Twenty-one years have passed since Jacob fled for his life from his twin brother Esau. Now, on his own, with a large family to protect, Jacob sends messengers to Esau in an attempt at reconciliation. When they return to Jacob they report, “We came to your brother, to Esau, and he is actually coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” (Gen. 32:7) Jacob divides his camp, so that if Esau attacks one, the other can escape. He then sends servants ahead, each with a different herd to present to Esau as tribute – presenting gift after gift in what must have been a bewildering array. Yet, despite Jacob's generosity, Esau continued to advance with his four hundred men. It is only when Jacob and Esau meet face to face the next day, that they are able to make peace.
What do we learn from this?
Americans grow up learning a sense of pride in self-sufficiency. “If you want the job done right, do it yourself.” However, Judaism teaches the opposite. We might say: “If you want the job done right, get help and work together.” Here, in YaYigash, is an exception. Jacob sends emissaries to make peace with Esau, but they fail because when it comes to reconciling our differences nobody can do that for us. Relationships are personal; only we can cultivate them, nourish them or repair them. Our friends might be able to arrange a meeting, but only we can mend our fences.
In a few days, families all over the United States will gather around their tables to celebrate Thanksgiving. Perhaps we can use this opportunity to learn from Jacob and Esau and bring even more peace into our homes.
Genesis 28:10 - 32:3
Some things just stick with you. For me, one of those things is a little gem of a book written by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. It's called "God was in this Place & I, i did not know," and the entire book is about a single verse of Torah, Genesis 28:16. In it, Rabbi Kushner shares seven different interpretations of the verse, each one more fascinating and challenging that the last.
The verse is a direct quotation from Jacob, who at the opening of this week's Torah portion reaches rock bottom. In last week's portion, Jacob triumphantly purchased the birthright of succession from his brother Esau for a bowl of lentils, and then successfully stole Esau's blessing of inheritance by tricking their blind father Isaac. However, the moment Esau finds out, he determines to kill his brother, and Jacob flees for his life. At the opening of VaYetze, Jacob finds himself in the middle of the Wilderness with only the clothing on his back and a rock for a pillow. That night he dreams of angels climbing and descending along a nearby ladder that extends to heaven. When he awakes, he says: "God was in the Place and I, i did not know." (Gen. 28:16)
Rabbi Kushner observes that until this moment, Jacob focused his entire life on ... Jacob. Jacob is so full of himself, that there is no room for anyone else. It is only when he loses everything, when his "I" is diminished and becomes an "i" that Jacob discovers one of the most important teachings of Torah: even in those places where we seem totally alone, God is with us.
For those of us who struggle to see the Divine Presence in our world, we can take a lesson from Jacob: all we need to do is to look inside ourselves and then make a little room.
Genesis 25:19 - 28:9
Three verses into our parasha Rebecca utters the very first prayer in the Torah. Pregnant with the twins, Jacob and Esau who are fighting in her womb, Rebecca is in so much pain that she calls out: "If this be so, why me?" (Gen. 25:22). I suppose it should be no surprise that 'why me?' is the very first prayer! What really strikes me, however, is that the twins are fighting before even being born. The classic Rabbinic commentator Rashi offered a seemingly strange explanation:
"When [Rebecca] would pass the doors of the Torah academies of Shem and Ever, Jacob struggled to come out, while when she passed the doors of idolatry, Esau struggled to come out."
Let's forget, for a moment, that there were no Torah academies in Rebecca's day because the Torah had not yet been written. Rashi is sharing remarkable Torah with this rather odd statement. The sages teach that all people have two primal urges: the Yezter HaTov (the inclination towards good) and the Yezter haRah (the inclination towards evil). Perhaps Rashi is proposing that the real struggle within Rebecca was not physical, but spiritual. The part of her that would become Jacob struggled to get out to embrace Torah. The part of her that would become Esau struggled to do the opposite. We are each us, regardless of where in are in life, pregnant with possibilities, and with competing urges that struggle for dominance within us. However, unlike with physical pregnancy, we actually have a choice about which ones to bring more fully to life.
Genesis 23:1 - 25:18
Chayei Sarah ("Sarah's life") gets its name because it begins with the verse: "Sarah's life was one hundred and twenty seven years - these were the years of the life of Sarah." (Gen. 23:1) In the Hebrew text the word for "years" is repeated after each number - 100 years and 20 years and 7 years. Since Torah is usually sparing with its language, why is the word 'years' repeated so many times here? Rabbis have been asking and answering that question for centuries!
Recently I stumbled upon a commentary called Divrei Shaul al HaTorah, written by Rabbi Yosef Shaul HaLevi Nathansohn (1808–1875). He had a beautiful and challenging take on this verse:
Generally we refer to people in terms of the years: the person was born in this year, died in this year, etc. In the case of our greatest individuals, however, the years are described in terms of the people, because the years become special by the presence of these individuals. That is [the meaning of] "these were the years of the life of Sarah."
His insight raises an important question: how are we influencing the years of our lives?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras