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

“Esau said, ‘I have plenty. Let what you have remain yours.’” (Genesis 33:9)

This week’s perspective on the weekly parasha is dedicated to the memory of Shmuel Benalal, z”l, a Jewish educator instrumental in the establishment of the Mandel Center for Jewish Education, who was killed in the Mali hotel attack. Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be for a blessing.

Parashat Vayishlach describes Jacob’s first encounter in twenty years with his brother Esau. Jacob is fearful Esau still wants revenge for the stolen blessing. So Jacob plans his approach carefully, sending his camp forward in successive waves. First he sends his men (some commentators say angels) with generous gifts of livestock and then his family follows: the handmaids and their children, then Leah and her children, and finally Joseph and Rachel.

Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the pre-eminent 11th century Jewish commentator) relies upon an early commentary to imagine the confrontation between the two “advance guards:” Esau’s men identify their boss as Abraham’s grandson, whereupon Jacob’s men beat them up. Esau’s men then identify him as Isaac’s son, and Jacob’s men continue to beat them up. But when Esau’s men identify him as Jacob’s brother, Jacob’s men respond, “If so, he is one of ours” and stop fighting (Genesis Rabbah 78:11a). And when Jacob and Esau finally meet, they hug and kiss and cry.

This midrash (rabbinic interpretation) identifies two persistent conflicting human traits: fear of the other and the desire to belong. Jacob’s men are suspicious of Esau; he is too different and they can’t find a strong enough point of connection. So they battle. But when they learn he is Jacob’s brother, they acknowledge the kinship bond. They belong. The differences between us that divide are easy to spot. The question is do you continue to look for the similarities that connect? That remains as great a challenge today as it is in Vayishlach.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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