Here we are, stuck in between Thanksgiving and Chanukah. Stuck between generosity and materialism, It’s giving me an identity crisis! Who are we? What are our gifts, our talents, passions? What are they for?
First, Thanksgiving I was blessed to have two of my children, (we facetimed with kid #3). My son just returned to college – and it’s always been away from home that he finds who he is, that he finds out what his talents are and his passions – coming home more mature
My eldest child quit a good paying job to return to school to be a social worker. Working 60 or 70 hour weeks chasing dollars did not leave her fulfilled. And she told me something interesting – that she felt pressure to do just this – that hard work and dollars are how our society defines success. The material American dream? – Americans suffer from the highest rate of mental illness. According to our tradition, we are entitled to find sustenance, but to then find fulfillment, we should find our gifts and talents and give them away – to make people happy, to make the world better because we are here. And then you finally find out who you are.
And that’s exactly what our tradition teaches us in Vayishlach, this week’s parashah.
Our story is about a Jacob returning, coming home. But it’s also about us: we are the house of Jacob, the children of Israel, it’s our struggle and transformation too. Jacob has spent all his youth as a heel grabber. Born the younger son in a time when that meant big brother would get more than him, he does not know literally who he is. Masquerading as his brother, he deceives his father particularly with his voice and his hands. He steal a blessing and a birthright. But nstead of getting it all, he loses everything – scared and alone he leaves his destined homeland, and that’s when he begins to find himself: he dreams and finds God in the wilderness. And now on his own, he ironically gets what he wanted to steal, this time working for it: wealth, a woman he loves (and 3 more besides), children. But the time has come that Jacob finally has to go home, finally face what he’s run away from.
But how can he go home – his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 armed men? Jacob left Canaan full only of himself but is returning with so much to lose: his wealth and loved ones. He’s terrified, and so we get a rare prayer in the Torah. Jacob prays: hatzileni na m’yad achi, save me from my brother’s hand. Ironically it’s the wool on the back of his hand that helped the lie – father Isaac is blind and, so Jacob had dressed up in his brother’s clothes, and sheepskin on his arms. And his voice: Who are you my son: I am Esau your firstborn Isaac lies. Father Isaac says “ha kol kol Yaakov, v’ ha yadayim y’dai Esav” and now he prays to be saved from that hand. Jacob will split his camp in two, and wait behind as night falls on the banks of the river Jabbok. He will wrestle with a mysterious stranger. Is it his conscience, his brother, an angel, God? We’ll never know. The stranger wrestles with him all night and dislocates his hip, a very painful injury, and since the hip’s not placed back, a permanent disability – he’ll limp. The stranger mysteriously begs for Jacob to let him go, for the dawn is breaking. Jacob says “not till you bless me” Instead of a blessing Jacob gets a new name – Yisrael, God-wrestler…. But Jacob’s new name will only partly stick – he’ll be Israel sometimes, Jacob at others.
In the morning, humbled, and limping to his brother, he now knows that his gifts are for giving away, and he lavishses gifts of livestock on his brother, and introduces his family, relatives Esau never knew he had. (except for daughter Dina, who midrash says is hidden in a box!) And he gives his brother what he never could before the gift of honor. Bowing low he says seeing his brother’s face is like seeing the face of God. Now, after twenty years, he can go home, and he can know who he is, by giving not by taking. He had to wrestle first and be hurt, and be humbled to be get to this place – the first time brothers forgive in Torah.
So we give it away – our time volunteer, do tzedakah, know that giving away is good, consider a day of Tzedakah gifts this Chanukah. And we give our grown children away to the world to their live their lives–it’s hard, but if we do it well, they come home again. And so much family drama this time of year – but there can be forgiveness, and generosity if you can see the divine in their face. I offer this song: My Brother’s Hand to tell the story of Jacob
My Brother’s Hand. M. Wolfson for Vayishlach
Who am I, what makes me who I am?
Is it the taking, is it the scheming and the plans?
Who am I, am I the truth or the lie
The child of Isaac and Rebecca am I
Am I the dreamer of a ladder to the sky
Or the deceiver, stealing blessings from the blind.
I must now return to Canaan land
Somehow face the lies I left behind.
You must go now, he cannot find you here
It’s I alone must stay behind I fear
Do you remember how we met my sweet Rachel
I first found my voice by that old well
My cry of love rose up to the skies
Now my very life is in your eyes
Fears swallows me, am I unworthy?
And I suspect my brother will kill me
It is so dark, the hour of danger’s near
Who goes there now, what do you want of me
I will hold you back, fight with all my might
The pain is great but I will hold on tight
I won’t let you go though dawn will break
You can turn my pain to blessing great
You will be born anew this day, a new name now shall be yours
Yisrael as you wrestle with God
Hoping to find healing that endures
A humbled heart and a limping pace will help you find your brother’s embrace
He’s a child of prophesy too, Look with your heart, you’ll see God in his face
Who am I, Yisrael or Yaakov?
I found my voice only when I found love,
and my hands have found the good grace to give,
Now I can begin again to live.
no longer will I live a lie.
But when will I ever know: who am I?