Parashat Vayishlach: a bite or a kiss? a messenger or an apology?

In parashat vayishlach we see the moment where Jacob the trickster, the one focussed only on himself and his own needs and aspirations, is able to change. He is on his journey home, a wealthy and powerful man. However he must first encounter his estranged brother Esau whom he had dispossessed from his birthright and from whose terrible pain and murderous anger he had fled all those years ago.

In preparation for the encounter he sent out messengers in order to both impress Esau with his power and wealth, and in order to try to find out what was likely to be ahead of him. The messengers’ report on their return distressed him – they had met Esau on his way to meet Jacob, accompanied by four hundred men. His response – to try to save what he could of his family and possessions by dividing them into two groups, and then he prayed for help, invoking the merit of his ancestors and the promises God had made to him regarding his descendants. Following this, he began selecting groups of animals that he could send ahead as gifts to Esau, in order to appease him before their meeting. Then he says a particularly curious sentence, given what is about to happen:

וְאַֽחֲרֵי־כֵן֙ אֶרְאֶ֣ה פָנָ֔יו אוּלַ֖י יִשָּׂ֥א פָנָֽי”

And after this, I will see his face, perhaps he will raise my face/accept me”

Having taken his family, divided into two camps, across the ford of Jabok and over the stream, Jacob was left alone, yet in the same sentence that tells us  וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ that he had been left behind and was completely and utterly alone, we are also told

     וַיֵּֽאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר:

And a man wrestled with him until the morning dawned.

He was alone, but he was not alone. He was in the dark of the night. He was wrestling. His struggles through the dark night of his soul changes him forever. He is in liminal transitional time after which he will be transformed and given a new name – though not so transformed that he would lose his old name forever….

Who is Jacob wrestling? The narrator of the text tells us it is “ish- a man.”

The wrestler himself is more complex telling Jacob that he has struggled with God and with men and has prevailed:

כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל:

Later in the text Jacob seems to believe the fight was with God, as he names the place Peniel, the face of God:

וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַֽעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי:

And he continues “for I have seen God face to face and my soul is preserved”

Traditional explanations are that Jacob is fighting an angel, in particular the guardian angel of Esau who is attempting to weaken Jacob before the meeting, or that ‘the’man’ was Jacob himself, struggling with himself and his own feelings and needs, with the two inclinations all humanity possess – the yetzer ha’ra and the yetzer ha’tov, the inclination to be motivated primarily for one’s own self-interest versus the inclination to be motivated for the good of the community and of others, battling it out for charge of his soul.

There is, I think, a clue to this critical and iconic night of struggle in another part of the sidra. When Jacob meets Esau we find that Esau was coming with a welcoming party not a gang of ‘heavies’, and we are told that far from there being a clash between the brothers there is instead from Esau’s side real emotion and warmth at their reconciliation. We are told that he ran to Jacob and embraced him and fell upon his neck and kissed him:

 וַיָּ֨רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו [צַוָּארָ֖יו] וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ:

But written in the Masoretic text over the words “and he kissed him” וַיִּשָּׁקֵ֑הוּ are dots, and these are understood in the midrash to be there to draw attention to the word and to add to its meaning. Rashi quotes midrash (Sifrei) and comments that the dots are there to show that the kiss, while it seemed whole hearted, was actually insincere. But the weight of rabbinic tradition goes even further. In Midrash Genesis Rabbah (78:9) we are told that R.Yannai plays on the word ‘vayeshakei’hu’ and by changing just one letter in the word while keeping the sound, one can translate it as Esau biting Jacob. From this midrash comes the stream of Rabbinic traducing of the biblical Esau, to develop him into an enemy of the Jewish people, eventually becoming Edom, the code for the Roman oppression.


I do not like this interpretation, being in fact a big fan of the biblical Esau who just couldn’t somehow get it right, but who clearly loved his parents and who wanted to be the son they wanted. However, I would suggest that what was good enough for R.Yannai is good enough for us – so let us look at another word that could be available to the midrashic technique of creating a homophone with a meaning that can alter our understanding of what is happening. ‘Vayishlach’, the name of the sidra, comes from the root שָׁלַח ‘to send’

One homophone, a letter different, is the root סָלַח ‘to pardon or to forgive’

When Jacob then is sending out messengers, maybe we could see that he is in the beginning of the process of searching out for forgiveness, something he clearly needs to do as he has achieved so much of the material possessions he has desired but has not yet matched this achievement with the facing of what he did that had brought him to Laban as a young and frightened boy, alone in the world after having betrayed his father and brother, effectively excluded from his father’s house and inheritance.

So what happens if we bring this word play back into the text? When Jacob wrestles with a man while all alone, while he recognises that the man is in some way both God and human, he is indeed wrestling with himself and his own inclinations. But what he is wrestling with is not so much his two natures but his desire for pardon and his desire not to have to ask for it, not to have to climb down from his arrogance and his power and admit his wrong doing. In Jungian terms, Jacob is fighting with his Shadow side, the darker side of his own self, the irrational and instinctive and unknown aspect of his personality where a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else.


We all know the phrase that ‘sorry seems to be the hardest word’. For some people it is so hard that they will do almost anything not to have to say it. They will pass on the blame to others, project their feelings so that they see the reconciler as the attacker, reconstruct their narratives of the past so that they will appear the blameless ones, or even the victims of others. They will blacken the name of someone else in preference to owning up to their own mistakes. They will put obstacles in the way of meeting and encountering the other, so as not to have to face up to the humanity and reality of the person whom they have wronged. They will see the ‘admission’ of an apology as something that makes them vulnerable, lose power, or lose their status and become in some way the loser. Saying sorry might mean taking some responsibility for a problem, diminish them in some way, give others the right to judge…


We see this everywhere, from individual human interactions to workplace politics to the way that nations in conflict will absolve themselves from the problem and blame it all on the other side. The midrash that claims that Esau bites Jacob rather than kisses him is a manifestation of it. So the idea that Jacob is wrestling in order to say ‘selicha: I am sorry, please forgive me’, is a nice counterpoint.


It takes him the whole night and he is physically damaged in the encounter, leaving it with a permanent limp to remind him of both the struggle and the outcome. He is also changed – he can become Israel, the one who struggles with God- while sometimes reverting to Jacob, the heel and the trickster. Saying sorry isn’t a one-time thing – we can find it hard to repeat the word, or to say it in the next situation we should be saying it having made another mistake.


And yet apologising when we are at fault is the beginning of redemption. It is about recognising the effect of our actions and taking responsibility for them in order to change our selves and out behaviours. It is at the root of the idea of teshuva, of return to God, of return to the right behaviour that we would want and expect from ourselves.

It is the moment we can turn from Jacob to Israel, the moment when we stop focussing on our pride in our possessions and begin focussing with empathy on others and their needs.


Saying sorry is the pivotal moment when we change, when we notice our negative impact and begin to heal it. It is a lifetime process, a skill we need to practise again and again, the moment when we stop being obsessed with our own power and status and rightness and look around us with empathy and compassion and try to care more about others than about ourselves.

When Jacob wrestles and the dawn breaks, he realises that his struggle has meant that his soul is preserved, the sun comes up, the dark night of the soul is over. How did he preserve his soul? He learned of the importance of recognising his own responsibility in what he had done, he said ‘selicha’ he made his peace with the part of him that didn’t want to admit to any flaw or vulnerability. He took his place in the world and limped out, damaged by the encounter but also blessed by it, into the future.

Bereishit: two questions to two generations – where are we now?

The Torah begins with two separate stories of creation. The first one is a very structured and ordered story, with each stage (or day) developing order out of the tohu vavohu, the chaos of the beginning. God creates by speaking words which then bring forth the thing – light and dark, and day and night. The heavens and the earth, each surrounded by their own watery boundaries. Sea and dry land.  Grass, herb yielding seed and fruit trees. Sun moon and stars. Water living creatures and those that fly in the air. Cattle and land walking creatures. Human beings. And Finally – Shabbat. God declares the goodness of each category in this physical world being created, and with the creation of humankind God sees that everything created is very good. And God blesses the Sabbath day.    The second story is a different narrative, and can be read as either complementary to the first adding details, or else as an entirely different tradition. In this story, human beings are created first rather than last, and man is created before woman, instead of them being created together. We are told the story of the Garden of Eden, with its trees of knowledge of good and evil, and of eternal life. The human beings eat from the first tree and are expelled from the garden lest they eat of the second. Their relationship is clearly not ideal, yet they produce children. Cain and Abel each offer a sacrifice to God, but while the sacrifice of Abel is accepted, the sacrifice of Cain is not. Cain, rejected by God, kills Abel his brother.                                                                                                                                The generations continue. Agriculture and technology become part of their worlds. But by the time of Noah ten generations after Adam, the world is a terrible place and God  has had enough of this creation. God is ready to destroy it…

Dvar Torah

Vayikra Adonai Elohim el ha’adam vayomer lo “ayekah?”  And the Eternal God called to the human beings (hiding in the garden) “where are you?” And the human said: ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ (3:9-10)

Vayomer Adonai el Kayin, Ei Hevel achicha? Vayomer ‘lo yadati. Hashomer achi Anochi?’ And God said to Cain, where is Abel your brother? And he said “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9)

Two questions that God puts to two generations in the beginning narratives of Genesis.  In the first the people respond in fear, having understood just how vulnerable they are. In the second Cain tries to brazen out the fact he has murdered his brother, hoping somehow to get away with it. The first is a sin against God, the second a sin against another human being. We are learning in these stories the limits of behaviour. But we learn something else that is quite startling. What becomes clear in God’s response to Adam and Eve is that while they have disappointed God by taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, worse is that they do not take responsibility for their actions – the man blames the woman and the woman blames the serpent. They want, they desire, and they will lie in order to try to fulfil that craving. When they are sent from the garden the woman is told (3:16) that her desire will rule over her (yimshol). Humankind will always be trying to master their own selfishness and wants, it will be an ongoing struggle. But Cain, he seems to struggle rather more than his parents, he responds out of disappointment and rejection when God does not accept his offering, but does accept that of his brother Abel – God says to him ‘Why are you angry? and why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? and if you do not well, sin couches at the door; and to you is its desire, but you may rule over it.’ Ve’ata timshol bo (4:7). Cain is given the possibility of triumphing over his selfishness – albeit he only takes it up after the awful event, when he repents and says that his punishment is more than he can bear.

The rabbis notice the difference in the taking on of responsibility. According to the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 22:13) Cain later meets Adam who asks him about the punishment he received, and Cain tells him “I repented and am reconciled”. At that point Adam began to weep and to keen, saying “so great is the power of repentance, and I did not know”.

The power of God’s words to Cain is proved – while we will always struggle with behaving well, while the willingness to behave selfishly and thoughtlessly is always close by and ready to come to the fore, we can indeed take responsibility for our behaviour and choose NOT to behave in a damaging and egotistical way. We can think of others, we can choose to forgo what we want for the benefit of our community or wider society, we can decide not to take, not to hurt, not to ignore.

So soon after the yamim noraim the lesson is driven home in torah. Repentance is always the path back to God, who waits for us patiently, hoping to be found. And Torah reminds us of our human frailty – that we might rather lie than take responsibility for our actions, that we may prefer to brazen out what we know to be unacceptable behaviour, or deny our accountability or liability – human beings will always try to find a way to get what we want or what we think we deserve. But it is the taking of responsibility, the true acceptance of what we do and the genuine desire to become better people that will help us to win the struggle so that we too will be able to overrule our baser natures and become a little more like the divine.

Repentance is not a substitute for Responsibility

The official ideology of Yom Kippur is found in the words of Resh Lakish, a third century talmudic sage, and can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b–“Great is repentance, for the deliberate sins of one who repents become as inadvertent ones.”

In effect the argument is that Teshuvah, the action of repenting, causes the person to allow their real self to emerge, and as they move into a new direction they show that true self. The person therefore who sinned deliberately can be understood to have been not really themselves, and so, when they become their real self, those sins are clearly inadvertent – and inadvertent sin cannot be punished or judged in the same way as deliberately flouting the rules of behaviour.

It is a theology of new beginnings and a clean slate, teaching us that renewal is always possible; counteracting the guilt and despair we may be feeling about the bad choices we have made with the belief that good intentions for the future must redeem us and make up for the past.

It is certainly an attractive proposal, but the reality is that we can’t rely on Teshuvah to remake the world exactly as it was or should be. Teshuvah may be a potent force but it is not an all-powerful one. Even if it can change our deliberate sins into the more manageable and less terrifying category of inadvertent ones, it cannot erase the effectsof those sins. If we were to truly face reality we would have to say that repentance is not, and never can be a substitute for responsibility. And more than that, we would have to acknowledge that some things cannot be rectified, however mortified and ashamed we may be to have committed them. What is done cannot always be undone, and the mark it leaves on our lives (and those of other people) will not be erased.

The word Kippur is related to the verb “to cover over”. When we try to make Teshuvah and to uncover our real and ideal self as we turn towards a good way of being in the world, we also cover over the mistakes we made and the bad actions we did. They do not go away, but we take away their power to hold us back, through our shame or our fear. I do like the notion of Teshuvah providing us with a new start, of the freshness of starting again unencumbered by a past that has the power to haunt us, but I shudder a little at the notion of a rebirth. For we are not in any way born again through our actions over the Yamim Noraim, we continue to live and continue to remember and continue to be the person who has real responsibility for our lives, but at the same time we cover over and leave behind the place that is stopping us from going forward into our new and more true way of being. Repentance is not a substitute for responsibility – repentance gives us the means to become much more responsible for who we are, and the power to use that responsibility to change not only ourselves but also the world around us.

Repentance is not a substitute for Responsibility:

How can we take responsibility for our world?