Drash on Parashat Vayishlach
Rabbi Fred Morgan
Rabbi Emeritus, Temple Beth Israel
St Kilda, Victoria
To the unwary reader this week’s portion Vayishlach seems to be all about Jacob, third patriarch of the Jewish people. The opening narrative, Jacob’s return to Canaan after 20 years’ exile, is so powerful that it’s easy to overlook the other characters who appear. When Jacob wrestles through the night with the strange man on the bank of the Yabbok, he somehow discovers himself, his true nature which is captured by his name change. Jacob is now Israel, one who “struggles with God and men” and survives.
But another figure looms over the story of our patriarch. That is the figure of Esau. Without Esau, Jacob has no story. His entire life is a struggle with his twin. According to many commentators, the strange man with whom Jacob wrestles is either Esau’s guardian angel or Esau’s champion, his representative hero. It is only in relation to Esau that Jacob’s exile and return make sense.
This impression is reinforced by Esau’s re-emergence at the end of the parashah. The final chapter of Vayishlach is entirely devoted to Esau and his toledot or lineage. In effect, Esau’s life book-ends the life of Jacob. At the conclusion of their father Isaac’s life they appear together to bury him.
Esau’s impact on Jacob is profound. In a deep way their relationship gives Jacob his purpose and direction. This is revealed in the other major episode in Vayishlach, the narrative of Dina and her rape by Shechem. Dina’s brothers Shimon and Levi take brutal revenge for this violation of Dina by massacring all the men of Shechem. In the midst of all this violence, Jacob remains silent. He has no voice, he is distracted and inattentive to what is going on around him. I would suggest that his inner focus is so heavily on Esau that when Esau is absent, Jacob has no point of reference for his own life.
From this observation comes a deep insight into our meaning as a people. We can survive on our own, but we cannot act meaningfully on our own. The purpose of our Jewish identity depends on our involvement with others. We work out who we are by connecting with others who are different from us. The ethical imperative to engage with those who are different is expressed by our commitment to tikkun olam, our obligation to mend the broken world around us.
Last week Temple Beth Israel’s “Project Dignity” hosted a remarkable film screening. The film was Journey Beyond Fear. It tells the story of an Afghani/Iranian family, persecuted because of their “intermarriage” (the husband and wife came from different minority ethnic/religious groups), who waited for years in Malaysia as stateless refugees to receive visas to Australia. We heard many stories of this family. Their daughter, who learned English at a volunteer-run “community school” (as a stateless refugee she was not allowed to study in the public system), had to leave school at 15 and go to work to help support the family. Her employer withheld her salary on the grounds that she was doing the girl a favour by “protecting her” from the authorities. The girl contemplated suicide, as did her younger sister. The mother was in deep depression. The father struggled to support the family by baking flat bread.
We watched as the family cried and laughed together, struggling to keep hope alive in the midst of their dire situation. After years of waiting, redemption finally came when they received their visas and arrived in Australia. They are now settled in this country, the father has a steady job and the daughters are all in education. The oldest is soon to complete her nursing degree at a university in Melbourne.
Following the film there was a Q&A with the director of the film and the oldest daughter, as well as a representative from a centre at Deakin University that was set up to support students from refugee backgrounds.
A few thousand refugees come to Australia annually. The process for selection is completely opaque and incoherent to you or me. There is no “queue”. There is no transparency. No-one outside the bureaucracy knows who is where in the system.
Despite all the years of frustration and despair waiting for an Australian visa, these gentle, industrious, gracious people think Australia is the most wonderful place in the world. They are right, of course; it is truly a blessed country. But the process for accepting refugees is a broken system, and it is human beings who suffer in the end. The trauma that will always haunt this family was palpable.
Our meaning and purpose as Jews, the children of Jacob/Israel, is bound up with others like this family who are different from ourselves. We sometimes fear them, because they are strangers to us. But they are our Esau, our brother. I truly believe our self-understanding as Jews depends on coming to know them and showing them our love as fellow human beings.