Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Vayishlah (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2005_11_20_archive/html/ as well as at December 2006, November 2007, and December 2008 and 2009.

The Encounter with the “Other”

The central theme of this week’s parashah, perhaps more or that any other in the Torah, is the encounter with the “Other”—or, to a term that is anachronistic in this context, the non-Jewish world. This is expressed, first of all, in the central drama of our reading: Jacob’s renewed meeting with his brother Esau after more than twenty years. This theme appears on three different levels: in Jacob’s concrete meeting with Esau, with anxious preparations, the sending of gifts, the division of his family and entourage into two”camps,” so as to minimize harm in the event of attack (Gen 32:7-8); second, according to a widely–quoted midrashic motif, in the encounter with the strange “man” or angel who struggles with him all night, who is seen as the “Prince” or heavenly avatar of Esau; and finally, in the final part of the parashah (Chapter 36), a detailed genealogy of Esau’s offspring and their clans, including the sequence of kings who ruled over Edom in ancient times (the death of these kings is an important motif in Zoharic literature, seen as a prefiguring the cosmic disaster known as the “breaking of the vessels”—but that is a whole other story).

The second major encounter with the “Other” is in the incident related in Chapter 34—the rape/courtship of Dinah by Shechem son of Hamor, and the reaction of Jacob’s sons to this event, ending in a massacre. I use the contradictory description advisedly: the text tells us that “he lay with her and humbled her” and immediately thereafter that “His heart was attached to Dinah… and he loved the maiden” (vv. 2-3)—so much so that he asked his father to take her for him as a wife; the protagonist, to rather understate matters, had a rather confused idea of how to treat a young woman.

A few comments about the meeting with Esau: Esau is such a powerful symbol in Jewish tradition that it is almost impossible to separate the mythic figure from the literal sense of the Biblical text, so we shall begin with the mythic level. Esau/Edom is seen as Rome, as the Christian Church, as European culture, as the “Goyish” world generally. The struggle with Esau, and with his angel, are seen as paradigmatic of the Jews’ relations with the Gentile world: “When the one rises the other falls; when the former falls, the latter rises.” It is a constant up-and-down struggle, without a conclusive victory on either side. The implication is that relations with the Gentile world are marked by constant struggle, in whose context notions of peace, of harmony, of mutual acceptance and respect, tolerance, cooperation and human fellowship, are no more than a pipe dream —a view seemingly confirmed by much of Jewish history.

I shall leave unanswered here the question: What about modernity? What about the contemporary world? A Christian Church(es) that speaks of reconciliation, of dialogue, of atonement for its own past sins (see Edward Flannery’s The Anguish of the Jews and all those that followed in his wake), of tolerance, that drafts liberal-spirited documents on Jewish–Christian relations, is something new and different in Jewish history. To this one must add the secular nature of the “post-modern” world and its indifference to “religious” differences, and an American Jewish community which is an unparalleled success story (if one discounts the “minor” matter of massive assimilation). Pessimists are quick to see the negative side (including attributing criticism of Israel’s policies to a new form of anti-Semitism), warning that, whenever Jews have become too comfortable in their Gentile host countries, sooner or later disaster strikes. The example of German Jewry is the classical paradigm: the murderous anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Third Reich followed a period of great cultural and social symbiosis of the nineteenth century, in which Jews felt themselves full participants in German life. Earlier, there was the “Golden Age” in Muslim Spain, which ended with the Christian Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula and, after the defeat of the Moors, the expulsion of all Jews in a new age of religious fanaticism and inquisition—and so on. In short, the idea of “a people dwelling apart,” of Jewish singularity, is deeply ingrained in our culture, making the Esau-Jacob model seemingly relevant even today. (This is not a purely theoretical issue: at what point does singularity turn into racism and xenophobia, e.g. viz. Arabs?).

Let us now leave aside the millennia of symbolic resonance, and the reading of the angel as the Prince of Esau. What may we infer from the actual encounter of the two brothers after so many years? We are told that Yaakov prepared for any eventuality: he sent gifts to Esau to assuage any vestigial hostility and to smooth the way for a peaceful meeting; he prepared himself logistically for the eventuality of battle, if need be; and he prayed to the Almighty for help in whatever went beyond human powers. The meeting itself was without any overt hostility, but may perhaps best be described as “correct”: polite, with the minimal expected gestures of friendship, but avoiding of any real closeness. Esau’s suggestion that they travel together for a while is promptly rejected by Jacob on the grounds that he could not travel as quickly as Esau would doubtless like, being burdened by thousands of sheep and other animals (33:12-17).

The second key incident in the parashah is that of the Rape of Dinah. I have already mentioned the ambiguity —perhaps typical of what is today referred to as abusive husbands—of Shechem’s behavior. The invitation to assimilation and intermarriage may be read as paradigmatic. “We shall give you our daughters, and take your daughters, and we shall dwell together and be one people” (34:16). On the face of it, a reasonable, even congenial offer: what more could two neighboring clans want then to unite forces and resources and cement their alliance through marriages (like neighboring royal houses, or for that matter Hasidic dynasties). Yet instead Jacob’s sons use a cruel ruse to outwit them: they pretend to accept the offer, insisting only that they be circumcised as they themselves are—a ritual represented as no more than a tribal custom; then, taking advantage of their weakness, they slaughter them all. It is difficult to view this scene as other than barbaric—as shown by the elderly patriarch Yaakov’s expression of disgust. But two points: one, Jacob’s family saw only the shame and affront of the rape, and not the youth’s expression of real love for the maiden, nor the offer of friendship and merger that seemed to follow. Secondly, in any event the feeling gained is that the objection to intermarriage, assimilation, and becoming one with people who did not share their basic beliefs and values and sense of being covenanted to God, is a basic component of Jewish/Israelite identity as far back as then.

Excursus: The Struggle at the Ford of Yabbok

How else can the encounter with the mysterious figure at the Yabbok Crossing be read, other than as an apotheosis of Esau? Perhaps as a figure representing Death (a popular medieval treatise on the passage through death and to the Other World is entitled Ma’avar Yabok)? As his own astral self? As his own unconscious, past / present / future (a la Scrooge in Dicken’s Christmas Carol—which notwithstanding its title is perhaps the best “Mussar shmoose” I’ve ever read)? It is pregnant with possibilities.

But eschewing the more far-out, “New Age” suggestions essayed above, and attempting to read the peshat, it occurred to me that this encounter closes a certain circle. When Ya’akov left the Land of Israel, alone, he had an encounter with God in the Ladder vision. Now, on the eve of his return (could the Yabbok have been a certain border of the Land, in some views?), left alone for one night, he again encounters God—or at least a messenger who speaks in the name of God. (See James Kugel’s The God of Old on how the figure of the Divine often segues between a human being, an angel, and God Himself). The angel does not disclose his name, but Yaakov responds by saying “I have seen God face to face” and calls the place Peniel, the face of God” (32:30). Moreover, the change of name from Ya’akov to Yisrael is repeated almost verbatim a bit later (35:9-10) in a direct conversation with God.

But what does this struggle mean, per se? Why wrestle with God, or His emissary? On the simplest level, I see this as a certain test of manhood; the ability to fight, when necessary, is part of what it means to be a man; indeed, it is a constant motif of boyhood, one of the ways boys test themselves and learn to become men. To put things bluntly: the Jacob who ran away years earlier was something of a nerd, a “Momma’s boy” whose arsenal of defending himself consisted either of hiding behind stronger, “adult” figures (i.e., his mother), guile to the point of deceit, or flight. On the occasion of this nocturnal encounter, he is about to reencounter his childhood nemesis, who happens to be his own brother, a hyper-masculine figure (a hirsute figure; “one who knows the hunt, a man of the field”), who doubtless frightened him no end as a child. But now he, Jacob, is himself a mature, adult man: one who has known women and sired almost a dozen children; has had experience with hard work in the field and with animal husbandry, with the vicissitudes of (polygamous) marriage, and dealing with crooked people. Now he has to prove himself in one final task, in the specifically masculine arena of hand-to-hand physical combat—that is, the language of Esau. And he realizes that the feared Esau is a man, like himself—no more, and no less—and that he is able to hold his own against him. Symbolically, the struggle ends in a draw—he does not win, nor does he lose, but he manages to hold his own. He is even slightly injured and goes away limping—but that, too, is part of life, with which one may live. (Indeed, this fact was so important that it became the basis for a mitzvah given to his descendants in perpetuity—not to eat the sciatic nerve.)


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