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Parashat Vayislach

December 1, 2023
18 Kislev 5784
Genesis 32:4 - 36:43

Dear Friends,

The first book of the Torah is filled with story. There is so much narrative coming our way that making sense of it all seems almost impossible.

We are confronted this week with Vayishlach, "he sent" (Genesis 32:3-36:43), a Torah portion that includes all of the following events happening to one distinctive family: leaving a familiar environment, preparing to see a family member you haven’t seen or spoken to in 20 years, wrestling with an angel (or is it your subconscious?), the rape of your only daughter and the subsequent violent behavior of her brothers, and it all ends with the death of your beloved wife in childbirth on the road. The final event of this Torah portion is the death of Isaac at the age of 180 and how his two sons come together to bury him.

It is all a bit much for Jacob, just as the present moment is for us. Given what is swirling around the world ranging from the environment that affects every living creature on the planet to the current American political arena, and dealing with the events of October 7th and its aftermath, each of us confronts all of this in our own way.


The world that Jacob lived in was centered around his family, but within that family so very much was going on. Maybe this is an opportune moment to look at him and how he managed and did not manage the extreme situation in which he found himself.  It is when we look at the moment when the two brothers see one another after twenty-one years that has a great deal to teach us at this moment.

There is little trust between the brothers; one sends gifts to soften the situation and the other brings with him 400 men. They have little sense of how they will be received by one another. Is it a miracle that they are able to embrace and not fight one another when they come together? Or is something deeper and more human at work? How often do we build up situations causing deep anxiety within, not having a clue how others are feeling, assured that the worst will happen? And yet when we are truly present and let go of the fear, the anxiety seems to dissipate and one is able to move forward, and sometimes even able to move forward together.

More years pass. The brothers go their separate ways; then, once more they come together to bury their father. The Torah does not tell us the nature of their relationship in the intervening years but there is a remaining bond, an ability to move forward. It is clear that these two brothers who were close to killing one another were able to reach some kind of détente allowing them to find peace. The Torah highlights that truth by ending the portion with a list of both Jacob’s immediate line and what appears to be all of Esau’s line.

In this moment of darkness, the story of Jacob comes to us to bring us glimmers of light and hope. One might think that after all that he has endured (and there is much more to come) that it is time to simply give up and stop living. We look to Jacob as an exemplar; his new name Israel means one who wrestled with the Divine. We continue to wrestle, demanding light in the darkness all the while knowing that it is up to us to provide it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784