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PARSHAT VAYISHLACH: Neurotic Jews
This week’s Torah portion describes a meeting of two brothers who have not seen each other in decades. Jacob and Esav had not left on good terms after the double incidents of birthright and blessing – both owned initially by Esav and taken by Jacob. Esav was so incensed that he had made up his mind to kill his brother. Under the insistence of mother, Rivkah, Jacob fled and has been away from his brother for many years.
A lot has transpired over those years. Jacob has matured into a father of many children and amassed a good deal of wealth. Our hunter hero, Esav has also become quite powerful and successful. We discover this because when Jacob initiates the meeting between him and Esav Jacob sends a messenger scout ahead, who reports back that Esav is approaching with 400 men.
This huge retinue, army if you will, confirms Jacob’s fears of his brother and he does everything in his power to assuage the anger that Jacob is convinced has been fermenting for years in Esav’s heart. The Torah points out that Jacob employed three different methods of protection before his fateful meeting with Esav.
Firstly he divides his camp so that, in the worst-case scenario of an all-out violent conflict, all of them will not be concentrated in one area where annihilation could result. Worst comes to worst, there will still be part of his family to flee and survive. Secondly he prays, stating unequivocally to God that he is petrified that Esav may exact revenge against him. And finally he sends Esav a series a gifts. “I will appease him with these gifts that are being sent in front of me, perhaps he will forgive me.”
And then, before the night of their meeting, the Torah narrates the struggle that took place between Jacob and a nameless Ish/Man. Esav’s guardian angel some suggest. An internal struggle perhaps. Whatever the case, it sets the stage and feeds into the tension sure to come when these two brothers will meet up. There is deep foreboding and maybe even violence and bloodshed on the horizon when they will finally stare each other down.
But lo and behold, one of the most anti-climactic scenes takes place. No violence. No bloodshed. Esav runs to meet his brother, throws his arms around him, kisses him and the two end up crying like babies in each other’s arms.
Whoa. Hold on a sec. What happened to all the fear in Jacob’s heart? All the anxiety and worry? All the hatred that Jacob was convinced was going to come spilling forth from Esav and sweeping Jacob and family away?!
It didn’t materialize. Gone. Not there. Where did it go? Or was it even there in the first place? Or maybe it was and all the gifts he gave Esav did their trick and there was a change of heart?
I am sure there are a few factors at play here. One is simply that, as people mature, the wrongs that were done to young fragile egos are diluted over time. As Esav, and Jacob for that matter, matured, married, had children, grew and become successes in their own right – through the agency of their father’s blessing, or maybe not and does it really matter? The animosity dissipates. The anger and hatred dissolve.
Happy people are not angry people. They don’t feel they are wronged nor walk around with a “why me?” victim attitude, shaking their fist at the world. Life is good, why hold onto old rivalries? Esav is a happy guy. He has family, he has his followers and community, he has lots of trophies on his wall from his successful hunts and safaris. Being called the “first-born” – who cares?! Dad’s blessings? Hey, I’ve seemed to do quite well, thank you, even without the one I was supposed to get.
But that’s Esav, what about Jacob? How did he so misread the situation? Better safe than sorry? Perhaps. Or maybe there is a little psychological “projection” going on over here. Projection is when I attribute what is going on in my mind and heart onto another. I assume that the vulnerabilities, confusions or inadequacies that are in me are present in another and mistakenly behave in an erroneous manner because of it.
For Jacob, the first-born naming rights and Isaac’s blessings are a big deal. And he assumes the same for Esav. And indeed it probably was for Esav way back then. But not now. For Jacob they still are a big deal. But for “easy-come, easy-go” Esav who just wants to hunt and have a good time, they aren’t.
And maybe this is a lesson we need to take from this encounter. We Jews sometimes suffer from this too-serious Jacob neurosis. We take things too seriously. Every anti-Israel op-ed piece is met with a flurry of letters and rebuttals. Every Jew-hatred spray-painted graffiti calls in the ADL and the local news. Hey, maybe the guy who did it was just drunk or high and has already forgotten about it and not some future Adolph Hitler planning to exterminate a whole race.
As for the media, does anyone still care what Thomas Friedman says anymore? As my wife likes to point out, very few of her co-workers at Banana Republic are reading the New York Times. Most people just don’t care. They want to just bop along in life like Esav and have their good time. I am not saying we need not be vigilant to anti-Semitism or anti-Zionism masquerading as anti-Semitism, but sometimes the better reaction is to not even dignify it with a response.
So maybe one of the lessons we need to get out of the finale between Jacob and Esav is that we Jews need to chill a bit like Esav and relax. See life from Esav’s vantage point and don’t get your knickers in a twist. Drop the long ago rivalries and move on. After all, Jacob does tell Esav, “Seeing your face is like seeing the face of the Divine.” Remove the anxiety and worry, don’t get so uptight and in no time you will be looking at God’s glorious face.
Go and eat your bread with joy
And drink your wine with a good heart
For God has already found favour in your deeds.
May your garments always be white
And may oil never desist from being upon your head.
Enjoy life with the woman you love
Through all the fleeting days of your life.