There’s no doubt that family can be a major source of anxiety, frustration, and worry. Parents may be quick to offer unsolicited advice, siblings can hold long standing grudges, and fights can erupt at any moment. These cycles seem to repeat themselves despite well meaning intentions and efforts to make nice. God bless the holidays, am I right? Even if everyone was willing to attend high priced family therapy, would attempts to change our deep seated relationships ever really be successful?
Parsha Vayishlach is centered on family turmoil. Yaakov has tremendous anxiety as he prepares to meet his estranged brother Esav, who has made it quite clear he literally wants to kill him. Later in the parsha, Yaakov will have it out with his sons Shimon and Levi for devastating the town of Shechem. He’ll almost disown his first born son Reuven for rearranging some furniture. And there will even be a death in the family with the loss of Rachel in childbirth. Clearly, volatile family dynamics are at play in the Torah portion.
Attempts to Protect Backfire
But as much as there are hard feelings, there are also attempts to protect and make peace. As Yaakov is preparing to meet Esav, the Torah lists Yaakov’s family (Bereishis 32:23), but neglects to mention anything about Yaakov’s daughter Dina. To this, Rashi says, “[Yaakov] had put her in a chest and locked her in, so that Esav should not cast his eyes upon her to marry her.” Certainly an odd way to protect a daughter, but I’m sure fathers have gone to greater lengths. When Yaakov’s camp finally does meet Esav, Yosef makes an extra effort to protect his mother Rachel (see Rashi on 33:7) saying, “I will stand in front of her” to protect her from harm. As well intentioned as these acts were, they both ultimately failed. Dina was protected from Esav, but then is taken and abused by the Prince of Shechem (which is why Shimon and Levi decimated the town). As bold as Yosef was standing up to Esav to save his mother, she still dies a few verses later. The Torah seems to paint a picture of futility. However, there is one of these family interventions that succeeds.
Despite the fact that Esav has voiced intentions to murder Yaakov, refused his gifts of appeasement, and has amassed 400 men of war to meet him, their reunion is not only a peaceful one, but full of kisses, tears, and forgiveness. What did Yaakov do to succeed with Esav where everyone else’s actions failed?
Wrestling Angels and Demons
Just before the reunion, Yaakov has his famous wrestling match with an anonymous assailant. They wrestle through the night until Yaakov is blessed and renamed Israel. Most commentators and rabbis understand that the attacker was an angel, with many saying it was the guardian angel of Esav himself. When Yaakov bested Esav’s angel, he proved his spiritual merit over his brother. So Esav’s physical threat would be negated, as most of our physical problems are sourced in spiritual turmoil.
But what if there was more to this confrontation? Maybe something a little more practical to those of us who aren’t at the spiritual level of the forefathers. Let’s consider what Yaakov did. In solitude, he wrestled all night with a spiritual representation of his brother. The truth is, in Judaism, angels and demons may not be so dissimilar. I think symbolically, Yaakov was mastering his own inner demons he had with his brother.
When dealing with family, much of our stress and pain comes from expectations established from past experiences. Words said in the present may be felt as insults rather than taken at face value. Even if interactions from family were mean spirited, we’ve likely seen such behavior before and can come to expect it. It is the problems within ourselves that we’ve not dealt with that the behavior strikes a cord. If we deal with those issues, it doesn’t matter what misguided comments are sent our way. We’d be invulnerable. That’s what Yaakov masters. So when he approaches Esav, he’s able to greet him in peace.
Our families will never act the way we wish they did. Sure, parents shouldn’t be controlling, older siblings shouldn’t act childish, and aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., should be less petty and more considerate. There’s no amount of pleading, condemnation, or arguing that will change them. The best we can do is change ourselves. Though our family will probably never notice that change, hopefully we can make peace with who our family is and not who we wish they should be.
The last paragraph nails it. All we can change is ourselves.
What a great Parashah
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Very well said. In my humble view, the wrestling is within himself; his inner conflicts.
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