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[Dvar Torah] Vayishlach

Parashat Vayishlach, meaning “and he sent” recounts the dramatic encounter between Yaakov and his alienated brother, Esav, from whom he had fled 20 years earlier. After years of separation and fear, Yaakov prepares himself for this fateful meeting in the land of Israel. 

As the parasha begins, Yaakov sends messengers to Esav, informing him of his return to the land of Canaan. They return with news that Esav is coming to meet Yaakov, accompanied by four hundred armed men. Yaakov, now threatened by this news, prepares himself in three different ways: he prays, he sends gifts to Esav to appease him, and he also prepares for battle in case war is unavoidable. 

The night before the reunion with his brother, Yaakov is alone on the banks of the Yabok River. There, he wrestles with an angel. This encounter is charged with symbolism, representing Yaakov and his descendants’ struggle in the world. He emerges victorious, though wounded, receiving a new name, Israel, meaning "one who wrestles with the divine".

When the brothers finally meet, surprisingly, Esav shows unexpected compassion, embraces Yaakov, and the brothers are reconciled. The parasha concludes with Yaakov and Esav parting ways, each going to their respective lands.

Let us look for a moment to when  Yaakov, receives the news that Esav is coming to meet him with an army. The Torah tells us his reaction to this news: “Yaakov was greatly afraid, and he was distressed” (Bereshit 32:8). Rabbinic tradition is confused by this seemingly unnecessary doubling of language: if Yaakov was greatly afraid, then surely he was also distressed. Citing a midrash, Rashi comments: “Yaakov was greatly afraid lest he be killed, and he was distressed lest he kill others.” 

In an article, published in March 2022 in the 929 website (a website dedicated to the Tanach daily chapter learning), Rabbi Shai Held uses this explanation to address the topic of: What is the Jewish attitude towards violence and military force? 

He first makes it clear that the Jewish tradition is far from pacifistic. On the contrary, a significant principle of Jewish law and ethics asserts that “if someone comes to kill you, hasten to kill him first” (Talmud, Berakhot 58a). But even so, Yaakov is tormented by the thought that he would need to take a life even if justified. Rabbi Shai Held says: “Justified violence is nevertheless tragic, a manifestation of a world still agonizingly far from perfection”. He adds that today, Jews have Israel; and having a state means having an army, but that is a tragic necessity rather than a revelation of the holy. 

How relevant this parasha is to us, here, in these times, reminding us how far from perfection is this world. But also to have in our mindset what is a necessity and what is an ideal. Remembering this will, we hope and pray, enable us to reach this ideal in the future.

Shabbat shalom,

Hiram, Grade 12