Sunday, November 29, 2015

Parshas Vayislach - Lifting the Name of Exile

Parshas Vayislach begins with Yaakov appeasing Esav and the climax of its action is the abduction of Dinah and the massacre of Shechem by Yaakov's sons to his disapproval.

The question of whether Yaakov should have appeased Esav has been the subject of some debate among the Rabbis. And yet what stands out at the close of the previous Parsha, in Yaakov's confrontation with Laban and his entire history is the avoidance of conflict.

From the beginning Yaakov is described as Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim. He's a mild-mannered man who stays in the tent while his brother Esav goes out and hunts.

And yet Yaakov is not weak. He's able to lift the rock from the well, a physical feat that it takes all the shepherds to accomplish, and he wrestles with an angel. Nor is he a coward. He doesn't flee either Esav or Lavan until he is told to do so, respectively by his mother and G-d. He is even born wrestling with Esav, gripping his older brother by the heel.

What is it about confrontation that bothers him so much? We have a hint of it when he curses Shimon and Levi on his deathbed for their massacre of Shechem. He doesn't curse them. Instead he says, Arur Appam. He curses their anger.

Anger is also an attribute closely associated with Esav. 

Of Edom, the Prophet Amos says, "For three transgressions of Edom, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because he did pursue his brother with the sword, and did cast off all pity, and his anger did tear perpetually, and he kept his wrath for ever." (Amos 1:11)

Despite the temporary reconciliation with Yaakov at the beginning of the parsha, Esav is unable to abandon a grudge. By the end of the parsha, he has left to find space away from Yaakov, a split that like that of Avraham and Lot, foreshadows a larger breach between peoples.

Yaakov rejects this endless hatred. The burning wrath. It's alien to his nature. He is an Ish Tam. A quiet man. He will do what is right, but try to do it in such a way that it angers no one.

It's why Yaakov is willing to appease Esav to try and bring out brotherly feelings in him. It's why he generally acts indirectly to take what is his, whether with Esav's birthright or Lavan's flocks.  

And yet this approach is insufficient. Yaakov's willingness to tolerate abuse rather than give in to anger allows Lavan to exploit him for decades. When driven to extremity, Yaakov finally unleashes his resentment on Lavan. It is this which finally convinces Lavan to make peace with him.

Edom's anger is a curse, but Yaakov's excessive desire to avoid conflict is also a problem. Esav can't stop hating and Yaakov hates being hated. Even when he's the victim, he doesn't want to take any course of action that will anger others and will make him seem hateful in their eyes.

"You have troubled me to make me odious in the eyes of the inhabitants of the land," he complains to his sons over the massacre.

This is still a problem for the Jewish descendants of Yaakov who fear being hated most of all. They will go to great lengths laboring for others to avoid being hated. But the actions they take to avoid being hated, like Yaakov, make them hated. The more they act indirectly, the more they are hated for it. Their avoidance of conflict leads to exploitation, conspiracy theories and contempt.

Before Yaakov's confrontation with Esav, he experiences a mysterious visitation. An angelic visitor wrestles with him until the dawn and changes his name. And yet unlike Avraham, whose name was changed permanently, Yaakov's name continues to be used, though G-d and the angel both announce that his name will no longer be known as Yaakov, but Israel.

The name Yaakov, with its reference to being born clutching Esav's heel, had a derogatory connotation to it. In the wrestling match with Esav's angel, it's Yaakov's thigh that is injured. The terms of the conflict have changed. Yaakov is no longer clutching Esav's heel. He wrestles with his angel on even terms, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh.

And he wins the name, Yisrael. He is no longer Yaakov, the clutcher of Esav's heel, but Israel, who can "wrestle with men and angels and prevail". Yet Yaakov continues to be his old self. He continues appeasing Esav. He relies on the goodwill of Hamor by buying land from him.

Yaakov or Jacob can be seen as his 'slave name'. His exile name. Yisrael or Israel is his triumphant name. It's a name that he rarely adopts and we see it mainly in his interaction with his children. It is they who can carry it because they are able to channel anger when necessary. Despite the conflict with Yosef, the climax of the story has the entire family putting aside its anger at each other.

Unlike Esav, they do not keep their wrath forever. Even when they do terrible things to each other, they forgive each other.

Why are they able to forgive each other? Joseph explains to his brothers why he does not hold on to his anger against them even though they sold him into slavery. "'Fear not; for am I in the place of God? And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but G-d meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive."

Yaakov says something very similar to Rachel when she demands children, "Am I in the place of G-d?"

This is where Yaakov and Yosef differ from Esav. They see hardships as the work of G-d, not merely men. It is this attitude that enabled the Jews to survive for so long in exile. They saw themselves as not oppressed by men, but put through trials by G-d. The outcome is the one willed by G-d.

This is the source of their endurance. It is why G-d states that He loves Jacob, but hates Esav.

Jacob has many faults, but he ultimately turns to G-d as the author of his life. Esav does not concern himself with G-d. Instead he maintains endless grudges and hatreds for every setback. He never recognizes his own flaws or faults. Instead he is always seeking revenge for his failures.

And yet the suffering of exile, the life of Jacob, is not meant to be the permanent condition. Jacob is the most deprived of the forefathers, but he is also the path to Yisrael. The way to triumph.

Jacob allows men power over him because he believes it is G-d's will. He deals with matters indirectly, at the heel level, instead of at the thigh. Yisrael contends with men and even with angels because he believes that is G-d's will. He doesn't carry enduring grudges. Instead he does what is right. He can feel a momentary anger over an injustice without letting it consume him in pettiness.

This is what Yisrael is meant to be. It is his free name. It is the name of the end of exile.

The free Hebrew slaves could not yet become Yisrael. Instead they feared the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Caananites and nearly everyone they came across more than G-d. It was only their descendants who could enter the land.

When G-d changes Avraham's name and Sarah's name, it is right before he promises him a true son. It is at this point that his name changes. G-d changes Yaakov's name to Yisrael before the birth of Binyamin, his final son. Yet Yaakov's name continues to be used. What's missing?

In his deathbed blessings, Yaakov concludes with a blessing for Binyamin. "Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth; in the morning he devoureth the prey, and at evening he divideth the spoil.'" The evening is often believed to refer to the End of Days.

Previously, Yaakov is referred to as Yisrael in the blessing of Yosef's sons. In the climax of that blessing, he for the first time takes credit for the capture of Shechem.

"And Israel said unto Joseph: 'Behold, I die; but G-d will be with you, and bring you back unto the land of your fathers. Moreover I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.'"

Yaakov disavowed it, but Israel takes credit for it in the context of the conquest of Israel. A project that will fall to his descendants.

After Binyamin's blessing, the twelve sons are referred to as "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel".

The final transformation of Yaakov into Yisrael is an ongoing project. It will be complete with the End of Days when the wrestling match with Esav's angel will resume and be won. When evil will be defeated forever.

In the meantime the Jews carry the attributes of both Yaakov and Yisrael. Often they revert instinctively to appeasement. Other times like Shimon and Levi they refuse to tolerate oppression and pick up their swords only to be shushed by their Yaakov-brethren who fear appearing "odious" to the world.

In the climax of Ovadiah's prophecy, "the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble". In its climax, "Saviors shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau". A judge must act fairly. He does not carry out a grudge. Instead he does what is right. He carries out justice.

It is this justice that will be the expression of Yisrael triumphant.

Yaakov understood the justice of his case against Esav and Lavan and Hamor, yet he feared to confront them with it. His sons lashed out for revenge with an anger that he deeply distrusted because it reminded him too much of his brother.

Not long ago the Jews were bedeviled by Esavs, who impose on them with force. Today they are bedeviled by Lavans who play word games and stand justice on its head in order to assault them. Then, like Hamor, they come for peace negotiations to keep what and whom they stole.

Yisrael will not act out of mere anger. The will act out of a sense of rightness. A sense of justice.

Finally then, who is Esav. Whom must Yisrael defeat and impose justice upon? While the Rabbis in the era of Roman occupation assigned the role to the imperial invaders, the answer was always in Obadiah's prophecy. Seir is not in Europe. It's in the Middle East.

Yemen is part of Edom. The Prophet Obadiah castigates it for standing by when strangers invaded Israel, looted them and then hunted down the refugees. This applies poorly to Rome, but it applies quite aptly to the Arab mercenaries who fought for Rome and other foreign invaders of Israel. Partial invasions that climaxed with the Mohammedan conquest that continues to this day.

Esav does not destroy the Temple. Instead he serves those who do, mocks the Jews on that day and loots whatever he can take. He suffers from an undying hatred of the Jewish people dating back to his ancestor. He claims that they stole his birthright. That his religion predates Judaism.

Yaakov is confronted by the descendants of Ishmael and Esav, and a dozen others, who were once Jewish or might have been Jewish, who claim a birthright that is not theirs. They carry a great wrath that tears at them. They believe that they are entitled to the birthright of Yaakov.

Like Yaakov, the Jews returned to their land while sending presents and trying to appease Esav. Yet this time the appeasement did not work. Esav remained angry forever. He would not give up his anger no matter how much Yaakov appeased him. And so Israel remains Yaakov rather than Yisrael until it contends with Esav, until it does not simply defeat him, but judges him and applies justice to him.

It is not enough to be angry at evil. When good people get angry, they often suffer from guilt over it. Evil can wear anger perpetually like Esav, but constant wrath destroys good people.

Evil must be met with true justice. Not the justice of the apologists which is appeasement. But a justice that addresses the crimes of evil. That accepts no moral equivalence. In the face of this justice, Esav is reduced to stubble. Its claims and demands, even its anger, is burned up completely.

What special power does Yisrael have that Yaakov lacks? Yisrael is the name that states that his status was won by him fairly. Yaakov can only appease Esav's wrath, but Yisrael can burn it to cinders. Yaakov apologizes for what he is. Yisrael claims it as his G-d given right.

Yaakov receives his new name from Esav's angel after defeating him, but like Avraham, he receives his new name from G-d before being blessed with a new son. The hope of the future of the Jewish people lies in raising children who need not clutch at heels, but who have the courage to be Yisrael and to contend with their enemies.