In this week’s Yaakov is finally going to face his brother. Remember, two parshas ago Esav pledged to murder Yaakov. So needless to say, this meeting is somewhat inauspicious. How fitting is it that the story of their family reunion should told during the week of Thanksgiving?
Uncomfortable family Thanksgivings are something everyone has faced at least once. And for some of us, it’s annual. Every sitcom has it’s dysfunctional family Thanksgiving episode, it’s pretty much a troupe. And just this week, SNL did such a sketch featuring the Adele song, Hello.
There are many complex family dynamics that contribute to such discord but I want to focus on one in particular. And we see it in this week’s Parsha.
Yaakov finally decides to return and face his brother, Esav. Yaakov prepares both for a good outcome and for the worst, should his brother and his 400 men decide to kill him and his camp. The night before the meeting, Yaakov ends up wrestling with an attacker all night. Depending on interpretation the attacker is either a thief, the guardian angel of Esav, or God himself. Either way, the attacker, eventually bested by Yaakov, blesses and renames Yaakov, Israel. This is where we get Children of Israel.
Afterwards, the meeting with Esav happens and fortunately Esav greets his brother with open arms. But rather than stay, Yaakov continues on to the city of Schchem. One day Dinah, Yaakov’s daughter, ventures out and gets kidnapped and raped by the Prince of the city, coincidentally (or not) also named Shechem. Post rape, Prince Shechem decides he is in love with Dinah and proposes to marry her. Long story short, Shimon and Levi end up killing the prince and all the men of his town. Yaakov isn’t happy about this and we’ll see the ramifications later in the Torah.
Into the Box
So what does this have to have to do with Thanksgiving? No you can’t murder your sister’s fiancee and all his family. The Sages say this whole catastrophe with Dinah could have been avoided, but Yaakov put Dinah in a box. Uhh… Bible says what now?
One, that seems like a crazy thing for Yaahov to do. And two, it’s no where in the text. So this interpretation is what is known as a Midrash. I like to think of Midrash as the director’s cut of the Torah. Remember the purpose of the Torah isn’t to be a history book or even a story book. Torah translates to instructions. It tells you what you need to know. But if you carefully read the Torah you notice oddities that, if you think about them, don’t make sense or are puzzling. It’s these oddities that the Sages say are clues to deeper understandings in the text.
And [Yaakov] arose during that night, and he took his two wives and his two maidservants and his eleven children, and he crossed the ford of [the] Jabbok. Bereishis 32:23
From this Rashi points out…
But where was Dinah? [Benjamin was not yet born, but Dinah should have been counted.] He put her into a chest and locked her in, so that Esau should not set eyes on her. Therefore, Jacob was punished for withholding her from his brother- perhaps she would cause him to improve his ways-and she fell into the hands of Shechem.
When learning Midrash, it’s important to remember that it’s not THE TORAH. So what the Midrash teaches doesn’t have to be taken so literally. By putting Dinah in a box metaphorically, he was being over protective, but the box also limited his ability to see Dinah for who she really was. Because of that, he missed the opportunity to bring his brother back to the good path. And with Dinah married to Esav, there’s no way the Prince of Shechem would have been able to take her.
Family Expectations and Breaking out of the Box
When we sit around that Thanksgiving table, we have so much family baggage. We’re surrounded by people who have codified an image of us and may be unable to recognize how we have grown. Because they have put us into a “box.” How many times have you felt you’ve made big changes in your life or personal character traits only to slip up once and a brother or sister says “See! You’re just like you’ve always been.” It’s frustrating, annoying, and in the case of the Thanksgiving table, can be daunting.
Unfortunately, in order to break out of the box, it would require changing the people around us. Which we have a limited ability to do (even less so with family.) However we can always change ourselves. We can recognize that we are likely putting those people around us into similar boxes.
So today (and hopefully onward), don’t make the mistake Yaakov made. Be present, try to look at your family free from expectations and preconceived notions, and let yourself see them as they are today. Not as the people you grew up with. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll start to open the box they’ve put you in. Happy Thanksgiving.