Saturday 25th November 2023 12th Kislev 5784
PARASHAT VAYETZEI by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Genesis 28:10-32:2; Hosea 11:7-14:9; John 1:41-51
Strongest in the broken places:
In the Jewish community, we sometimes identify ourselves as MOTs, Members of the Tribe. It’s a bit whimsical, but it’s also a bit problematic in our current social-political climate, where “tribalism” is not a happy term. Our Torah reading last week introduced Jacob, the father of the Twelve Tribes of which all Jews are members. The tribal history continues in this week’s parasha and contains the classic elements of being chosen, having a special legacy, and being different from (and perhaps superior to) the Other. But in typical fashion, the Torah’s account of tribal origins points beyond the usual motifs to hint at hope and transformation to come.
We saw last week how our forefather Jacob was caught up from before birth in a struggle with his brother Esau, a struggle that sounds pretty tribal from the outset. Their parents, Isaac and Rebekah, struggle with barrenness through the first twenty years of their marriage. Finally, Isaac prays for Rebekah and she becomes pregnant . . . with twins!
But the children struggled with one another inside her, and she said, “If it’s like this, why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of Adonai. Adonai said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from your body will be separated. One people will be stronger than the other people, but the older will serve the younger.” (Gen 25:22–23)
The younger is Jacob, of course, and his early years are marked by strife and competition with Esau, from whom Jacob gains both his birthright and his blessing (belonging to Esau as the first born, since he emerged from the womb just ahead of Jacob). The struggle with Esau becomes so intense that Jacob has to flee the land of promise in fear of his life, and this week’s parasha opens as Jacob begins his journey into exile. He spends the night in “a certain place,” where he dreams of a ladder or ramp joining heaven and earth, with the Lord appearing and saying to him,
I am Adonai, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your seed. Your seed will be as the dust of the land, and you will burst forth to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed—and in your seed. (Gen 28:13–14)
Jacob is the founder of a tribe, but it’s a tribal story that points beyond itself, because Jacob’s seed, in line with the prophetic words given earlier to grandfather Abraham (Gen 12:3), will be the source of blessing for all the families of the earth. This Torah narrative is tribal, but universal as well, pointing to a future of blessing for all the earth’s inhabitants.
But there’s a more immediate and less noticeable thread in the tapestry of Jacob’s tribal story that also hints at a reality beyond tribalism—the humanity of Esau, the son not chosen.
When Esau discovers in last week’s parasha that Jacob has received his father’s blessing instead of him, he begs Isaac, “‘Haven’t you saved a blessing for me? . . . Do you just have one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!’ And Esau lifted up his voice and wept” (Gen 27:36, 38). Esau is impulsive and unstable. He loses his birthright because he despises it (Gen 25:34). After Jacob diverts his blessing to himself, Esau vows to kill him, thus triggering Jacob’s twenty-year exile, which begins in this week’s parasha (Gen 27:41–45). But for all that, the Torah portrays his sorrow over losing the blessing with compassion. Esau is not the tribal Other, but a fully-formed human character, flawed but evoking our generosity.
Throughout Jacob’s trying twenty-year exile from the land of promise, Esau isn’t mentioned at all. Again, our founding narrative refrains from the sort of belligerence and chest-thumping we might expect in a tribal tale. Esau reappears only as the exile is about to end, coming to meet Jacob with what looks like a war party of 400 men. But when the two finally meet, the Torah again portrays Esau with generosity and deep emotional connection.
When Esau saw Jacob coming toward him, he “ran to meet him, hugged him, fell on his neck and kissed him—and they wept” (Gen 33:4). Then he tried to refuse Jacob’s gifts of tribute, saying, “I have plenty! O my brother, do keep all that belongs to you” (Gen 33:9), and offered to escort Jacob and his whole household back into the land of promise.
Jacob declines to go with Esau, which some of our sages commend as a wise move, because of Esau’s emotional instability. It may seem better to part company while the feelings are good and Jacob is safe. But finally, the two do reunite, at the death of Isaac, to mourn their father together. “Then Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his peoples, old and full of days. So his sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (Gen 35:29). Tellingly, in this final scene, Esau is named first, before Jacob. This reunion, however brief, reminds us of the equally significant reunion of Isaac and Ishmael at the death of Abraham (Gen 25:8–9).
The Torah insists on weaving the bright thread of our shared humanity into the complex tapestry of Jacob’s tribal origins.
Last week, I had the privilege of joining over 200,000 Members of the Tribe and supporters in the March for Israel, calling for release of the Hamas hostages and opposing the current surge in antisemitism. As I was swept along with the crowd toward the U.S. Capitol, I thought of the psalmists’ words about joining the multitudes, the tribes going up to worship Hashem (Psa 42:5; 122:4). We were there to protest and advocate, not worship in the usual sense, but the feeling of tribal assembly was overwhelming. One of the speakers, historian Deborah Lipstadt, provided a healthy balance, amazingly linked to the current Torah readings: “Do not sink to the level of those who harass you, but do not cower. Jews are strongest at their broken places.”
Jews are strongest at their broken places, like our father Jacob, who returned from exile lame and leaning on his staff to be reunited with his brother-adversary Esau. Jacob is a model for his descendants.
Our journey, like his, is one of vulnerability and struggle, but also one in which we are to recognize the humanity of the Other and thereby keep hope alive.