PARSHAT VAYISHLACH – A MESSAGE FOR THE POSTMODERN AGE?

For a printable PDF version click here: parshat vayishlach 5778 edited

We are privileged to live in unprecedented times. Never before in the annals of Jewish history have we had a modern democratic Jewish state. Never in the annals of human history has mankind held such extreme power and resources at its disposal. Never in the annals of either Jewish or human history has humanity been as free and open to choices as it is today. But surprisingly never before have we been as afraid, insecure, unsure of what to do and how to interpret our reality. Never before have we been mute in front of our challenged youth, ourselves unsure of how to address their queries. Absolute answers don’t suffice. Rigid structures of practise don’t satisfy, neither pietism or nihilism offer satisfactory solutions to the increasing schism we see in the souls of the young generation. In the language of postmodernism, they are deconstructing the rigid structures that have been standing for centuries. What we need to say to them is that authentic religion is one infused with doubt as opposed to certainty. What they need to hear is that we are willing to engage in the dialogue and are not afraid of taking on a renewed identity, even if that means making sacrifices and changing the status quo. But concurrently we must insist on holding on to remnants of the past and the riches it possesses. We must remember and recount so that we can build and reimagine. In integrating the past and the present and looking to the future we must form new perspectives and challenge old structures.

In this week’s Parsha, Yaakov struggles with a stranger before facing his past in the guise of his brother Eisav. The encounter can be read on the literal level but it’s language, content and quality beckon a metaphorical psychoanalytical reading. Yaakov is about to face the supressed elements of his past that he has tried hard to forget.
וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם. ה וַיְצַו אֹתָם, לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תֹאמְרוּן, לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו: כֹּה אָמַר, עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב, עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה
4 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom. 5 And he commanded them, saying: ‘Thus shall ye say unto my lord Esau: Thus saith thy servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now. (Bereshit 32)
Yaakov recounts to Eisav that he has been living with Lavan and he has been אחר – delayed – until now. The delay in returning can also be attributed to his sense of ‘אחר – otherness’ within himself. To not be unsure of self can lead to a delay in movement. If we are ‘stuck’ in past ruminations, we cannot possibly move forward. Before encountering Eisav, Yaakov must encounter the ‘other’ within himself – the supressed self.

At a climatic moment in his encounter with the stranger/angel he asks Yaakov to ‘relive’ the moment he becomes ‘other’ reexperiencing the deceit that torments his soul. Asking the very same question his father asks him many years earlier ‘what is your name’ and he replied ‘Eisav’, Yaakov attempts to counteract the betrayal by answering ‘Yaakov’. His impulsive desire to return to the moment-before, to relive it again without the betrayal is clear. He no longer wants to be haunted by the ‘Eisav’ identify he stole, he craves the simplicity of one identity, one self, of simple structures and unitary truths. He knows that the modern state of Israel is not the shtetel of Europe, that the pious Jew – pintele yid – of the Nineteenth and Twentieth century is not the Israeli Sabra of the Twenty First. But the stranger’s response is telling – No you cannot return to who you were, he will not be able to return to the shtetl of Europe, to ‘simplicity’ of a tent dweller. Too much has ensued, too much has changed and thus so must his identity. Time and history change our identities, and though there are moments of deep nostalgia for what was, it cannot and will not return. We must learn to live with new dimensions of reality. We must adopt new identities that make space for the ‘other’ even within ourselves and allow the integration of past and present. The reply of the Stranger denies Yaakov this return. “And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men, and will prevail.’ (verse 29) A struggle it will be, but ultimately, you will prevail and ultimately leave renewed and at peace.

In this reading, Yaakov’s insistence on receiving a bracha from the ‘other’, (verse 27) has profound implications for us in todays world and in general in confronting challenges.
Yaakov won’t let go until he has made good, created a blessing from the past, even if in confronting its terrors creates a disability, a limp, a scar that won’t go away. The horrors of the past century have left a deep scar in our psyche and on our commitment to the covenant. But the essence of our Jewish identity is that we live within the framework of covenant – brit. That means that in the darkest of nights, when we don’t even want to face ourselves let alone God, we find the hope and the faith not to let go. When in the light of day, we are not afraid to remember that which has been supressed that which we want to forget, however painful and disabling it may be, we must do so and come out of it blessed. To know himself and be able to move forward Yaakov had to confront himself and his past. He had to relive painful memories and find a way of identifying a new self. He had to learn to ‘להגיד הנשה’ – to speak of the forgotten (supressed memories create pain, but it is essential to speak of them, however painful, in order to reach a sense of peace – thus this episode ends with the scar being on the גיד הנשה – see Shmuel Klitsner: Wrestling Jacob for further discussion). Covenant means that our relationship with God is not ‘chalak’ simple and straightforward but ‘yisrael’ a struggle, a challenge, a cause to fight for. It means, most importantly, that the only way we can become שלם -complete is to face head on our past and our future and know that part of the challenges is to integrate all elements of self and peoplehood to create a working national identity. Living in transformation is frighteningly uncertain, but also ecstatically promising. To reach integration means admitting our limits and enduring fragmentation.

Part of our strength has been the innovative way we have, as a nation, restructured our religious framework throughout history, managing to integrate the fundamentals of our past with the beauty and realism of the presence. It is not easy and never has been, it is not chalak – simple, straightforward, it is a struggle and a challenge. Sacrifices will naturally have to be made, we may walk away with a limp but our triumph will be, as Yaakov’s is in his encounter, to search for the blessing with the knowledge that we will prevail emerging stronger with a renewed identity having integrated all parts of our national self. As the Torah tellingly recalls of Yaakov immediately following the encounter with Eisav:
יח וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר. יט וַיִּקֶן אֶת-חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר נָטָה-שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ, מִיַּד בְּנֵי-חֲמוֹר, אֲבִי שְׁכֶם–בְּמֵאָה, קְשִׂיטָה. כ וַיַּצֶּב-שָׁם, מִזְבֵּחַ; וַיִּקְרָא-לוֹ–אֵל, אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
18 And Jacob came in peace(whole) to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city. 19 And he bought the part of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money. 20 And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel. (Bereshit 33:18)
A tent dweller and the man of the field – the chalak – clarity and sade – entanglement. Only in his integration of dual identity does he becomes – shalem – complete and whole.
Let’s not be afraid of the changes we see, lets embrace the historical transformations we are witnessing and strive to integrate all elements of our changing nation, struggling authentically and honestly with men and God thereby exemplifying our name, Yisrael.

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