Parshat Vayishlach: Fight or Flight
Rabbi Aharon and Hodaya Lemberger are shlichim of Straus-Amiel serving as the Jewish Chaplaincy Couple for students on University of Scotland campuses and in the Glasgow Jewish community
In the portion of Vayishlach we read of Yaakov’s extraordinary encounter, one which would produce two significant outcomes for the People of Israel: the birth of the name “Israel” and the prohibition to eat the gid hanashe – the thigh tendon.
In order to better understand the inherent change that Yaakov undergoes, we must first recall Yaakov’s situation when he initially set out on his journey. “A quiet man dwelling in tents” is the Torah’s first description of Yaakov, in direct contrast to Esav, who was “a man of the field”. This quiet and innocent young man suddenly finds himself on the run, penniless and far away from home. However, at the end of this very long journey, he finally returns to his homeland as the head of a large family.
In our portion, Yaakov finds himself in a difficult situation, to say the least. He must face the unknown – the reunion with Esav – and is very fearful of what awaits him, as the verse tells us: “Then Yaakov was greatly afraid and was distressed” (Bereshit 32:8).
Subsequently, Yaakov employs three different tactics: He divides up his family, which is already a little nation unto itself – “And he divided the people that were with him” (ibid.); he prays to God – “Deliver me, I pray Thee, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esav” (32:10-13); and he prepares a gift – “… and he took of that which he had with him, a present for Esav his brother” (32:14).
The exegetes are divided as to whether Yaakov’s numerous preparations for his encounter with Esav should be viewed favorably, or whether Yaakov should not have given Esav gifts, but placed his trust in God instead. A literal reading of the Torah verses does not reveal any explicit criticism pertaining to Yaakov’s preparations. Furthermore, we are all familiar with the notion that “one should not rely on miracles” – all the more so in times of war, when one is required to take any necessary measure to ensure one’s safety.
However, the Torah mentions the fact that Yaakov slept in the camp not once – but twice. This goes to show that even once all the preparations had been made, something else happened: “And he rose up on that night, and he took his two wives, and his two handmaids and his eleven children… and he sent over that which he had” (Bereshit 34:23-24). Yaakov takes an additional step, and takes his entire family to the other side of the river. His fear of the encounter gives him no peace, and he gets up in the middle of the night, taking one more precautionary step, going over and above any reasonable measure.
The line between the need to calculate one’s every step, while taking the necessary precautionary measures, and the faith one must have in God, was seemingly not clear to Yaakov. After engaging in so many preparations, Yaakov should have left some room for simple faith, placing his trust in the Almighty as well. Instead, fear crept into his heart, the consequence of which was – “And Yaakov was left alone, and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day” (32:25).
What was the nature of this fear? It was not a physical fear. Rabbi Sacks z”l believes it was a fear of his own mission, quoting the Rashbam who likens Yaakov to Moshe and Yonah the prophet, both of whom were wary of the mission on which they were sent: “Those who choose a mission which is not the will of the Lord, or those who refuse to embark on the mission on which they were sent, are punished.” Yaakov was afraid of the encounter with Esav although God had promised the former that he would return home safely. In fact, Yaakov tried running away, but God sent an angel to stop his escape. The fear stemmed from a personal feeling that he was not worthy. But instead of placing his trust in God, he tried running away and was almost overcome by his fear.
But Yaakov – now being the head of a nation, with a mission to fulfill – may not run away, no matter how frightening this mission may be. And, indeed, Yaakov fights his fear, which took the form of a mysterious “man” who wrestled with him. Following this episode, he is given the name “Yisrael”, which means “you have wrestled with God and with men and have prevailed” (32:29). The Hebrew word sarita (wrestled), which is the root of the name Yisrael, denotes a struggle, a confrontation. Henceforth, this is the name Yaakov’s descendants will go by.
Yaakov, who was born after Esav, holding onto the latter’s heel, and had bought Esav’s birthright by means of trickery and deception, can run away no longer. The man who brought forth the Twelve Tribes, and who was the Patriarch of the People of Israel, can no longer conduct himself with cunning, or choose to sit quietly in his tent. The time had come for him to take action and fulfill his mission in the world, by facing his fears, placing his trust in God and having full faith in God’s promise. The new name he receives expresses an inherent change, which will continue to reverberate in his sons after him, who will not only bear the new name, but will also internalize its new essence.
Yaakov pays a price for this moment of weakness – when he allowed fear to sneak in – and comes out limping. “Therefore, the children of Israel eat not the tendon of the thigh… because he touched the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh in the tendon of the thigh” (32:33). From that moment onwards, Yaakov and his sons are no longer allowed to eat the tendon of the thigh, a constant reminder of the fear that had entered Yaakov’s heart, and which could equally enter anybody’s heart at any time; the fear that whispers to us – “Perhaps we are not worthy of our mission.”
We must do all we can to overcome the obstacles in our way and make the necessary preparations. However, we must also leave room for faith in the Almighty and believe in the mission that we have been given – to rectify the world, to engage in Tikkun Olam and glorify God’s name. Rather than dwell on our fear, we must confront it so that we can fulfill our calling.
It is said that the Jewish community of Scotland was founded by Eastern European Jews, who had boarded ships enroute to America and were brought, instead, to the shores of Scotland and told they were in America. In the past there were a number of Jewish communities in Scotland, but today the central ones are Edinburgh and Glasgow.
The Glasgow community comprises some 3000 Jews and is the biggest Jewish community in Scotland. The most active synagogue is situated in the southern part of the city, in the Giffnock neighborhood, which has the highest concentration of Jews. The city also has a Jewish elementary school where most Jewish children study. The community invests many resources to stay connected to the growing number of Jewish students who come from all over the world to study in Scottish universities.