Parashat Vayishlah (5780 – 2019)
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
How did it happen that the sons of Jacob, our founding ancestors, proved to be such miserable specimens?
They deviously perpetrate a bloody massacre against innocent people, ostensibly to defend the honor of their sister, Dinah. And they stubbornly show no remorse, refusing to hear their father’s admonitions. (Gen. 34) The Torah makes it as clear as can be that they were deeply in the wrong. For example, these brothers, so adamant, now, about the imperative of family solidarity, later will betray their own brother, Joseph, when they get the chance.
The Torah seeks to show the brothers as hypocrites who employ self-righteous rhetoric to mask their own failings as human beings. And our portion tells us still other damning stories about them. Right after the Dinah episode we learn that the brothers are awash in idol worship and again have to be called to order by their father. (Gen. 35:2-4) And a bit after that we learn that the first-born, Reuven, sleeps with his father’s concubine. This time Jacob hears of the betrayal and, perhaps in exhausted defeat, says nothing. (Gen. 35:22) And all this is before next week’s story of the sale of Joseph!
The Torah draws a stark contrast between these sons of Jacob and the brothers born to Esau. Esau’s sons are listed in a genealogical text that closes our Torah portion. Like most such texts, this one is bereft of obvious drama or interest. And that is the point. Their lives, as full and rich as any lives that anyone may live, unfold, for the Torah, without any tension or struggle to speak of. That is, there is no transcendent dimension weighing on their lives beyond the weight of living itself. But the sons of Jacob, despite their best efforts to shirk their burden, carry a task that is beyond themselves. There is an excruciating pain in the tension between what the brothers are capable of, on their own, and what God – and their father – demands of them.
Yet, somehow, we will see, those demands push the brothers forward to occasional moments of redemption and moral grandeur. It turns out that they always had it within them to attain those heights and create those moments. But they would never have known this about themselves had God’s blessing not been upon them. It is for this blessing that we, today, as Israel, continue to wrestle.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein.