Parshat Vayishlach: Reunion and Reaction

Rabbi Dana Saroken
Rabbi Dana Saroken (Courtesy)

By Rabbi Dana Saroken

At the beginning of this war, I redecorated our home a bit. I needed constant physical reminders surrounding me that things are not as they should be. An oversized Israeli flag now hangs in the middle of our home, and a huge painting of Prime Minister Golda Meir hangs in our kitchen with an excerpt from these sagacious words: “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons. Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” Over the last seven weeks, I have stared at this picture and thought about these words often.

This week, in the Torah, we continue with the story of Jacob and Esau. After decades apart, Jacob finds the strength and courage to confront Esau, whom he had wronged. Jacob wrestles with the encounter (literally and figuratively) and the Torah tells us that “Jacob was afraid, and he was distressed.” The midrash explains, “He was afraid that he might be killed, and distressed that he might kill.” Rashi adds, “Jacob sends a gift, he prays and then prepares himself for war.” And then Jacob moves forward in spite of his fear.

Soon enough, the long estranged brothers are face to face. Jacob bows to Esau seven times as he draws close, and Esau runs toward Jacob, embraces him and kisses him, and then together the brothers weep. Jacob attempts to give Esau an abundance of gifts, which Esau attempts to refuse. And then comes one of the most beautiful interactions in the Torah: Esau tells Jacob to keep his gifts because, “I have plenty, my brother,” and Jacob responds, telling Esau that “seeing his face is like seeing the face of God.” In that moment, it seems like we finally have our happy ending.

But in the very next verse, Esau suggests that they all journey onward together, and Jacob declines. He prefers to go at his own pace and part ways. Esau returns to Seir while Jacob goes to Shechem in the land of Canaan. It was there in Canaan that the unimaginable happened: Dina (Jacob’s only daughter among many sons) goes out to find some girls to play with when Prince Shechem “saw her, took her by force and violated her.”

Jacob heard about the rape while his sons were out in the field and he stayed silent. Jacob’s sons respond differently. They heard about the rape, they were grieved and fiercely incensed, and exacted revenge on the entire community that had defiled their sister.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe comments on Simeon and Levi’s actions, saying that, “The integrity of Israel was at stake, and the brothers of Dinah could give no thought to their own person — not to the jeopardy of their physical lives, nor to the jeopardy of their spiritual selves by the violence and impropriety of their deed. In the end, their instinctive reaction, coming from the deepest place in their souls — deeper than reason, deeper than all self-consideration — was validated. G-d condoned their deed and came to their assistance.”

Over this stretch of time, we have all been hearing unimaginable horrors from Oct. 7. Like Simeon and Levi, Israel and the Jewish people were compelled to respond — to protect and defend, to eliminate Hamas, to bring those being held captive home and to ensure the integrity and the existence of a Jewish homeland. Just as G-d came to their aid, may G-d also be with us in our just war for survival.

Rabbi Dana Saroken has been a rabbi at Beth El Congregation since 2007. She is also the founder and spiritual director of the Soul Center.

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