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This week’s parsha begins with momentum: having fled the house of Laban, his father-in-law, Jacob now anxiously prepares for his reunion with brother Esau, whom he has not seen since Jacob duped their father into blessing him with a birthright. Much time has passed since then; Jacob is now a father and husband to many; married to Rachel and Leah, he counts their handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah as fellow mothers of their collective tribe of children. And yet, the text tells us as Jacob moves toward his meeting with Esau, “[Jacob] was terrified. So anxious was he that he divided the people who were with him into two camps. He thought, ‘if Esau advances on the first camp and strikes it, the remaining camp will be able to escape.’ (Gen. 32:8-9) Jacob expects the worst from his encounter with Esau; weighed down with guilt, he prepares for the inevitable payback for what he did to his brother so many years ago.
Night falls and Jacob is alone. We read in the text that “a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn. When [the man] saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Jacob’s hip-socket, so that Jacob’s hip-socket was wrenched as the man wrestled with him … then [the man] said, ‘let me go; dawn is breaking!’ But [Jacob] said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ The other said to him, ‘what is your name?’ and he said, ‘Jacob.’ [He replied], ‘no more shall you be called Jacob, but Israel … for you have struggled with God and with human beings and prevailed.’” (Gen: 32:25-29) Jacob, moved by this powerful exchange, renames the site of their altercation Peni-el – meaning, “for I have seen God face-to-face (panim-al-panim) and prevailed.”
It is clear both from the exchange itself and the name Jacob chooses for the site that this has been a holy encounter for him. From Peni-el, Jacob goes to meet Esau where, in one of Torah’s most sacred and heavy moments, the two brothers fall upon one another in an embrace and burst into tears.
This week, many of us will head to gatherings with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving, a secular holiday which, at its best, pushes us to think about gratitude and thankfulness at a time of year when both might be furthest from our minds. From competing Black Friday sales to stressful airplane travel to discussion of current political or global events with our family members, this particular week of November may pose more conflict than camaraderie and more gripes than grace. Yet – sometimes what we need most during this holiday season is a reminder of the powerful exchanges that come when we face those we love panim-al-panim – face to face. Though we may wrestle – physically or emotionally – with the challenges thrown our way, we can emerge from those matches with a greater understanding of who we are … even, in some cases, receiving an unexpected blessing from places and persons we least expect.
With that, we at at TDHS wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving. May it be a celebration of gratitude and grace, compassion and love.
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen
Imagine you’ve just instigated a huge shift in your known universe: having followed the instruction of one parent to dupe the other and steal something of importance from your sibling, you’ve now fled your home and community in search of a new life. You’re alone, on the run, in the midst of a vast wilderness. You stop for the night to rest your head and your weary body; in your slumber, God and God’s angels appears before you, ascending and descending a ladder to the heavens. As you dream God speaks to you, promising God’s allegiance, responsibility and care as you continue to navigate this uncertain road to your future.
Pretty intense, right?
That’s exactly what takes place at the beginning of this week’s parsha, Vayetzei. Our protagonist is Jacob, the man who has just fled his father’s home with a “stolen” birthright, leaving behind an ostensibly furious brother Esau and conflicted mother Rebecca. Jacob heads in the direction of Haran. There he will meet his beloved Rachel, marry her sister Leah, father multiple children and give rise to our Twelve Tribes – but not without another act of deception, this time at the hand of Laban, father of the two women.
Essentially, Jacob emerges from chaos and heads towards chaos. Leaving behind one fragmented family, he finds himself heading toward another. Jacob perseveres in spite of the tumultuous narrative, but it is clear throughout Vayetzei that even as he celebrates marriages and the births of his children, Jacob is a refugee. He is never quite at home in Laban’s house. While he has fled the painful reality he and his mother instigated, I believe he lives with fear lurking in the darkest corners of his mind that his athletic, impulsive brother might one day come after him. Throughout Vayetzei one might wonder: is Jacob, our forefather, really safe?
Today’s global refugee crisis is all too similar to Jacob’s plight. Having fled their homes and known communities, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are currently taking extreme measures to seek out new lives in Europe and elsewhere. Now, in the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris this past Friday, many of those refugees are finding gates and borders closed to them; a world that is too afraid, too paralyzed by fear and uncertainty to protect and shelter these vulnerable individuals. The situation itself may be far more complex than Jacob’s plight. However – at the core of Jacob’s story is his (and his mother’s) desire to secure a future. Particularly as we head into the holiday season and consider how we might use our resources to help protect and care for these unprotected and landless souls, let us remember what God speaks to Jacob in the midst of his dream in the wilderness: “And here I am, with you. I will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this soil. I will not let go of you as long as I have yet to do what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)
Wherever home may be, or wherever one may find themselves in the midst of extraordinary change, let us remember those powerful words.
It is perennially ironic that the title of this week’s parsha – Chayei Sarah – speaks to the “life of Sarah,” Abraham’s wife, yet this parsha begins and ends with death. Just last week we read the troubling account of Isaac’s near-sacrifice at Mount Moriah. That we open this week with Sarah’s death – at he age of one hundred twenty seven – is no accident. Many commentators connect Sarah’s death with Isaac’s narrow escape from tragedy. Some believe Sarah died of shock upon learning of her husband’s actions; others posit that Sarah’s death was the result of “an inability to live in a world as dangerous and unreliable as she has found this world to be, a world where life hangs by such a fragile thread.” (Zornberg, Etz Chayim Torah & Commentary) Once Sarah dies, her grieving husband Abraham arranges to have her buried – at full price – at the Cave of Machpelah, receiving permission from the Hittites to purchase land in what is present-day Hebron.
Two chapters later, having secured a wife for his son Isaac, Abraham “breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented.” (Genesis 25:8) He is buried alongside Sarah in the Cave of Machpelah. Though the circumstances of their deaths are different, each of them lived full, complete lives – filled with celebration and sorrow, pain and joy. For both Abraham and Sarah, their endings are treated with dignity and respect; the final resting place for both is one arranged with thought, care and consideration.
The arrangements we must make in the face of loss are at times overwhelming – from burial plots to funeral plans to shiva. Processing one’s grief in the midst of those plans can make the process that much more challenging – yet, as Chayei Sarah reminds us, making those very plans not only help us say goodbye to our loved ones; they help us demonstrate kavod l’meitim – respect for the deceased – one of the highest of all mitzvot. Whether one suffered or died peacefully, we remember our loved ones by celebrating their life. The very title of the parsha – The Life of Sarah – is a reminder of just how significant that distinction can be.
Tonight in Seattle at 7pm, I invite you to join me and Adam Halpern, JFS’ Director of Aging in Place, to discuss the practical, logistical and emotional needs involved with life transitions and preparing to say goodbye to our loved ones. It is the conclusion of our series “Life is a Journey,” presented by Temple’s Sacred Journeys Initiative. Whether we currently find ourselves in the midst of those challenging questions or not, at some point we will all find ourselves in that peculiar, overwhelming space. We invite you to join us, to learn and ask questions, so that we may continue to enrich our lives and the lives of those we love with dignity, respect and care.