By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
D’var Torah for Parashat Vayishlach
Not much good happens to our Patriarch Jacob in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4—36:43). Insinuation and accusations have caused him to escape from Laban’s house. Unlike his first hasty departure 20 years earlier, however, this time he is not leaving empty handed. He is rich, head of a large family and in charge of many flocks and herds.
But whereas when he left his first home, he was bold and unafraid, this time Jacob has to face his worst fears.
Youth is confident of its own strength. Youth believes in its own power and invincibility. Nothing like life to teach you a lesson in vulnerability.
About to cross the river that divides between exile and home, between his past and his future, Jacob has to face some mysterious being. It’s unclear whether this being is a demon or angel. In the middle of the night the difference may not be all that clear. In any case, the two wrestle all night long. At some point the stranger wrenches Jacob’s hip socket, but Jacob refuses to give in. Even as dawn alights, the struggle continues.
Finally admitting defeat, the mysterious being is forced to give Jacob a blessing. “You have struggled with men and divine beings and have prevailed,” says the spirit, and he bestows on Jacob a new name: Israel.
But Jacob’s struggles are far from over. He now has to face his brother a worse adversary—his brother Esau, who is coming towards him with four hundred armed men. Fearful for the safety of his family, Jacob cajoles, pleads and bribes Esau before the two finally part, each going his own way. This time bloodshed was avoided.
Sometime later, with Jacob and his family encamped outside Shechem, Dina, Jacob’s only daughter, wanders away from the camp. She is seen by the prince of the city, also named Shechem, who seizes and rapes her. Falling in love with the girl, Shechem sends his father to ask for Dina’s hand in marriage.
Jacob is silent, but his sons are enraged. Demanding that all the men of Shechem be circumcised, they wait for three days. Then two of Jacob’s sons, Simeon and Levi, attack. They kill all the males of the city, who understandably are unable to defend themselves, and take all the women, children and possessions for themselves. Jacob is horrified by their actions, but he is silent when his sons retort: “Shall our sister be dealt with as a whore?”
Not long after this terrible incident, Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, dies as she gives birth to Benjamin.
Jacob has had to face life with all its unhappiness and suffering. Yet what he does next is a true testament to his inheritance and legacy: He returns to Bethel and builds an altar to God, reaffirming his faith in the God of his fathers.
In view of all his suffering, this act may be difficult to understand. When he left home years earlier, Jacob was bold enough to question God: “If you fulfill your promise to bring me back home safely,” he says in response to God’s promise of protection. “If.” It isn’t doubt or uncertainty that motivate him. It’s youthful arrogance.
Now, however, even though he is filled with fear and doubt, Jacob responds not with cynicism but rather with faith.
In rising above his personal tragedies (there is yet one more to come), Jacob shows his greatness. Past experience has taught him how to fend for himself. He learned when to fight and when to sue for peace, when to make alliances and when to set boundaries. He has learned that it’s possible to pick up the shattered pieces of life and carry on with one’s duties and responsibilities. He has learned how to draw blessings from even the most dire situations.
But possibly the most important lesson of all came after the terrible events at Shechem.
The rape of Dina was not only a personal act of violence. It was also an attack on the legitimacy of Jacob’s family and household.
Simeon and Levi reacted as people did in those brutal days. They defended their sister’s honor; they upheld and restored their family’s legitimacy and integrity.
And yet, they committed an atrocity.
Yes, “the fear of God” kept the family safe from further attacks, but for Jacob there was something much deeper at stake here. So far, his struggles had been with others. Now Jacob had to face his own conscience. Mass murder, no matter how some viewed it in those days, was unacceptable to him. Vengeance exacted on the guilty and innocent alike was something that to his core he believed was wrong. The lessons he learned as a child yet were to care for the weak, the sick and injured. What his sons had done was contrary to everything he ever believed.
In accepting the role of Israel, the father of a nation, Jacob agreed to follow higher standards of ethics and morality. That is why at this point in his life, despite all the tragedies—or perhaps because of them—he fulfills his vow. In Bethel, Jacob builds an altar to the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Sarah and Rebecca, the God of Israel.
In the last few weeks there have been many attacks on the life and legitimacy of Jacob’s progeny, the People of Israel. Terror has taken the lives of men, women and children throughout the Land of Israel. Yet, true to the teaching of Jacob, the State of Israel has acted in accordance with Jacob’s moral teachings.
I remember when, nearly 20 years ago, a terrorist blew himself up near Dizengoff Center, at the heart of Tel Aviv. Thirteen Israelis between the ages of 13 and 82 were killed in that terrible attack. I remember precisely where I was when I heard the news. I was a rabbinic student then, and I was sitting in the sanctuary of Hebrew Union College; it was the middle of morning services. I rushed out to call my family in Israel—thank God they were all safe. But when I returned to my seat in the sanctuary, I felt rage such as I had never felt before. I was shaking violently, to the point where a friend who was sitting next to me had to put his arm around me to calm me.
Though, somehow, services continued, my heart and soul were not in the prayers. Slowly, my rage dissipated. But it did not disappear; instead, it turned to hate. With all my heart and soul, I hated. This was the fourth such attack in nine days. In that span, 60 Israelis were killed by suicide murderers. I just couldn’t take it any more. Above all else at that moment I wanted revenge.
Yet even as I struggled with my emotions, something else arose from deep within me. It was an understanding, a lesson. Better than ever before, I truly understood why the Torah and the ancient rabbis forbade blood vengeance. It was Jacob’s lesson which at that moment resonated within my soul.
Israel’s raison d’etre, its cause and the foundation of its existence, is this moral lesson: That punishment must be restricted to the guilty; that mass retaliation is abhorrent in God’s eyes.
Terror strikes indiscriminately. Terrorists aim to spread pain, suffering and destruction as widely as possible. No matter how great our rage, however, we must not give in to the instincts that would drive us to respond in kind. To be Israel means that we set a different God before our eyes. Our God is a God of justice, not of revenge, of compassion and morality, not bloodlust and cruelty.
We do best homage to our patriarch Jacob when we follow this teaching. I only hope and pray that we and the rest of the civilized world will continue to follow it.