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Parashat Vayishlah 5783

December 5, 2022

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My Parasha
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlah
By Rabbi Andrew Hechtman (’03)

On most any Shabbat the world over, b’nei mitzvah children rise before their community and state an affirmative obligation to maintain Jewish identity and live a Jewish future. Most often, they deliver a D’var Torah (teaching) beginning with the words… “My Parasha is ____”. We encourage our children to take ownership of their Torah. As Jews, only knowing the “facts” about Judaism is “livatala”, meaningless, unless accompanied by an evolving Jewish identity.

The concept of differentiation of self is at the core of Bowen Family Systems Theory. Differentiation addresses how individuals differ from each other in terms of their sensitivity to one another and their varying abilities to maintain and preserve a degree of autonomy in the face of other social pressures. The struggle for balance and harmony in our lives is at the very core of the Jungian notion of “individuation”. As complex human beings living in a multi-cultural world, our Jewish “self” is one evolving part of our complex quest for individuation. Who we think we “are” is a snapshot in time reflecting our self-perception of the moment. We are constantly becoming, and our evolution of “self” is scaffolded into the sum of our awareness.

“My parasha” is Vayishlah. For 55 years, I have marked the “anniversary” of this life cycle event as an opportunity to reflect on my continuing effort for fuller differentiation. In other words, to becoming my most authentic “self” more of the time. This is the case for Jacob in our narrative of his life quest. In the language of Internal Family Systems theory: for his “exiled” parts to step back, thereby allowing “self” to be in the lead.

In Jacob, we are presented with a man who has led a complicated life, mostly without resolution. How did his father’s “love for meat” impact his developing self-esteem? What could he offer that his father also loved? How did he feel when his mother put him between his parents and made him lie to his father all those years ago? Did he ever manage to harmonize the “purchase” (theft) of his brother’s birthright? What did Laban’s trickery do to his self-worth? Did he “have it coming” for his previous “sins”? All of this is coming to a head. As he has grown, he faces the same challenges to “self” as all the rest of us.

So now the time has come to face his brother. Twenty years have passed, and the moments ahead will either heal the rift in their family or threaten his very existence. To ease the way forward he tests relationship waters by sending messengers (or perhaps his “better angels”) to butter up Esau. But we know that we must face others directly for resolution and healing to follow. He presumes Esau to be the same shallow person he was all those years ago. When they report back that Esau is coming with 400 men, Jacob’s worst fears are realized. Surely Esau will try to destroy him in payback. He devises an elaborate plan to try and protect his family and wealth. Yet he chooses to leave himself on the other side of the river, alone. In his aloneness and vulnerability suddenly “va’yaiavek ish imo ad alot ha’shahar” (Gen. 32:25) – “a man appeared and wrestled with him until the dawn arose”.

We have all had those “awe-some” times of challenge in which we are faced with our own mortality. We too wrestle with who we are, who we have been and who we wish to become. As we age, we wonder if “becoming” even remains a possibility. Successful living requires learning to manage our “exiled parts” – our brokenness. Jacob’s hip will perpetually remind him of his struggles. Our “exiled parts” remind us of our struggles too. We battle life “ad hashahar” (and beyond) seeking radical acceptance that our past not define our present or future; that reconciliation is possible. Some give up the fight, while others follow the example of Jacob and continue the quest of becoming. It is in the journey itself with all life’s nasty bumps, bruises, and the ensuing scars, that greater differentiation of self occurs. The Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) famously taught, “Nothing is as whole as a broken heart.” To be a complete human being is to acknowledge and come to terms with our breaks. We cannot change the past.

The RaDaK, Rabbi David Kimhi (1160-1235), teaches it was in his struggle that Jacob discovers inner strength and the courage to face his most existential fears. “Ad hashahar” – yes, there is light on the horizon. Jewish prayer is written in the language of the affirmative and so the words of Hashkiveinu, “v’ha’amideinu l’hayyim”; “that we will rise up into life”. Light and personal growth always follow the darkness if we can just persevere.

And persevere he does! He emerges from that fateful night bruised but with a heightened sense of self. Henceforth he shall be Yisrael. Now, rid of the negative connotation implicit in the name Ya’akov (he that grasps the heel) now it is as if he is born anew. Yisrael: “Ki sarita im Elohim ve’im anashim va’tukhal” (Gen. 32:29) – “for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed”. (NJPS translation). In his journey to “self” Jacob has faced his deepest “exiled parts” and emerged to life.

He sees Esau running toward him and fears the moment of retribution has arrived. Imagine his surprise when instead of pummeling him, Esau embraces him, and they cry together! Though the text tells us little of Esau’s life journey and our tradition casts him in the most negative light, he too has been blessed and humbly responds to Jacob’s gifts saying, “I have enough, my brother”. In a biblical wordplay, Jacob makes effort to assuage the guilt he carries, imploring his brother to accept his gifts for “to see your face (Panekha) is like seeing the face of God (Paniel) and you have received me favorably”. (33:10– NJPS translation)

Assuming all is now healed, Esau aspires for them to journey forward together. When Jacob defers, Esau offers to travel at his slower pace. Again, Jacob declines. Esau offers men to help, but yet again Jacob rejects his offer. Esau starts back to Seir and in another “fork in the road of Jacob’s life”, and perhaps in his continuing quest for more complete individuation Jacob changes direction and heads toward Sukkot, eventually arriving in Shekhem.

Our worst fantasies of awful outcomes run deep. But like Jacob’s experience, life itself challenges us to face difficult experiences. The last time Jacob asked for a blessing (in the guise of Esau) his father asked, “Who are you?” (Gen. 27:32) and he answered falsely. Now Jacob has learned that his blessing must be one he has earned in his own right. Blessing is found in the struggle itself. It is intrinsic to Judaism that we wrestle with our faith and struggle with our becoming. So too, our never-ending struggle for “self” to be in the lead, is a blessing in our life journeys.
Rabbi Andrew Hechtman (AJR ‘03) led Kol Ami in Cheshire Ct and served as Director of Judaic Studies at Ezra Academy in Woodbridge CT before pursuing a rabbinic career of family mediation and peacemaking for families in high conflict divorce. He is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Certified Divorce Educator, Special Master in the CT Superior Court, a Certified Family Matters Guardian ad Litem, Clinical Fellow of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, the CT Council for Non-Adversarial Divorce, the Association of Professional Family Mediators, the Association of Family Conciliation Courts, the International Association of Collaborative Divorce Professionals and does pro bono custody mediations for low-income families at the CT Children’s Law Center. He is a member of the Association of Rabbis and Cantors.