By Shari Berman
November 27, 2004
During the High Holidays, I was introduced to our visiting Rabbi, Rabbi Kaplan, as someone about to have an adult bat mitzvah. She asked what my parasha was going to be —and I said that the passage I would be chanting was VaYishlach. She began to talk about how dynamic and exciting this portion was. I said to her, “I am actually just chanting the first reading, so I basically have the part before the car chase.” She said, you could tell the rest of the story… I will discuss that briefly in a moment, but first let’s review what I did chant.
In the very first line, it says: Jacob sent malachim before him. What are malachim? I asked Ziggy, who was teaching us Hebrew at the time and who’s a native speaker to help me translate this word, and he said…and I quote “malachim are angels, no messengers, no angels, no…messengers.” This ambiguity is a perfect example of why I am a lifelong student of languages. Depending on the interpretation, this word can be either translation or perhaps both. I’m sure if I gathered enough Hebrew speakers and readers together, I could even find someone to argue that it means neither. While this may sound like I am making a little joke, this anecdote and the first few lines of VaYishlach are in fact the embodiment of why I am enchanted by the study Torah.
Let me call upon the more than a quarter century of language teaching experience I have for my analysis. A so-called “good” language learner has a high tolerance of ambiguity—this is the technical term for all the many hours that I sat in utter confusion among native speakers of Japanese, where I nodded, and pretended to know what they were talking about when I was fairly certain I did not. The eventual reward for this is I actually did become quite able to understand what they were talking about. Looking at tolerance of ambiguity as a key to help language students improve, resonated for me as a language teacher and grew to be a very important part of my teaching philosophy. After I realized that the quote good language learner could sit back and be tolerant by him or herself, I began to devise ways of taking the less confident language learner on the same trip along the tolerance of ambiguity path and asking for a leap of faith, if you will—asking someone who was clamoring to understand every word and nuance to hold off for a while and try just to be happy with what did make sense. Alice and I wrote a story-based listening comprehension textbook based on this philosophy and fulfilled our mission of instilling an appreciation for tolerance of ambiguity on thousands of unsuspecting Japanese university students. And we saw this work. Accordingly, my approach to Torah study has been very much the same as my approach to language learning. At his Bar Mitzvah last summer, Zach Neely talked about that “which we cannot know.” While I second the importance of that notion, I also propose we think about that which is ambiguous, in that it has more than one meaning, or that which easily goes in two directions.
VaYishlach seems to be very much about that which can go in two directions. Ya’akov, Jacob, is heading back home and he sends a message to his twin brother Esav, Esau, either by messenger or through angels, depending upon your interpretation. He tells his brother that while living with their Uncle Lavan he has managed to do well for himself. The two brothers are estranged and presumably Jacob hopes that telling his brother that he has done well and he has collected lots of livestock and, if you will, support people—this will open up the channels of communication that will lead to Jacob’s smooth return home. After all, with the help of their mother, Jacob did usurp Esau’s birthright and Esau was on record as having threatened to kill Jacob. So, Jacob sends a message and these angels slash/ messengers immediately come back with the news that Esau is heading Jacob’s way with 400 other men. This is where we definitely see things going in two directions. Jacob comes up with what you would call a contingency plan. He has family and servants and livestock—all of which he has announced to his brother—whom, as you might be able to understand, he doesn’t completely trust. Jacob reasons that if his brother is coming with 400 others he may in fact be coming to take Jacob out, so Jacob decides to divide his people and creatures into two separate camps. As we saw earlier in Genesis during the birthright scheme, Jacob is the brains, not the brawn, of the family. Even after he has his plan in place, Jacob is somewhat numb with fear, so he decides to pray.
Jacob prays, evoking the names of his ancestors, G-d of my father Abraham, G-d of my father Isaac. This is where I digress a little. Every time I came to this part of my passage, I thought about the fact that Jacob did not add and G-d of me at the end of his prayer. When we pray today, we use all three of our forefathers—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In its very absence, it reminded me of Max and Bea Schneider, my maternal grandparents, may they rest in peace. When the movie Oh G-d was popular in 1977, my grandparents were ever so amused by George Burns saying, “So Help Me, Me.” Despite the fact that I was chanting about Jacob’s great pain, here, this managed to bring back a sweet memory of my own ancestors for me.
Getting back to the story, Jacob very humbly attempts to remind G-d that G-d suggested he go back to the bosom of his family and that G-d had told him that life would be good for him. Yes, Jacob had managed to pass over Jordan and he had successfully divided himself into two camps, he was almost home but he was still very afraid of his brother—lest his brother find him and kill everyone, women and children included. He once again reminds G-d that G-d promised to make his people as many as the grains of sand of the sea.
This is pretty much the story as we have heard it in Hebrew today. So, perhaps it is more like two settings for two different possible car chases, but the only action I covered in Reading 1 here is: the sending back and forth of messages, the dividing of the camps, the feeling fear and praying, and the reminding G-d that Jacob and his descendents are supposed to go on and thrive.
I asked myself what this scene might look like in 2004. I imagined Jacob leading a caravan of cars with staff and livestock along the highway that parallels the Jordan River. Of course it is very possible that he would have been persona of Jewish faith non grata if he had started out somewhere on the other side of the Jordan River in this day and age, but in my mind I have him going along the highway in Israel that runs parallel to the Jordan River, as Alice and I drove that when we were in Israel. Now, Jacob is almost home and he stops at the—let’s call it the Almost Home Hilton Hotel. He sets up his laptop to use the hotel’s broadband access (available at most Hiltons) and he gets online. He takes a deep breath and he signs onto Instant Messenger – which for the purpose of my little fantasy world, I am going to call מִיָּדִי מַלְאָך (malach miyadi)ְ Although my concoction probably sounds more like Instant Angel–this is not all that far-fetched. After all, some of the original instant messenger programs, like ICQ where invented in Israel. So, for those of you not familiar with IM programs, Jacob brings up a blank box and types in his brother’s screen name—which…let’s say another family member has reluctantly provided. These days, instead of a little brrrring sound, you can have your own little sign-on /slash/ message sending tune or sound for Instant Messenger. My mother uses a Mariah Carey song, my brother Russell uses the crack of a Red Sox bat, so I thought long and hard about what Jacob would use and I came up with something I thought would be appropriate. So, Jacob decides to contact his brother by Instant Messenger and he types in his brother’s screenname—BigMacharOf Seir (big shot of Seir) and he puts in the message box—Hey, long time… and over in Seier, his brother’s machine hears the message sending tune– a-me-e-en (tevir). Essau’s thinking to himself, “Where have I heard that before?” and he glances at the screen. It says will you accept a message from WearyTraveler. Esau figures what the heck and he enters yes. He looks at the message “Hey, long time” and he realizes that a-me-e-en could only be Jacob. At this point, the usually unflappable Hilton broadband connection goes haywire and a system message in the shape of a lightning bolt appears. The angels have seen Jacob make this potentially dangerous gesture and they need to intervene. So Jacob gets a System Message that says, “Yo, dude…as soon as Esau saw your message he e-mailed 400 of his peeps and their heading your way.” Jacob does the only logical thing. He logs off and cowers. He then comes up with the idea of sending half his group in one direction and half in the other and he prays. Last but not least he says to G-d. What’s up with the promise of good things coming to me? I thought you said I was going to multiply like grains of sands? My forefathers have lived for over a century—are you going to let Esau take me out now? And at this point we stay tune for Readings 2-7.
In the subsequent readings of VaYishlach, we have Jacob wrestling with a strange figure. When he cannot overpower Jacob, this figure wrenches Jacob’s hip socket leaving him wounded. It’s said that the sciatic nerve and adjoining blood vessels are removed from an animal used for Kosher meat in deference to this hip injury that leaves Jacob permanently disabled. Jacob then has this rather strange wrestling mate bless him and he is given the name Israel, he who wrestles with G-d, because he has wrestled with G-d and man and overcome. Jacob does eventually reach Esau, and Esau is somewhat appeased with gifts after we have the biblical version of (Oh, you must take them… No, I couldn’t possibly… Oh, you must.), Esau does agree to peacefully accept some of the gifts Jacob offers. We have a long showdown between Jacob’s sons and local villagers after one of them takes Jacob’s only daughter Dinah against her will. This man wants to marry Dinah and he and Jacob seem to work out some sort of an arrangement, but Jacob’s sons can’t get over the defiling of their sister, so they go in and massacre all the men in the village. To review, we have this confrontation that ends up being both spiritual and physical, Jacob’s injury, the changing of his name to Israel, the beginning of some sort of renewed dialogue with his estranged brother, Esau, and the incident with Jacob’s sons wiping out this village—so it would seem logical that we be on the edge of our chair for the exciting conclusion of parasha VaYishlach. However, in what I view as somewhat anticlimactic, it ends with an entire reading of the genealogy of Esau’s family. Esau, although the twin brother of Jacob, married two pagan women and is referred to in very unfavorable terms by G-d, so essentially in this part of Genesis we are offered a long list of names that time seems to have forgotten.
In direct contrast to this Jacob is back on our modern baby name list as one of the most popular and positively-viewed names in circulation. My nephew’s name is Jacob. As Rabbi Kaplan pointed out to us over the High Holidays, the name Jacob, Ya’akov is not flattering–it is interpreted as either held on by the heel, describing the way Jacob came into the world, or usurper/deceiver, describing Jacob’s less than above-board taking of the birthright. Over the years, however, in our desire to root for Jacob as the lovable underdog, another interpretation has sprouted up. We think of the name Jacob as meaning protected by G-d. Jacob is the only biblical character that G-d actually overtly expresses love for. I see this contrast of the descendents of Jacob and the descendents of Esau as yet another view of two very different paths.
As someone who just turned 50 years old, I can’t help but personalize this idea of a contingency plan. If I had been visited by the malachim in 1967 when I was figuring out that I didn’t have the time or skills to have a bat mitzvah yet and I had been told that I would be standing here in paradise 37 years later, what would I possibly have thought? It seems that today, in fact, is my contingency plan. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what would have been different had I had the ceremony back then. (By the way, in Cleveland Hts./University Hts, our bat mitzvah ceremonies were at age 13 not age 12—as is the custom of our more religious East Coast cousins.) In 1967, I had 20-20 vision, so I could have done this without glasses. Of course, I was self-conscious about photos at the time because of my braces. I memorized things quickly back then, but I had less capacity to understand the subtext. Today, I find myself with far more life experience with which to apply my own take on a given situation. In 1967, I had a little reel-to-reel tape recorder. I could have listened to someone sing my part on that… Of course, if I reused tapes, the old track sometimes remained and bled through, so there may have been something like Hey, hey we’re the Monkees in the background of my parasha. For this event in 2004, I was able to use dozens of online resources to help with my studies. In the fall of 1967, the recapturing of Jerusalem was very fresh in all of our minds. In 2004, the Middle East is still one of the most volatile regions in the world and is often in our prayers for peace.
Here in 2004, I have a much more developed sense of gratitude. I am grateful to live here on the Big Island. I am grateful for Alice–for her love, her support and her wonderful food which we are soon about to receive. I am grateful to all of you who took the time to join us today—in a season where there are many other things going on. Thank you all, very much. I thank Dick for coming from O’ahu…and Dick will entertain us later. I am grateful to Barry and Gloria and the band, another treat you are about to receive. I thank Neil and Ziggy for their guidance–Alan for his help with the service. I thank my friends for their assistance and the flowers—especially the large contribution from Jeanette’s not a Florist. And, as I have mentioned, I am very grateful to the Internet. Before my very last comments, Aviva, would you please read that prayer, which is also found in the booklets?
Thank you, Aviva. Aviva kindly translated this for us. I didn’t realize this when I discovered the prayer, but as you can tell by the translation this particular blessing is a bit tongue in check. I also would like to thank Aviva for baking the challah for our ceremony.
In closing, I’d like to thank my Hebrew class for their support. It is unlikely that I would have been teaching an adult-ed Hebrew class in 1967, however much I think of my teaching position as a prime example of the Peter Principle.
Thank you speech in Japanese to my friend Terry who came all the way from Tokyo for two days—followed by:
Shaloha and Mahalo