fears as he prays:

“Hatzileini na meyad achi meyad Esav ki yare ani oto” – ‘Now deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau for I am afraid of him...’ (Gen. 32:12)

It is not hard to imagine what Jacob fears. He fears vengeange and reprisal, he fears inviting violence at the hand of his strong, warrior sibling in retribution of the hurt he caused Esau all those years ago.

What is remarkable is not that Jacob is afraid. On the contrary; it is very unremarkable – and therein lies the key. It is entirely understandable because we would be equally afraid in his position. What is remarkable, however, is how Jacob’s fear transforms him. He could respond in two ways, flight or fight. He could easily retreat into his own emotions, flee the scene, run away, give up on the project of reconciliation. Or he could overcompensate his fears through the age-old strategy of the attack being the best defence. He could choose to attack his brother and his tribe. He could try and hurt him yet again.

But Jacob uses his fear to transform himself.

The Midrash in both Genesis Rabbah and Tanchuma comment on Jacob’s fear and break it down into two components. He was afraid that he would get killed. This clearly is a knee-jerk response of Jacob’s reptilian brain, a logical but amoral conclusion geared towards self-preservation. But interestingly, Jacob’s fear becomes a launching pad for a broader concern. He is equally distressed that he may be killed himself.

Out of Jacob’s darkest night of the soul emerges his first noble sentiment.
This is a man who has always taken, so to say, good care of himself. He is not a violent man; a dweller of tents. But that does not make him wholly good. He has made sure to turn every opportunity to his advantage, through sleight of hand and powers of persuasion. Has Jacob ever looked out for anyone else?
In his fear, then, lies his first selfless act. And so when he prays to the Eternal, he prays on behalf of his brother. ‘Achi’, he says, ‘my brother’. It is superfluous, really. The text could merely have said ‘meyad Esav’, [deliver me from] Esau’. It is his fear that prompts Jacob to reach out and restore a broken relationship, to think of the other, rather than himself. In true Buberian fashion, this is when Esau stops being an ‘It’ but becomes truly ‘Thou’, the wholly humanised Other. For the first time, perhaps, Jacob saw Esau for who he was. Not a brawny fool to deceive nor a wild warrior to run from, but his long lost twin.

It is then that he is given the strength to wrestle the angel – identified by some Midrashim as Esau’s guardian angel – and to seek the angel’s blessing.

Jacob is transformed. And through this, he becomes Israel. And Israel is redeemed.

Is it any wonder that this transformation takes place at a riverbank, a silver ribbon cutting yet binding one liminal moment to another? It is often at borders and boundaries, at the edges of the sea and world that we become changed and better.

Israel’s secret was not his trickery. But rather that he stopped tricking. Not only others, but more importantly, himself. He looked himself hard in the eye and found compassion for others. May we pray that our fears – as dark and debilitating as they can seem – can lead to goodness and healing. Among the brokenness of the relationships of our lives, we can all face our fears, wrestle them to the ground and meet goodness and love all the days of our lives.

Shabbat shalom!

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