It always amuses me when parsha Vayishlach falls around (or in this case, on) the week of Thanksgiving. With Yaakov returning home to see his brother… the brother he stole both the birthright and the blessing from… the brother who swore to murder him… Yes it’s a good ol’ fashion holiday family reunion. Granted there are probably those among you who have a warm, welcoming, and relaxing time with family making the holidays a pure joy! You people are aliens to me and I think you’re a pack of liars.
In all seriousness, I wouldn’t say my family is much more dysfunctional than most, but I don’t always feel super comfortable around them. Luckily I usually don’t experience the contentious, borderline violent, drama other Thanksgiving meals might have. However I’m still a bit apprehensive when the holiday get together approaches. So Yaakov’s apprehension at the beginning of Vayishlach kinda resonates with me.
Yaakov is so concerned about meeting his brother, Esav, that he takes special precautions; splitting up his camp and family, sending gifts ahead to appease his brother, preparing for war, and of course, praying to God. But when he finally faces Esav (and his 400 soldiers) a strange thing happens. Nothing.
No war, no bitter words, no passive aggressive comments regarding anyone’s weight or significant others. They basically hug it out and chit chat. Rabbinic commentators question whether the exchange from either of them is sincere, one Midrash even says that when they hug, Esav tries to bite Yaakov’s neck. But Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says that at this moment Esav wept and kissed Yaakov with all his heart. So if we go with that interpretation, why does the Torah make such a big deal about Yaakov preparations? Maybe the Torah is just saying, do the work ahead of time and things will work out? Or perhaps, sometimes we get worked up over nothing? But I think there’s something else going on.
WWE: Family Edition
Before Yaakov arrives at Esav, he gets separated from the group and somehow ends up wrestling with a man all night. This anonymous individual isn’t able to beat Yaakov, so he hits him in the hip causing Yaakov to limp. Then finally, the man says he suddenly has to go, and for some reason Yaakov demands the man gives him a blessing.
The whole interaction is bizarre. Where’d this man come from? What’s the limp thing about? What’s the point? To answer any of that, we first have to understand what this man represents. Some say he was a robber/murderer, others say the angel Gavriel, and some even say God himself.
One particular school of thought is that the man is an angel who happens to be a spiritual representation of Esav. Kabbalistically speaking, everything in the physical world has a counterpart in the spiritual world. The phone or computer you’re reading this on, the turkey (or turducken) you’re going to be eating, etc, they all have a corresponding version of themselves rooted in the heavens above. In fact, the Nefesh Ha-Chayim says the only way the Romans were able to destroy the 2nd Temple was because the spiritual version in the Heavens had already been completely eroded away by the Jewish people’s sins.
Why is Esav’s spiritual essence attacking Yaakov? Yaakov and Esav’s whole rivalry is based on this blessing that Yaakov stole. But as I’ve mentioned before, this blessing is more than some nice words. It was the unlocking of the potential for who would be the spiritual leader of the Jewish people. Though Yaakov got that blessing, he still has to achieve that potential. Besting the angel of Esav finally clinches any and all doubt of who is the spiritual champion. So when Yaakov gets to the actual Esav, it doesn’t matter if he has 400 men behind him or 400,000 men behind him, he’s already been vanquished spiritually. Yaakov has already won the fight.
Fighting Family Demons
That’s all well and good for a forefather of the Jewish people. But when was the last time you were able to solve your problems with a Wrestlemania match against the spectral apparition of your nemesis?
Well actually… all the time.
We go into our family gatherings with certain hopes. Whether they are expectations that our family will finally change, i.e. a brother finally respects us, or a mother finally lets something go, or that an uncle won’t have too too much to drink this year and lunch into a political rant. But apart from their behavior, there’s also the hope that our family will finally see us in the new light that reflects the personal, professional, and internal growth we’ve struggled so hard to attain. But instead they end up treating us like the spoiled teenager that they’ve cemented in their mind from decades ago. The point is, despite our wishes, these family members always seem to let us down. But the truth is, it’s our expectations which are a recipe for these disasters.
So what are we to do?
What we learn from the Yaakov/angel title match is that though we can’t change our family, we can tackle the issues ourselves. Rather than focusing on the way we wished our family was, we should be in touch with who they are. Is my mom going to make a comment about my job (or lack there of)? Probably. Okay what might that conversation sound like? And chances are you know exactly how it will play out. So actually play it out in your mind. Go from beginning to end. By doing this we experience the exchange ahead of time and we’re not taken by surprise when the bumps actually happen. You might even find it comical. Or better yet, you might see them act differently, and in doing so, start to recognize their changes! This is what I think the Torah is really getting at.
Striking a Nerve
As I mentioned above, the angel strikes Yaakov in the hip causing him to limp. The Torah singles out the place where the angel strikes Yaakov as the gid hanasheh (or the sciatic nerve) and then bans the Jewish people from ever eating it as one of the commandments. As my good friend Devorah asked, “Why would Yaakov being injured in the hip translate to us today not being able to eat filet mignon?”
Rabbi Avigdor Miller answers the question by saying that the limp caused by the gid hanasheh is symbolic of any handicap that you think holds you back. And by making it unkosher, the Torah is saying that anything that has knocked you down you have to trash and move on. With this perspective, we can see that the issues we have with our families are actually rooted in us.
Yes, some of our loved ones may have serious problems that would drive any right minded person up the wall, but those people are only able to affect us as much as we let them. When they say the difficult things that they do, it hurts us because they’ve struck a raw nerve. If you’ve managed to heal said exposed nerve, then there’s nothing for them to strike. But as long as we’re still holding on to the moments where they have hurt us, still hoping for an apology or some reparation, we will always be at the mercy of a rectification that will never come.
Food For Thought
If you’ve got a great relationship with your family, fantastic. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and be thankful you get to be yourself with people who love and accept you. For the rest of us, try to keep these lessons in mind as you survive the holiday. Though you can’t change any of your loved ones, you can always take the opportunity to test your own growth and humility. But if you fail it’s not the end of the world. Do your best for as long as you can.
Also, keep in mind after Yaakov and Esav reconcile, Esav invites his brother to join him at home and Yaakov basically says, “You go on ahead, I’ll meet you there.” Then he proceeds to go to a completely different city. Basically saying, if you can only stand your family for so long, that’s okay. Sometimes we can only take some people in small doses.
Have a great Thanksgiving.
This blog is dedicated to the refuah shlema of Zehava bat Miriam