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Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

“Jacob set up a monument over her grave;
it is the monument of Rachel’s grave until today.” (Genesis 35:20)

Parashat Vayishlach describes Jacob’s return home to Canaan and his encounter with his estranged brother, Esau, twenty years after their falling out. There’s a lot of tension and it’s a huge relief when Esau runs to him and kisses him. The two brothers hug, fall upon each other, and have a good cry (Gen. 33:4).

The classic commentators discuss whether Esau’s response to Jacob is sincere. After all, Jewish thought casts Esau as the archetypic villain, even though he never does anything bad in the Torah. It turns out rabbinic attitude toward Esau is a subtle expression of the complexity of personal identity.

Esau is the father of Edom (Gen. 36:1), which in rabbinic commentary becomes the code word for Rome. Rome, of course, is the power that destroys the Second Temple, bringing exile and misery to the Jews. But Rome also represents Hellenism. Rabbi Burt Visoztky (Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary) explains the early rabbis were ambivalent about the gifts and threats of Greco-Roman culture. Many despised Rome even as they borrowed liberally from its literary and scholastic heritage (is it accidental there are 24 books in Homer’s Odyssey and 24 books in the Jewish Bible?).

Jacob and Esau are distinct from one another, opposites, like the Jews and Rome. But they also are twin brothers, inextricably bound together. The rabbis of the Talmud use the brothers as symbols of their particularism as Jews and their universalism as citizens of Rome. The story of Jacob and Esau’s rivalry can be read as a parable of identity exploration and the possibilities of integration.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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