Suffering Thought: Parashat Vayishlah

Parashah Vayishlah

Torah Sparks
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43

Jacob returns to his homeland. He knows that he will have to confront his brother, Esau, from whom he fled over twenty years before. Jacob is faced with a choice. Should he come home and tend to his own affairs, and wait for Esau to come for him, or should he be proactive and be the first of the brothers to reestablish contact between the two of them? He decides not to wait and he sends messengers to his brother, hoping that they may find some way to leave the bitterness of their past behind them. The messengers return with disturbing news. Esau is coming with 400 armed men in tow. The Torah reports that, at hearing this news, “Jacob was very frightened and it pained him.” (Gen. 32:8)

But Jacob’s fear does not paralyze him. It is in the grip of these feelings that Jacob makes plans to insure his family’s safety and survival while, simultaneously, reaching out to his fearsome brother with peace offerings. It would appear that his feelings were instrumental in prodding him into his complex set of responses.

So what were those feelings actually about? The commentator, Rashi, quotes the rabbinic midrash that analyzed Jacob’s feelings in this way: “He was very frightened – that he might be killed; and it pained him – that he might kill someone else.”

Some commentators wonder why Jacob should have been pained at the thought that he might kill Esau or any of his men. After all, they argue, it would a question of self-defense! The killing would be justified! But such a claim is blind to the tragedy that affects anyone involved in the taking of life, no matter how necessary or justified. It imagines that it can reduce the issue to one of balance and quid pro quo. But, if life is infinitely precious it cannot be coldly placed into an accounting column. The heart and the soul cannot be quantified or commodified. This applies to the question of the taking of a life and it applies to the effect that taking a life has on the living.

This is not to deny that sometimes it is tragically necessary to fight and to kill. But it is crucial never to dull our senses to the tragedy itself. Jacob was ready to fight. But he suffered from the very thought of its necessity. His fear for himself and his loved ones did not dull his capacity for feeling.

Unfortunately, as we discover later in our Torah portion, some of Jacob’s own sons do not share his sensitivity, for they massacre the inhabitants of Shechem and then proudly justify their actions. (Jacob curses them on his deathbed.)

And we hear similar claims today. We all share Jacob’s fear – that we are in danger – but too many of us do not share Jacob’s pain. If we wish to take on the heritage of being the true sons of Jacob we need to accept this challenge – to be proactive in our efforts to find ways to live together and to be vigilant that, if we have to fight for our lives, we do not destroy our own souls in the process.

As Thanksgiving arrives, let us be thankful for our hearts and souls and let us resolve to hold on to them.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi David Greenstein

Subscribe to Rabbi Greenstein’s weekly D’var Torah.

Latest posts by Rabbi David Greenstein (see all)

What do you think?