Pray or Prey: Vayishlakh 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: How do we know when remorse is genuine? What do we have to do to prove that we have learned from our mistakes and changed for the better? Can one statement of remorse prove our growth, or do we need to show more?

As Jacob anticipates his reunion with Esau, his anxiety is on full display when he prays to God – but is his prayer genuine?

The Pitch: “‘Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike.’” – Genesis 32:12

Swing #1: “The encounter with Esau could have had either of two outcomes, and Jacob feared the consequences of both. If Esau were to make war on his camp, there would be bloodshed. On the other hand, if Esau were to make peace with him, there was reason to fear that Esau and his men would become too intimate with Jacob and his household and would teach them their evil ways. Therefore Jacob prayed to God to save him from two eventualities: ‘Deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother:’ i.e. from becoming too intimate with my evil brother, and ‘from the hand of Esau;’ i.e. from the wickedness symbolized by the spirit of Esau. And the Lord answered his prayer, for He saved Jacob not only from the wrath of Esau but also from too intimate involvement with him.” – Bet HaLevi

Swing #2: “This is a quintessential ‘foxhole’ prayer: though stress and fear have driven Jacob to his knees, his prayer contains no remorse at all, let alone a hint of confession. There is no acknowledgment of wrongdoing whatsoever. True, Jacob does admit that he is unworthy of the divine benefits extended to him … there may even be a whiff of irony here in that Jacob is only being ‘appropriately humble’ while, without realizing it, he is also being as truthful as he has ever been. In the final analysis, Jacob’s desperate petition to be rescued from Esau seems based entirely on an appeal to YHWH’s presumably unconditional promises, not on any expression of regret for the way he wronged his brother.” – Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider

Swing #3: “If you should wonder why Jacob uses the word ‘berakha’ – blessing –  instead of minha – ‘offering,’ as in the previous verse, it may be suggested that he deliberately called that abundance of livestock ‘blessing,’ to inform Esau that this blessing with which he had been blessed, he would not steal from him, and here it was. It was this type of blessing which he had been interested in. His prayer had prompted him to see things in their true light.” – Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Bereshit (Genesis)

Late-Inning Questions: How do our commentators see Jacob’s prayer differently? Which interpretation makes the most sense to you? Do you think it is necessary for Jacob to show remorse before seeing his brother again? If you were Esau and somehow heard Jacob’s prayer, would you be more or less ready to forgive him, or to at least set aside past grievances? What would Jacob need to do in order to express true regret?

On-Deck at Emanu-El/The Big Inning at the End: As I’ve mentioned previously, Mike Mills will recite the Haftarah on Saturday, December 24th, while decked out in Chicago Cubs gear. He will settle the bet he and I made prior to the World Series. As you can tell from this picture:

mike-in-cubs-uniform … this Indians fan was serious about paying up his end of the bargain! Please join us for services that morning, followed by a Chicago-themed Kiddush!

Shabbat Shalom!