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

One of the biggest differences between Judaism and Christianity derives from the story of Adam and Eve and their leaving Eden. According to Christianity, this is a story of a fall from grace, and is linked to the doctrine of original sin – that human beings are born in a state of impurity which derives from the pride and disobedience shown by Adam and Eve in the garden. Judaism is emphatically opposed to this idea – indeed our morning prayers include the words “My God, the soul which You gave me is pure, You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me. You preserve it within me and You will take it from me…” a prayer that can be found in the Talmud (Berachot 60b).

The story of the leaving of Eden is not a tragic event, something that should never have happened; and we should not spend our lives yearning to return there – after all, why would God create a garden in which there are two trees that we should not eat from, if not to challenge us and to provide a catalyst?

Adam and Eve in the garden are innocents, they are like new-born children, and if kept in that state they will never be able to grow and learn and develop their own ideas and identities. Making mistakes is part of growing up and becoming who we are. The story of leaving the Garden of Eden is a story of maturation, of acquiring independence, of leaving home in order to become one’s own full self. Making mistakes is how we learn.

Jewish teaching tells us that we are born with a pure soul, and that we are responsible for its state. We will make mistakes, we will – in common parlance – sin, and we have a mechanism in order to remedy those mistakes, Teshuvah. Often translated loosely as ’Repentance’, in fact Teshuvah means to turn back, to return to God and become our best selves.  Judaism further teaches that we have two competing drives, the Yetzer haTov and the Yetzer haRa – the inclination to do good by acting selflessly, and the inclination to act selfishly. We have free will and can make our own decisions about which inclination we might follow at any given time. And sometimes the more selfish choices are important ones too, as understood by the Midrash (rabbinic exegesis on the bible)

“Nachman said in R Samuel’s name “Behold it was very good” refers to the good desire (Yetzer haTov), “and behold it was very good” also refers to the evil desire (Yetzer haRa). Can then the evil desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the evil desire however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 9:7)

So we need to have a selfish inclination, we just have to keep it in check, develop and practise a sense of morality. As we mature, it is this sense of responsibility to others, this moral code that influences the choices we make.  And this is the sense of responsibility that Adam and Eve lacked in the garden; it is arguably something they could only acquire with experience.

We are born with a pure soul. And we are born with two competing urges – to act for our own good and to act for the good of others. Sometimes these are compatible, sometimes they are not; sometimes that is obvious to us, sometimes it becomes obvious only in retrospect.

We become responsible for our own actions and our own choices, but we have the possibility always to return our souls to the pure state in which they were given to us, by acts of Teshuvah, of implementing the moral code. The story of the leaving of Eden is the story of both Eve and Adam choosing to follow the Yetzer ha Ra, to act according to a more selfish need. Had they not done so, one assumes that humanity would never have grown and developed, never exercised free will and made moral choices.

An important message of this story is NOT that people are evil by nature, that we are flawed from birth and spend our lives attempting to attain a state of goodness, but that we should use our more selfish as well as our more selfless impulses for creating a better world.  Both are necessary, it is how we balance these impulses, how we moderate our behaviours with our moral and ethical understandings that matters. We are never cast away from God  with no route back – the door is always open, our souls are given from God, preserved by God and will return to God. But the state they are in during the time we have them, that is a continuing and constant choice for us to make.

Ki Tetzei – the battle against ourselves

Parashat Ki Tetzei contains 74 commandments, more mitzvot than in any other sidra in Torah.  Reading through the list, one first notices just how random and unrelated they appear to be, but on closer reading one sees patterns and trajectories, and notices how much daily living they give guidance about, drumming into us the values and the moral code of the Jewish peoples.

 The list of mitzvot covers a wide variety of topics, from the behaviour of soldiers in wartime, through to the complexities of family life; They expect good behaviour in our relationships with others, respect for property and animals, the safety of others; Abuses of power in sexual relationships are covered, also power over escaped slaves, proper behaviour if giving  loans or charging interest, timely payment of workers, the importance of keeping promises, and the passage concludes with the importance of remembering to blot out the name of one of Israel’s greatest enemies – Amalek.

This extraordinary sidra, packed with injunctions as to how to behave, begins with the words:  “Ki Tetzei lemilchama al oyvecha  – when (or if) you go out to war against your enemies..”  While it is certainly a command to the whole nation of Israel, the fact that the verb used is in the singular, allows commentators to frame the reading differently, and, taking note of the fact that this sidra is always read early in the month of Elul, suggest that the verse is referring to the continuous battle each of us as individuals engages in, fighting our own yetzer ha’ra – evil inclinations. Thus the verse becomes one of comfort almost – God will help us to take control of our own bad habits and selfish desires.

 How would we do that? Well that is where the rest of the list of mitzvot comes in.

 For example, the sidra begins with a soldier taking captive a beautiful woman, allowing her to mourn her past life and then potentially taking her as a wife. But soon it moves onto the problems between two wives of the same man, and the difficulties of fairness in a polygamous marriage, and very shortly after that the sidra discusses the problem of what to do with the stubborn and rebellious child.  Are these mitzvot really so random as they first appear?  Are they really only arranged in a sort of “family relationships” category?  Or are they connected at a deeper or sequential level? Is Torah using this arrangement of verses to create an understanding in us that everything we do can impact on what already is in our worlds, and on what may yet become of our lives? 

 So how do we engage in fighting our most selfish desires? A plain reading of the text would be that we do so simply by fulfilling the mitzvot as enumerated here, but something else is being transmitted as well – By understanding what the fulfilment of our immediate selfish inclinations may bring about in our own contexts we may learn to temper them and find some better control of the self. So not just behaviour is being demanded of us without our thought or engagement, but the reasoning for WHY such behaviour is necessary is being required of us too.

 Understanding why we do a particular behaviour has never been the key factor to cause us to change it – that is one of the limitations of many a modern therapy. We may know that smoking kills, but that will usually not change the behaviour of the smoker. And yet, behaving without understanding, just following the rules – can lead to us becoming automatons, doing whatever we are told to do by whoever we give such authority over us–  magazine writers, fashion leaders, work bosses, company rules,  even rabbis. 

 We may choose to follow rules and expectations or not, but each of us is responsible for the choices we make. And to begin to see our actions in a context that can seriously impact upon others is no bad thing as we follow our own inclinations in our lives.

 Add to that the second half of the verse – that God helps us to prevail over our enemy/inclinations and a lesson comes into sharp focus. We may think that what we do is only our own business, but we exist in a context and a setting that includes others and that includes the seeds of our own future selves. The choices we make have power and can bring about a great deal of difference for us and for those around us. We make them best when we consider that we are not alone either in the choices or in their results.