Parashat Vayishlah 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlah
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (’11)

Two recent experiences color my reading of this week’s parashah, Vayishlah. The first involved my family watching When Harry Met Sally for the umpteenth time. After the movie, we turned to the DVD’s special features which included an interview with the screenwriter, the wonderful Nora Ephron. In it she said that there were two kinds of romantic comedies. In the Christian kind, the protagonists are kept apart by a real, physical barrier. In the Jewish kind, they are separated by the man’s neuroses.

I thought about that as I read of Jacob’s preparations to meet his brother Esau at the beginning of this week’s parashah. First he sends an obsequious message to Esau hoping for a favorable reply (Gen. 32:4-6). When that fails, he divides his camp in two, seeking to secure the safety of at least part of his clan (Gen. 32:8-9). Then he sends gifts to his brother, along with specific instructions to the bearers as to what they are to say in response to Esau’s anticipated questions (Gen. 32:14-21). Jacob’s behavior displays an essential part of his character. He thinks through every angle and consequence of a situation before acting. We usually think of such behavior as the hallmark of rationality, and that may well be the case here. But in other circumstances, an obsession with imagining every possibility and preparing for every eventuality can cripple one into inaction. It is also the very stereotype of Jewish neurosis. And perhaps Jacob himself succumbs to such neurosis in his inability to respond to Dinah’s rape or, later, Joseph’s reported death.

The other experience that influenced my reading occurred at our synagogue’s weekly Torah study for Parashat Vayera. I have been using Talmudic texts in our sessions and on this day, we were looking at the story in which Satan tries to dissuade Abraham from sacrificing Isaac by assuring him that God has already provided a substitute (BT Sanhedrin 89b). This led to a discussion which was, at times, very critical of Abraham. But as the discussion progressed, I could see that one of our attendees – a Christian woman whom I know to be very thoughtful and insightful – grew more and more distressed.

She approached me after the session. “Why do you keep bringing in Talmud,” she wanted to know. “It takes everything and makes it so complicated. People want assurance in their faith, not all this complication and questioning.”

I thought about her comments as I considered Esau’s side of this story. To me, Esau is a deeply sympathetic character, perhaps more so than his brother. He is impetuous, guileless, quick to strike and quick to forget. He wants to be loved – especially by his parents and his brother – but is never assured that he is. Esau demands the simple response because he, by his nature, is impatient with equivocation.

In thinking about Esau, I understood the power of my Christian friend’s plea. Life is complicated. Often our well-considered actions lead to unintended consequences. And often our passions get in the way of our better judgment. In such a complicated world, shouldn’t faith offer answers, not questions? It’s a powerful argument and one that the many Christians who attend my Torah study impress upon me. They have taught me much; in particular a deep respect for the power of Christian teaching to bring assurance and comfort to a troubled soul. For them, questioning the righteousness of Abraham’s actions at the Akeida undermines the very notion of faith. That is how God made them. That is how God needs them to be.

At the same time, their attendance at a Jewish study group speaks to the power of our religion’s determination to struggle with its texts. We do so – as we do with the Akeida – not to undermine an act of faith, but to better understand what God wants of us. We recognize that such an approach can lead us to apostasy or neurosis (or perhaps both) but we cannot have it any other way. We are, after all, Israel – the ones who contend with God. That is how God made us. That is how God needs us to be.

At the end of our parashah the two brothers stand together at their father’s grave. They face life’s ultimate reality side by side. Perhaps each has come to different conclusions as to the nature of that reality. But perhaps each has also come to the realization that for the other, he followed the path that was meant for him.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT