Parshat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Parshat Vayishlach begins with an account of a complicated process that occurred when Ya’akov returned to the Land of Israel after a 20-year exile. Ya’akov dispatches angels to assess the intentions of his brother, Eisav (the text may be referring here to human messengers, although there are also those who maintain that these were, in fact, angels).
The angels, or messengers, return to Ya’akov and tell him that in their estimation, Eisav intends to do battle with him, mentioning that Eisav was marching at the head of a battalion of 400 men. Ya’akov grows rather apprehensive and does three things: he prays a great deal, he sends his brother a gift of hundreds of animals, and he even prepares for battle. Ultimately, however, it turns out that this may have been a false alarm. Apparently, Eisav had decided to turn over a new leaf in his relationship with his brother, looking for ways to peacefully coexist with him.
Afterwards, Ya’akov enters the Land of Israel and reaches the area of Shechem. His daughter, Dina, goes for a walk in the area, and is raped by the son of the local leader. Ya’akov’s sons, Shimon and Levi, cleverly devise a ruthless retribution campaign and liberate their sister. Ya’akov harshly criticizes his sons’ behavior. Some of the criticism appears in this week’s parsha, and much of it is recorded near the end of his life, in Parshat Vayechi, where he says the following about them:
Simeon and Levi are brothers; stolen instruments are their weapons. Let my soul not enter their counsel; my honor, you shall not join their assembly…
(Bereishit / Genesis 49:5-6)
Once we near the end of the parsha, we also learn that Reuven, Ya’akov’s eldest son, erred by behaving improperly with Rachel’s maidservant, Bilhah (Bereishit / Genesis 35:22). The verse continues:
…and Israel heard [of it], and the sons of Jacob were twelve.
This verse strikes us as odd and puzzling. Aren’t we capable of counting Ya’akov’s sons?
Nonetheless, this verse may be one of the most important verses in the history of the Jewish people. Until now, we had grown accustomed to the fact that our righteous forefathers had sons, some better than others. Avraham had Yitzhak and Yishmael, and Yitzhak had Ya’akov and Eisav. The rest is all too familiar: one son is expelled, while the other continues the family line. The Torah doesn’t delve into the details of Yishmael and Eisav’s lives, but it is clear that they weren’t worthy of imparting the morals espoused by Avraham and Yitzhak, the nation’s forebears, to their progeny.
Ya’akov had twelve sons. He denounced two of them for what he saw as unjustified murder. His eldest son, Reuven, is also accused of improper behavior. Nevertheless, none of his sons are ejected – they all remain in the family. The verse might even be strengthening the message when it says “…va’yishma Yisrael”, “And Israel heard”. In other words, by this time, Ya’akov was no longer a private individual, but rather, he was Israel, the head of the Nation of Israel, and in so being, he does not reject those who don’t appeal to him.
Once the decision was made that we are to begin functioning as a nation, we need to learn how to include people who we would not necessarily invite over for a cup of coffee, or whom we might not even want to have as neighbors. The Torah stresses this by repeating that the sons of Ya’akov are still his sons and part and parcel of the entire nation, even if they sin. We would be hard-pressed to overestimate the value of this lesson.
If we would only understand that we will always be the full “minyan” of Ya’akov’s sons.
If we would only internalize the fact that we weren’t all cast in the same mold, and that diversity is something in which to take pride.
And if we would only accept that we can all be part of the same nation and country – despite our differences – then we can create a multi-faceted society whose members can co-exist peacefully.
Only then will we merit to embody the verse: “And Ya’akov’s sons were twelve.”