December 2017, Parshat Vayishlach

Dear friends,

While I’m no great fan of Kirk Douglas, nor for that matter his son Michael despite his eloquent address in Israel some time last year, Kirk once wrote that in his opinion the stories in the Torah makes for some of the most substantial and compelling movie scripts. He meant this as the highest possible compliment writing it very late in life when he rediscovered his Judaism after he miraculously survived a helicopter crash in which he was the sole survivor.

Whilst I think the Torah is more than a bundle of awesome movie scripts, I think he has a point. The stories in the Torah are so absorbing because they are so incredibly human. From the murderous jealousy of Kayin, to Korach’s political aspirations, to King David’s unquenchable lust, the Torah is instructing us regarding very human issues. The rabbis, in fact, learn from these episodes that jealousy, pursuit of power, and lust, drive a person crazy.

A prime example of this is Yaakov – Jacob, the principal character of this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayishlach.
The first story the Torah tells us of Yaakov is the circumstances of duress in which he obtains the deed of the firstborn from his brother Esav. Back then the firstborn son received the entire inheritance and Esav was the firstborn. And he was a hunter too. For those who have watched enough Attenborough documentaries know that the success rate of most hunts in the animal kingdom would be less than 30%. So here we have Esav, who has gone out hunting, obviously unsuccessfully, and returns famished, feeling he is about to die. Yaakov just happens to be cooking this fabulous red lentil soup which as a Middle-Easterner makes my mouth water as I write these words. Esav is starving and begs for some food. Yaakov says sure, no worries, just sign under the dotted line transferring your rights as a firstborn to me. Morally questionable to say the least.

Next we are told of Yitzchak wanting to bless Esav who was clearly his favourite. Yitzchak’s wife Rivka had other ideas. She gets Yaakov to actively deceive his father who was blind and quite possibly not fully there either. Yaakov dresses up, brings cooked food Rivka made, and lies to his father that he is Esav, thereby securing the blessings designed for Esav. If the previous episode was duress, this is outright fraud.

In Yaakov’s defence, he was the civilised one. He was the settled one of the two brothers who could conceivably be the father of the great nation of Israel that God keeps promising. His mother Rivka clearly thought that to be the case, and we all know mothers are the truest judges of their children’s characters. Furthermore, he was the literate one, he was the technologically advanced one able to grow and harvest lentils as he pleased, and he was the legally-minded one.

No great nation can come out of a hunter. At best, they create successful family clans. True their life is pretty sweet and lazy, but constrained by their environment like the rest of the animal kingdom. Civilisation requires sophistication in technology, literacy, and legal codes as the bed-rocks.

So right from the get go we are exposed to Yaakov’s world where things aren’t black and white. He has to make calls that are questionable even if ultimately exonerated.

The next thing we learn of Yaakov is that he is a romantic and a very hard worker. He believes in love at first sight and follows it up with 14 years of labour to win his bride’s dad over. His love for Rachel is truly one of the most moving love stories that unfortunately ends in tragedy when she dies in childbirth with her second son, Binyamin.
But even this love story has its complex side. After all, Yaakov had another wife, Leah, who was Rachel’s older sister. True, he never wanted to marry her and was deceived into it. Still, his lack of sensitivity toward her paints a less than saintly picture. She is clearly yearning for his affection and at one point even literally buys time from Rachel to spend with Yaakov in exchange for some pickings of her son. Every time she had a child she hoped that maybe now her husband will love her. She is a woman desperate for affection in a loveless marriage outdone by her very own younger sister.

Not only did Yaakov do nothing to assuage her sense of belittlement and lovelessness, he actually played it out in the most appalling way. When he was preparing to meet his brother Esav after twenty years, and feared Esav would kill them all, he decided to break up his camp and position them in order of his love for them. First he placed the concubine/wives and their kids in the most immediate danger, then Leah and her kids, and his favourite Rachel he put last. It is heartbreaking to conceive of Leah’s emotions at this point in time.

After sweet-talking his way out of Esav’s legitimate fury and placating him with a myriad of expensive gifts, Yaakov settles down in Shchem. His sons are all earning their keep looking after the animals in the fields and his daughter Dinah ends up having sexual relations with the clan-leader’s son, Schem. When the boys hear of it they are seething. Clan leader Chamor, and his amorous son Shchem, come to discuss a deal with Yaakov so that Shchem and Dinah can get married.

Two sons of Yaakov, Shimon and Levi, hatch a plan between themselves. They play along with the suggestions of becoming one people on condition they all circumcise to which they agree. On the third day when all the men, the natural warriors, were in excruciating pain after their circumcision they came in and slew them all. The women and children they took as slaves.

Yaakov’s response? He fumes but for all the wrong reasons. He scolds his sons for putting him in danger as he is few in number compared to all the locals who might think that his sons’ behaviour was less than honourable and decide to kill him and his entire family. No mention of the extreme immorality of the act!

Even if the brothers thought Shchem had raped their sister Dinah, of which there is no evidence and in fact plenty of evidence to the contrary, what right had they to go and kill the entire male population of the city and subjugate their wives and children into slavery?! What sort of horrible collective punishment is this that would have their great-grandfather Avraham turning in his grave!? Whilst Avraham challenged God to spare every last innocent, these murderous hot-heads had no problem killing every last innocent using extreme deception!

The fact is that Yaakov was a complicated character because he was human. He lived at a time and place where these things were acceptable and so therefore we cannot stand in judgement. He had a huge loving soul, boundless energy, and one who put family first. Yet he was also a deeply flawed human being.

This is perhaps why he was the Patriarch who fathered the Twelve Tribes which was truly the beginning of the nation called Children of Israel. Whereas Avraham was a pure saint, Yitzchak an enigma, Yaakov was the appropriate one to father the nation proper precisely because he was the most relatable.

For those who want part 2 and 3 of the trilogy, I encourage you to come to Shule Shabbat morning.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shneur