Torah from Around the World #300

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By: Benjie Gruber,

Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism

, Arava Region and Eilat

Mistakes from our Ancestors from Generation to Generation

In the Torah Portion we read this week, Vayishlach [

and he sent, Jacob sending messengers to his brother

] there is a small incident from which I believe we can learn an important lesson.

This small but crucial incident is hidden in the powerful verses describing the meeting between two brothers after years of separation.

Jacob looks up and sees his brother Esau coming towards him with 400 people. Jacob decides to divide up his children according to who their mother is – Leah, Rachel, Bilha and Zilpa.

At the head of the group Jacob places Bilha and Zilpa and their children. Behind them he places Leah and her children and finally, most protected and hidden, Rachel and her children.

Jacob himself is at the head of the group [Genesis Chapter 33, verses 1-3]:


And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, Esau came, and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children unto Leah, and unto Rachel, and unto the two handmaids.


And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindermost.


And he himself passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.

Following these verses, I wish to ask – Jacob!!! What are you doing?

What is Jacob doing? He does not yet know how Esau will react to seeing his brother Jacob. Maybe indeed it will be dangerous. Maybe Jacob’s family will be in danger.

Does Jacob take caution and choose a military tactic?

Placing the weak on the front lines? Or placing the weak in the back, protected? Is he thinking of surprising the enemy? Or maybe using psychological warfare?

None of the above I believe. Jacob and Esau are very different, from the beginning of their life [Genesis 25.27]: A

nd the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.

Jacob is a quiet man as the verse tells us. He is not a warrior.

The reason he arranged the family the way he did is his simply to protect his most loved ones the most.

He wishes for Rachel and her son Joseph to be most protected and it is sad to say – but true – he cares less for his other wives and children.

Joseph is as far as Jacob is concerned, the chosen one. We can observe Jacob at this early stage of the creation of the tribes, at this early stage of setting the rules and order of the family. He is already setting the stage for the problematic behavior between the 12 brothers.

The story which we later call Joseph and his brothers, is at this crucial moment in our portion, being set in motion.

This is all due to Jacob’s decision


to favor one son over the rest.

The Torah, the storyteller decides we need this information. The Torah could have skipped over these details of arranging the family before the meeting with Esau. The story would still be interesting and dramatic, but we have much to learn from this issue, and so, our Torah teller gives us this information.

Let us go back and remember – Why is Jacob in this situation in the first place? Why has he been away from his home and not in touch with his twin brother for so many years? Why did he need to run away?

The main reason for all of this, is because his father and mother – Rivka and Isaac already went down this road of choosing one child over the other, Jacob over Esau [Gensis 25.28]:

Now Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison; and Rebekah loved Jacob.

And once again, twenty years later, when Jacob is about to meet his brother, he does exactly what his parents did so many years ago. Jacob is indeed following in his parents footsteps in a very negative way, in my opinion.

A small detail the Torah tells us about regarding who stood where at the family reunion, becomes the center of the story as we know it later on. Not Joseph


his brothers, but rather, Joseph as opposed to the other brothers. He becomes the other, the stranger, to his brothers, and we all remember what that led to.

The final four portions of the book of Genesis all deal with, in one way or another, what Jacob set in motion by arranging his family the way he did, for the reason he did.

Jacob creates a situation in which brothers act against their brother. A brother becomes the other.

I could try to explain why it all happened this way, but I wish to take a different path.

I feel and believe this story can teach us an important lesson.

The Torah stories are important and challenging to us since they portray our ancestors as human and not perfect beings.

In my opinion, the Torah writers believe that it is up to us to recognize and learn the mistakes of our fathers and mothers, since we have what to learn from their triumphs and mistakes as well. Had they all been so perfect and wonderful all the time what would we as human beings, as Progressive Jews, be able to learn from them and their real human experiences?

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