Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Is Us-versus-Them an eternal condition? / Vayishlach

In parshat Vayeitzei, Jacob flees Eretz Yisrael with good reason: his brother Esau has threatened to kill him. Esau has cause, much as our commentators want to condemn him: Jacob tricked Esau out of the birthright and stole the blessing intended for him. Jacob absconds with the inheritance and future assured Esau by birth order; most importantly, he carries the mantle of the Covenant. Two decades later, Jacob returns to Eretz Yisrael and must face his brother Esau again.

In last week’s parashah, Vayeitzei, on Jacob’s first night alone upon fleeing home, he dreams of a sulam (ladder or ramp) extending from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending and God standing beside him. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 29:2 comments that Jacob’s ladder was not the only special ladder. God created ladders for the princes of Babylon, Media (Persia), Greece, and Rome, as well. Jacob watched each ascend and descend and grew afraid that he too would not be able to reach the top and would fall back to the ground. But God replied, “Fear not, Jacob My servant (Jer. 30:10). Though you go up, you will never fall down.” For the Rabbis, this was reassurance that although the empires of Babylonia, Media, Greece, and Rome rose and fell, Israel would survive.

In this week’s parashah, Jacob meets Esau once again. According to the Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman of Gerona, 1194-1270) the story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau is a paradigm for all time for the struggle between the Jewish people and other nations. God redeems Jacob from his much stronger brother Esau. Moreover, Jacob does not rely on God to save him; he marshals his own resources and wits to protect himself and his family. We learn that in three ways Jacob prepares himself to encounter Esau: prayer, gifts sent to Esau, and by making ready for war if necessary. That formula, Ramban instructs, is the formula to follow for all time.

For legions and generations of commentators, Ramban’s view that in each generation the prevailing condition of us-versus-them is self-evident. Countless enemies have sought to wipe us out, and in each case we manage to survive by a combination of our wit and God’s grace. Who hasn’t heard the quip that most Jewish festivals can be summed up as follows: “They tried to kill, we survived, let’s eat.” Just before sundown next erev shabbat, December 11, 2009, we will light the first candle of Chanukah for 5770. The Maccabees faced an implacable enemy – the Syrian Hellenists – who sought to terminate Jewish sovereignty and dissolve Jewish religion and culture.

We have long focused on survival and have even justified Jewish identity and Jewish living on that account. Is it time to invest our energy in other directions? Judaism has so much to offer spiritually, communally, and intellectually. It offers a host of values to kindle the spirit, sacred texts to fire the imagination, and religious practices to spark the soul. Yours in the inheritance of Jacob. Are you putting it to maximum advantage in your life? Are you enjoying it fully?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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