Too good to be true: a drash for Parshat Vayishlach

By: Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom


Four out of five successive chapters of Vayishlach (Gen. 32:4 – 36:43) – the genealogies of chapter 36 provide slim pickings – pack in suspense, fear, violence avoided and violence let loose, and a narrative that continues to color our lives, especially those of us who are attentive to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
The drama rises and falls twice in this parashah, once leaving us relieved, once leaving us troubled, But in both cases, there are loose threads that are tied and untied throughout Jewish history. The same is true for the promise of the land, which is repeated now for the sixth straight week. Here are my reflections on what all these could mean for us.

Too good to be true x 2: idyllic scenarios deposit themselves at Jacob’s feet in our parashah, but Jewish history goes a different way (“Yeh. Well, history is going to change!”)

Genesis 32-33: Esau embraces the brother who took advantage of his distress to take his birthright, and then tricked him out of his blessing, but is reluctant to accept any compensation. Only after Jacob implores him, Esau agrees to take the offering. Esau doesn’t want the encounter to end, and suggests they journey together, but Jacob declines. Esau offers Jacob an escort, which he also declines. They meet only once more, to bury their father, Isaac, and if Jacob ever makes good on his promise to visit his brother Esau in Se’ir (v. 14), the text doesn’t tell us about it.

Genesis 34: 9-10 Hamor wants to make the marriage of his son Shechem, to Jacob’s daughter Dinah, the rule rather than the exception, so that the two tribes intermarry and live together. Jacob’s sons agree, on condition that the people of Shechem undergo circumcision, and they state that this will result in the fusion of the two tribes into one people עם אחד!, (v. 15-16).

Read on their own, these two offers of brotherly love and neighborly absorption seem so wholesome, a fitting reconciling resolution to the decades of fear and hatred that simmered throughout the childhood household of Jacob and Esau, and a promising end to the wanderings of Abraham and his descendants which so often featured jealousy and conflict with their environment. Viewed, however, through the lens of subsequent biblical tradition and centuries of post-biblical Jewish history, not only are they roads not taken, but treacherous roads that would have obviated this story of ours before it ever got started: Esau was first understood to prefigure the people of Edom who cheered the destruction of Jerusalem (cf. Psalm 137 and the book of Ovadia), then the Romans, who destroyed the Second Temple, and finally the Holy Roman Empire and Christendom in general. As for Shechem and his townspeople, the Torah considered the indigenous people on the land to be
immoral idolaters and, ever fearful of their power to seduce the Israelites into worshiping their gods, prohibited Israel from co-existing with them.

Must we, in the name of tradition, maintain the these prejudices towards the descendants of Esau and Shechem? I would argue that not only should we be free to read the biblical text on its own without lenses tinted or stained by lachrymose or belligerent history (although it is certainly liberating to see how much richer the story becomes and more masterful the storyteller emerges); read this way, we can embrace the story of Jacob as our own as we find ourselves struggling with the perennial family issues of sibling rivalry and reconciliation, in the personal sphere, and questions of Jewish communal values in the collective sphere.

Sympathizing as we do with Jacob’s relief in encountering a placated Esau, we are chastened enough by our own family experiences to be saddened when we see how hard it is for Jacob to dislodge intrafamilial suspicion built up over the years and how easy it is for him to decline the invitation to rebuild a relationship that perhaps never was. Surely, the intermarriage pendulum doesn’t swing for us to the extremes that we find in Genesis 34: we’ve made a great deal of progress institutionally (e.g., keruv and conversion) and live in a prevailing climate of wait-and-see since those days. However, in Israel, where demographic concerns are a live wire, a love story that radiates physical survival has a higher resonance, and makes us wonder whether religious affiliation can become a greater curse than it is a blessing.

Making the Promised Land a land of promise

A Catholic missionary nurse I know who devotes her life to treating the poor and championing their rights can’t quite understand what troubles me about the largess that is Israel’s reward for being God’s people. For her, Israel’s chosenness is but a model of God’s love for all creation. However, I am not the only one who has reached the sad realization that our sacred story has  also inspired less harmonious thoughts. This is the sixth weekly reading that contains the promise of the land, renewed to Jacob after being first made to his grandfather Abraham, and then his father Isaac. How can we, who believe that all who trace their roots back to Abraham — whether via Jacob and Isaac, or Esau or Ishmael, should be living together on the land — deny that it’s meant to be only ours? What follows are some of my suggestions, and I’m open to hearing yours:

“I give to you the land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, to your descendants after you I give the land” –Gen. 35:12

1. In other Genesis passages of blessing (Gen. 12, 18 and 28), we find the formula נברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה – all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you/will bless themselves by  you/will pray to be blessed as you are. The blessing is inclusive and does not marginalize the Other. Israel’s existence will be in harmony with the world, and beneficial to it. But here it is missing. Perhaps, in the wake of the deterioration of relations between Jacob’s family and the people of Shechem, the redactor found it hard to hold on to the optimism upon which an inclusive world outlook depends. I’d like to think it is not a significant omission, and that we’re allowed or even expected to add it on on our own.

2. The land can provide a home without it having to be our exclusive possession. In other biblical passages, the idolatry of the indigenous people of Canaan is seen as a threat to Israel’s covenant with God, but there is no mention of that fear anywhere in Genesis; on the contrary, they are often depicted as God-fearing. For many decades now, interfaith understanding has taken the place of interreligious polemics: both Christianity and Islam are acknowledged as monotheistic religions even by traditional halachic authorities, let alone in our spiritual niche, where our commonalities with other faiths are gladly prized and celebrated.

3. While this is not made clear in this chapter, the promise of the land must be seen within the context of the covenant with God, which, as we learned in chapter 18, demands moral sensitivity. In the Jacob story, the Torah frowns on dishonorable behavior three times, twice in his depriving Esau of the birthright and the blessing, and again when his sons trick the people of Shechem into circumcision. Jacob has to go into a twenty year exile because of the former, and live with the animosity of his neighbors in the latter; the descent into Egypt is precipitated by sibling rivalry among Jacob’s children, a family curse which began two generations earlier with the limited moral vision Abraham displays towards Sarah and Hagar.

4. The promise of the land was always conditional upon moral behavior, and dispersion upon the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah was understood as punishment for sin, as well as that which occurred after the destruction of the Second Temple. Could the challenge of honorable coexistence with the Palestinians be today’s test of our moral standards, and the condition for our prospering in the land? Can there be a bigger betrayal of the land as a place of refuge and blessing for all than the way it has become the anchor for our privileged lives at the expense of refugees, the millions of Palestinians we have kept from returning to their homes since 1948 or who have emigrated since because of the oppressive conditions of the occupation, and most recently, the African migrants to whom we turn a cold shoulder like the world did to us when the Nazis came to power?


One thought on “Too good to be true: a drash for Parshat Vayishlach

Comments are closed.