Torah from Around the World #143

Recent Issues


Rabbi Steve Burnstein

, director of the WUPJ

Anita Saltz International Education Center

I love my children. They really are quite amazing. We’re looking forward to parent-teacher conferences this week. Multiple times teachers have told us they wish they could clone our kids; that they are absolutely charming and well-mannered youngsters. We hear the same thing from the parents of their friends: “Your kids are so polite!”

However, sometimes when others about them this way I want to ask: “are you sure you’re talking about MY kids?” When they’re in the comfort of their own home I guess they let their hair down. The transformation may not be as dramatic as that of Jake becoming a wolf in the Twilight movies, but they are clearly not the same kids these folks are talking about.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit. But it does seem sometime that my son and daughter do nothing but fight when they’re at home. The minute one touches the computer the other has to have it. They call each other names. They pick on each other. They seem to lose their sense of civility with each other – and with their parents.

Sometimes I find myself dreaming and wishing they could get along as well as I did with my brother and sister when we were growing up. Then I wake up and remember that my brother, sister and cousins used to lock me in a broom closet at our grandparents’ house. I find myself thinking about my wife and her siblings. They were all perfect angels, right? Then I remember the story when her brothers burned her favorite blanket while using it to learn how to send smoke signals.

My wife and I have been told that we should be proud and comforted by the fact that our children, for the most part, only misbehave at home. We’re told they act out at home because they feel comfortable, safe and know they are loved.

Seems this may not be unique to our family or to our time. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, we read about Jacob and Esau preparing to meet for the first time after many years. The last time they saw each other was directly after Jacob had deceived Isaac. With the assistance of his mother, Rebecca, Jacob pretends to be Esau and steals the blessing of their father, Isaac. Talk about a dysfunctional family!

We read:  “

Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing. . . and said `I will kill my brother Jacob

.’” (Genesis 27: 41). Rebecca warms Jacob about Esau’s plan and helps him flee Beer Sheva for his own safety.

During the intervening years both Jacob and Esau marry and have many children. But what is it that enables them to overcome their differences and conflicts of the past? The men who embraced at Penuel after many years were not the same people who had parted ways at Beer Sheva.

Jacob has a spiritual awakening and vows to become a servant of God. At the beginning of this spiritual awaking, in the story of the ladder, Jacob discovered that God’s presence is truly everywhere. He remarks: “

Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! It (and all places) is the dwelling place of God and the stairway to heaven

.” (Genesis 28: 16–17)

Then, immediately prior to his first meeting with his estranged brother Esau, we read of Jacob, alone in the desert. In the dark of the desert night Jacob encounters a man he later discovers to be an angel of God. Jacob is injured as they wrestle through the night until dawn. During the course of this struggle Jacob is transformed and God tells him to change his name to Israel: “one who struggles with God.”

Some read this as an internal struggle and atonement whereby Jacob faced his past and resolved to address his shortcomings. Others see this as symbolic of how each of us is molded by life experience and the challenges we face. In both cases Jacob goes through a life changing spiritual experience.

Israel (Jacob) and Esau approached their meeting with caution, not knowing if the other had changed. Jacob approached with humility and in repentance. Esau greeted him with love and forgiveness. They offered each other generous gifts. And Israel remarked: “

to see your face is like seeing the face of God

.” (Genesis 33:10). Israel saw what Jacob could not: the spark of the divine in all places and in all people.

In recent days we’ve seen the children of Abraham continuing to struggle in the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. I pray that all the children of Abraham will come to recognize the holiness inherent in all people, and soon come to embrace one another in peace.

In my better moments I also see the divine in all people. Especially my children. Like all parents, I sometimes get frustrated with their behavior. But I also know that my children are a gateway to the miracles, wonder and holiness of life.

As adults, both my wife and I have pretty good relationships with our siblings. It’s reassuring that that we all grew up and (for the most part) get along pretty well today. This gives us hope for the future that one day our own children will also one day make peace.

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