Vayishlach — 5771 — Might Does Not Make Right

21/12/2010 at 11:36 Leave a comment

“Might Does Not Make Right”

Shabbat Vayishlach

20 November 2010


Who or what do we sacrifice for our own self-preservation?  In this time open presently to publicly express our thanksgiving and our gratitude, whom do we cut down, sell out, or conquer as we act as dissembling agents because of our own fears, concerns, and self-indulgences?


At the beginning of Vayishlach, we find Ya’akov in a frightened panic as his brother Eisav approaches with 400 men. Ya’akov divides his camp into two, rationalizing if Eisav comes upon one of the camps and cuts it down, the other camp will nevertheless, survive.  Over the centuries, our sages have defended Ya’akov’s decision proclaiming this as a wise action to guarantee the future of the Jewish people.


At the Pesach seder over a raised cup of wine, we chant, v’hi sheamda la’avoteinu v’lanu, shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu l’chaloteinu, elah sheb’chol dor vador omdim aleinu l’choloteinu, v’hakadosh baruch hu matsileinu miyadam –it is this promise that has sustained our ancestors and us, fornot just one enemy has arisen to destroy us – rather in every generation there are those who seek our destruction – yet the Holy One, praised be God, saves us from their hands.


From the Ramban of the 13th century to the Hofetz Hayim of the 20th, Ya’akov’s plan divines the sobering conditions of being Jewish in the world and implements a safety device to insure Jewish survival – a remnant will always survive even the most mad plan.


And who is the Esaiv who seems hell-bent on destroying his brother – again our rabbinic tradition has assigned status to Eisav that has perpetually defined it as the Other – the archetypal enemy of our time, contained within it the tribe of Amalek, vicious and unsparing in its determination to harm.  And as we carefully explore our portion this morning, one can also make a case that this Eisav, perhaps found lurking like a bandit around the bend, is also found within Ya’akov’s own experience – and in fact Ya’akov’s family was his own worst enemy.


Here, I am not speaking about schizophrenia, or some other psychological reading of our ancestor – rather, I am relying on the peshat of the Torah – its simple meaning.  Eisav is Ya’akov’s brother, after all.  Michelle describes a compelling situation involving her own family – she has courage and bravery to raise these tender issues in her community that she trusts – in exploring who is Eisav, I encountered a riveting comment that does much to frame the issue of Jewish identity both in the Diaspora and in Israel.


Of all of the bullying that Eisav might have done or in all of the years that by his mere existence, he intimidated Ya’akov – one thing of merit that he did, that Ya’akov did not do is that without moving, Eisav always lived in the land of Israel.  In returning to his brother, Ya’akov was greatly afraid because of the advantage that Eisav possessed because he lived in the Holy Land.  Our tradition seems to teach that the one mitzvah of living in the land of Israel seems to counterbalance all of the other numerous mitzvot that may be observed outside of the land.  In fact a midrash states, “the Holy One, blessed be God, says – would that My people live in Eretz Yisrael, even if they pollute it.”


Are our brothers and sisters who live in Israel more exalted?  Should the legislation of the Jewish state determine the status of those who live outside of its borders?  A recent report called the International Religious Freedom Report released last week in America groups Israel together with Afghanistan, China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan when describing “violations of religious freedom that have been noteworthy.”  In Israel, these are largely instances of discrimination between Jews – who is considered Jewish, who can officiate marriages, and who can be buried in Jewish state cemeteries.


Where does this inequality come from?  Perhaps a beleaguered Jewish state is taking its cues from the larger world – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which was founded after WWII in 1945 to “contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through education science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, the rule of law, and human rights” has declared last month that Rachel’s Tomb is part of Palestinian territory under occupation – and is a heritage site of equal status for the Muslims called the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque.  UNESCO has demanded that Israel remove this site from its own list of National Heritage Sites even though this site has had Jewish significance for thousands of years.  With decisions by international organizations like this, who needs enemies?


When one is subjected to campaigns of boycott, delegitimization and sanctions, a natural response is to respond in kind.  Anger begets anger.  People, countries and international organizations speak past each other – this is then reflected in family relationships as well.  Who do we make the victims of our own frustrations and fears – do we not abuse our closest relationships while adapting and accommodating for others?  Macro-trauma brings micro-traumas – abuse, more abuse — dehumanization begets the same.  In wrestling with the stranger as Ya’akov was left alone, he was performing his own powerful act of teshuvah – he needed to change his own behavior, not contingent on the actions of the larger world around him – seeing his brother differently makes all the difference in the world.  Change came from within which of course then merits a name change – Ya’akov in conversation and in relationship to Eisav = Yisrael.


Beyond dividing his camp and running away from his fears, Ya’akov had to meet them, trapped between a rock and a hard place – getting smaller and sacrificing others is not good enough — we cannot change the actions of others in the world, however, as a people, we must stop running and we must engage and wrestle with ourselves in order to move forward.  This is the most important Jewish issue of our time.  As painful as the grappling might be, we as Ya’akov and we as Eisav must find the common ground to clash and collide and then come to an agreement that will allow us more strength and a better position to fight the perils of what in every generation, always lay before us.


Shabbat Shalom.



Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Toldot — 5771 — Death of a Salesman Vayeshev — 5771 — Faith in Action

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