Reflections on Parashat Vayishlach
by Adina Allen
The first day of camp is something that I have eagerly counted down to for the past 13 summers. I always begin packing well in advance and spend the days leading up to camp looking through my camp memory boxes—through the photos, Shabbat-o-grams, and bus notes of summers past. Once I can finally count the days to camp on one hand, I make sure to call my friends, pick out my first day of camp outfit, and double check that I have the correct colored clothing for the zimriyah (Song Festival). Getting on the bus, anticipating the first day, is the most exciting feeling. Every time I make that final left turn onto Buckatabon Road, I feel the exhilaration and adrenaline rushing through my body. In that moment, I’m looking forward to the reunion with my friends, seeing my counselors from the previous summer, and being a part of the camp community once again.
In this week’s parsha, Vayishlach, Jacob and Esau reconnect after many years. When they last saw each other, Esau wanted to kill Jacob after he stole the birthright. In anticipation of the reunion, it says that Jacob וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד, וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ, “became very frightened and was distressed” (Genesis 32:8), fearing what would happen when they reconnected. He prepares offerings for his older brother, and when he finally sees Esau for the first time, he notices Esau’s strong and powerful army. This image – ready for war – sets the stage for the sibling reunion, highlighting the tense relationship that the brothers have always had.
This moment of reconciliation and reunion appears to be a beautiful oneוַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ ויבכו – Esau runs to great Jacob and hugs him, falls on Jacob’s neck and kisses him; and they cry (33:4). However, in Breishet Rabbah 78:9, a collection of midrashim (Biblical interpretations), the midrash teaches us that Esau didn’t intend to kiss his brother Jacob, rather, he attempted to bite his neck. At this time Jacob’s neck becomes hard like marble and Esau’s teeth aren’t strong enough to break through. The brothers’ weeping, then, comes from both the pain of Jacob’s neck and of Esau’s teeth. This midrash takes what may at first appear to be a beautiful and powerful moment and turns that moment into a cynical reunion, an echo of Esau’s evil inclinations.
The image of our own reunions at camp—the overwhelming excitement as we pass the life-size mezuzah at the entrance to camp, the anticipation of seeing friends whom we have been texting and facebooking all year long, the huge and warm hugs when we step off the buses—stands in contrast with this midrash’s cynical take on Jacob and Esau’s reunion. Indeed, I have trouble reading this important piece of the parsha as anything but a happy reunion, if unexpectedly so. I use the sight I see each summer to refute the fatalism of this midrash. After campers have not seen each other for nearly a year, there’s still the excitement and thrill of being back in the same place once again. There might be some anxiety present—have my friends changed over the year? Will my friends still like me? Are we going to be able to really get past that difficult moment we had last summer? But ultimately, those fears are washed away when we step off the busses, greeted by the people who help to make our summers some of the most incredible experiences of our lives.