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Take My Camels... Please!  Parshat VaYishlach

12/04/2022 06:47:30 PM


Rabbi Moshe Rudin

Abraham and Sarah, the first Jewish couple, give birth to Isaac. Isaac marries Rebecca.  They have twin boys, Esau and Jacob.  When it comes time for Isaac to choose which of his two sons will receive the blessing of Abraham to become the progenitor of the Jewish people, the nation who is meant to set an example to the world of compassion and justice, he chooses Esau.  

Rebecca, Isaac's wife, sees that under his pious exterior, Esau is cruel, violent and committed only to his own power and needs.  So she arranges a switch -- instead of Esau receiving the blessing, Jacob, disguised as his brother, is blessed instead.  When Isaac discovers the subterfuge, he is shocked but refuses to take back the blessing.  He tells his crestfallen older son, Esau, "your brother took the blessing and now he will be blessed."

In the blood-soaked tradition of Cain and Abel, Esau determines to kill his brother.  Rebecca once again intervenes and sends Jacob away in exile to the home of her clan in Haran. There, he marries Rachel and Leah and fathers twelve children.  He also goes through ordeal after ordeal at the hands of his greedy and unscrupulous father-in-law and head of the clan, Laban.  Deceived, cheated and exploited, he realizes how it must feel to be Esau.  In the end, the Covenant that he has made with G-d stands him in good stead and he emerges triumphant in possession of a fortune in the currency of the times: flocks of sheep, donkeys, cattle and goats. 

Changed by what he has been through for twenty years, he decides to return home and sends messengers to his estranged brother that he is returning and wants to make up.   A response comes quickly and it's not a good one.  Esau, accompanied by 400 armed men, is on his way to meet Jacob and his family.  Based on past experience, Jacob is terrified. 

What follows are some of the pinnacle moments of the Torah.  Jacob gives us a lesson in making peace.  Realizing that the materialistic Esau's ire must originate not from any spiritual treasure but solely an earthly bounty, he sends a peace-offering of flocks and flocks of animals saying, "take my blessing, please."  His intention is apparently to somehow return the stolen blessing in terms that Esau understands.

At the end of it all, the two estranged brothers stand face to face, embrace, kiss and weep.  What is it that turns the tide of revenge into peace?  According to the great Torah sage Chaim Volozhin, it's the camels.

That's right, camels.  Along with all of the other livestock in the offerings that Jacob ends are camels, an animal not mentioned in Jacob's entourage until now.  Camels, he explains, are the only animal that have one kosher and one non-kosher characteristic.  Like kosher animals, they chew their cud and like non-kosher animals, they lack a split hoof.  All of the other animals are either all kosher or all non-kosher.  Only the camel seems to be both, or neither. 

Jacob and Esau are sons of the world of flocks and pasture.  Esau understands the message: you think that I was wrong to take your blessing.  But there's another side to the story.  I did what I thought was right in a situation where there was no one right or wrong.  Like the camel, it was equivocal, nuanced, ambiguous.  It doesn't mean that I'm not your brother.

And so the brothers speak for a few minutes before separating once again, this time forever.  What do they say?  Again, the camel provides the hint, for the camel is a symbol of desert journeys.

Esau: You took my blessing, Jacob.  What good do you think it will do you?

Jacob: It means that I and my family will go down into Egypt while you and your family build a mighty mountain kingdom.  My family will become slaves and undergo generations of horror and oppression.  They will make a journey of forty years before they finally come into their own but even then they will face exiles and ordeals throughout centuries.

Esau: And all this because of the blessing of our grandfather Abraham to be the people of G-d's Covenant? 

Jacob: Yes. If I could, would you like me to give the blessing back?

Esau: The blessing of camels, of endless journeys through the wastelands to a destination that you do not even understand? Keep what is yours, my brother.  I have plenty.

This story does not have a simple moral.  Instead, it calls us to look deeply inside our own lives, our identities and our choices.  It challenges us to ask questions that have no answers. 

In this story, Jacob is forged by the journey into something else.  He becomes Israel, G-d's Warrior -- or, the one who struggles with G-d.  Both meanings are implied and embodied in us, Am Yisrael, the Jewish people. We are both.  

Shabbat Shalom 

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784