VaYishlach - Weekly Torah Portion

Last year on Shabbat “VaYishlach” I was in Chicago joining thousands of attendees at the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) biennial of North America. No one there envisioned that the year that would follow would fold out to be what we have experienced in the past many months since. We have planned to see many of them join us here in Israel at the Israel Reform Movement biennial, a convention that has become a ‘must be there event’ for Reform Jewry. Within a couple of months, the entire world scene has changed. A small but wicked virus completely changed our life styles. From a society that hugs and kisses we became one that requires social distance, online get together, and deep concerns for employment and health related matters. Our cherished and important biennial had to give way to the challenges presented by the coronavirus.

It was clear at that Shabbat a year ago that the Israel Reform Movement is relevant to the URJ. Every Shabbat morning, before the Shacharit service attended by thousands, there are well-attended sessions of Torah studies. This time the Israeli team lead all of these sessions, exposing the IMPJ and its leadership to many. The story of this Shabbat begins with Jacob’s deliberation of what he should do as he is about to meet his estranged brother, Esau. This had the potential of being a fateful meeting between the firstborn by birth and the firstborn by right.

Usually we speak about two options that a person faces in such situations, fight or flight. At the biennial I dedicated the session I lead to one additional option and therefore I named it Fight, Flight or Find. Maybe it is possible to find another way that is not at the extremes of a fight or flight. Maybe it is possible to find an unexpected solution that reduces the risk integral to each of the extreme options. It is clear that regardless of the extreme option we choose, there are significant risks involved and it is not always wise to take upon ourselves these risks.

When we try to find another option, we are actually trying to plan and this is exactly what Jacob did. He full-well understands that a battle is possible and therefore “he divided the people who were with him, and the flocks, the herds, and the camels, into two companies; for he said, ‘If Esau comes to the one company and attacks it, then the company which is left will escape.’” In a sense he leaves a force in reserve in case a war erupts. He also insures himself in one more way, “he got up that same night and took his two wives, his two female slaves, and his eleven children, and crossed the shallow place of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had.” Every such undertaking that is part of his plan reduces the risk in one way or another.

Jacob does one more thing, instead of just simply preparing to fight or flight, he prepares “a gift for his brother Esau: two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milking camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. Then he placed them in the care of his servants, every flock by itself, and said to his servants, ‘Pass on ahead of me, and put a space between flocks.’ And he commanded the one in front, saying, ‘When my brother Esau meets you and asks you, saying, ‘To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and to whom do these animals in front of you belong?’ then you shall say, ‘These belong to your servant Jacob; it is a gift sent to my lord Esau. And behold, he also is behind us.’’ Then he commanded also the second and the third, and all those who followed the flocks, saying, ‘In this way you shall speak to Esau when you find him’.” It is no wonder that after meeting all these gifts that when they approach each other, “Esau ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

At that session in Chicago, that now seems to have occurred long ago, I suggested to always weigh additional possibilities of resolution when experiencing challenging situations. In these cases, slogans like “Fight or Flight” are extreme and not necessarily the best options. It is better to devote some time thinking skillfully and imaginatively about the various possibilities we have and which are not in the extreme. Mostly answers can be found there and even though they are more complex to articulate, and they too encompass certain risks, it seems that they still bring about less risks than opting for the extreme fight or flight resolutions.

Israel’s politics of last week was not bestowing favors upon us. Stubbornly it insists time after time to be dragged to the extreme, preferring dangerous illusions, hollow dreams, complex twists and petty swindle. We lack a today’s Jacob capable of expressing the nation’s narrative in a believable and honest way so that we can move towards success rather than failure, unity rather than division, love instead of hate. Yet one should never despair but continue to relentlessly seek a solution that will bring us to the most exciting reunion, even if it is not the one we have expected.

Shabbat Shalom and wishes for Good Health.

Reuven Marko, 4 December 2020, 19 Kislev, 5781

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