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D’var Torah Parashat Vayishlah

Watch Felicia’s D’var Torah in full or read the transcript as written below:
Almost 60 years ago, Professor Gerson Cohen, who later became the chancellor of JTS, delivered what I believe was an astounding and radical commencement address at Hebrew Teachers College in Boston. He stated:

“A frank appraisal of the periods in which Judaism flourished will indicate that not only did a certain amount of assimilation and acculturation not impede Jewish continuity and creativity, but in a profound sense, this assimilation and acculturation was a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source of renewed vitality.”

Cohen unfolds several examples to debunk the popular historical reading of the past, that our redemption from Mitzrayim, from Egypt, and our survival as a Jewish people, depended upon our adherence to our language to not changing our names or even our dress. On the contrary, our traditions, adaptability, and metamorphosis has served to keep it relevant and compelling over time. He honors the challenge of assimilation and the fears that arise from it.

Given our minority status, however, he cautions against a misread of our history and the fossilization of the tradition to create an illusion of preservation. And so enters Ya’akov in this week’s parashah, Vayishlah, and his anticipated reunion with his estranged brother, Esav, when he sends messengers to his brother, Ya’akov tells his servant to say the following:

“To my lord Esav thus says, your servant Ya’akov. ‘I stayed with Lavan and remained until now, I have acquired cattle, asses, sheep and male and female slaves, and I send this message to my lord in the hope of gaining your favor.’”

Bereshit 32: 5-6

Rashi is curious why, of all things Ya’akov chose to convey to Esav that he said, “עִם־לָבָ֣ן גַּ֔רְתִּי” (im Lavan garti), I stayed with Lavan. Rashi notes that the word “גרתי” (garti) has the numerical value of 613. 613 mitzvot.

In fact, it’s the same letter in Hebrew תרי״ג, which is what is said to be 613 is the if you switch around the letters, it spells “garti,” “I lived” or “I stayed with.” Thus he meant to say, though I have sojourned with Lavan, I have observed the תרי״ג מצות (tar-yag mitzvot), the 613 mitzvot, and I have not learned his evil ways. Now, obviously, I just want to say in the course of the Torah’s unfolding, the mitzvot have not yet been given. We haven’t even gotten to Sinai yet, but this is part of our tradition’s principle of “Ein mukdam u’m’uhar ba’Torah.”

There is no early and there’s no late in the Torah. Of course, Ya’akov observed the 613 mitzvot. He clung to the mitzvot so tightly that he was not at all influenced by the world around him. He made, according to Raashi himself, a “ger,” a stranger like garti ger garti. While Rashi thinks this is admirable, one could say this is exactly what Gerson Cohen cautions against. To isolate ourselves from the world or to see everything around us as a threat deprives us of the productive tension and dynamism that is possible in living in two worlds simultaneously.

The Hasidic rabbi, the Sfat Emet, the Gerrer Rebbe, takes Rashi’s explanation to another level. He is more concerned about the spiritual state of our existence. He teaches that we, as human beings, are both earthly and heavenly. Our earthly body, which fulfills the mitzvot, is the garments.

This is a very kabbalistic and hasidic notion that the body is a garment for the soul, but the soul is from the heavens. Unlike Rashi’s explanation, which seems to discourage assimilation, the Sfat Emet cautions against being an allrightnik, being satisfied. For him, the essence of religious life lies in bridging the earthly and the spiritual, the heavenly, but never being fully at home or too comfortable in either. The Sfat Emet not only believed in the power of Ya’akov being a ger, a stranger, a sojourner in Lavan’s home, but he teaches, and he believes that Ya’akov should always live as a ger, a stranger, no matter where he is, whether in Lavan’s home or anywhere else. 

We see the struggle between the earthly and the heavenly lived out later in the chapter in this parashah. Ya’akov, the famous story stays alone in the night and wrestles with the “ish,” a man, who is also, as Becca said last night, understood to be many things: a man, an angel, Esav. Though Ya’akov is wounded in the struggle, he ultimately triumphs and demands a blessing from this “ish.” The ish says:

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃ 

“Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with  beings divine and human,-and have prevailed.”

What is interesting and somewhat curious is that this moment of blessing of the name change. And by the way, it happens again because God affirms the name change in the following chapter, is that the Torah actually doesn’t retire the name Ya’akov. It is still used, even though the pasuk says, “Your name shall no longer be Ya’akov.” The blessing, Ya’akov is still used while also calling him Yisrael. The blessing Ya’akov receives acknowledges not only does  he have two names, but he lives in both places, heaven and earth.

I offer one more peek at this parashah from a section that we will read this morning in the triennial reading Rachel gives birth to her second son: 

וַיְהִ֞י בְּצֵ֤את נַפְשָׁהּ֙ כִּ֣י מֵ֔תָה וַתִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ בֶּן־אוֹנִ֑י וְאָבִ֖יו קָֽרָא־ל֥וֹ בִנְיָמִֽין׃

“But as she breathed her last—for she was dying—she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin.”

Every single child and there were many, as we know, born to Ya’akov is named by his mother or her mother. Here, Rachel, with her last breath, names her second son, Ben-oni, son of my suffering. But Ya’akov overrules her and renames Benyamin, which is typically understood to mean Ben Yameen, meaning the son of my right hands. I mean, there’s also some commentaries that speak to it being a location, but the son of my strength is the way it, I think reads most naturally. Another duality, another tension. He receives two names just like his father had just received earlier in the parashah. Ya’akov, at least for my understanding, doesn’t want his son to be defined exclusively by his origin story, his mother’s suffering and death, in the same way that the “ish” didn’t want Ya’akov to be defined by his crookedness, which is what Ya’akov means. Ya’akov is blessed with another name, Yisrael, which means straight like “yashar,” like “Yeshurun.” B’nai Yeshurun are the people that are straight. And also the one that struggles with two worlds that he lives in, heaven and Earth, as what the “ish” said to him that you have struggled. Sarita is like Yisrael with heaven and Earth. You could say it would be much simpler to live in one name, in one place, in one existence, the hero or the villain. Ya’akov or Eisav, Ya’akov or Yisrael, Ben-oni or Benyamin.

But we carry both. Stranger and insider, divine and human, heaven and Earth. We can’t create simple binaries to solve a very complicated world and existence, the struggling and the wrestling is where the creativity, accountability, and vitality is actually born.

Gerson Cohen knew that this was the truth of our own history as a Jewish people. Our thriving often against extraordinary odds, is born out of this productive tension and not the fossilization and ramification of our origin story. We are both Jews and Americans. Or over the course of our history, Jews and countless other identities. We need to live steeped in that dual reality, anchored in both. And the tension and vitality that arises between them. 

This coming week, we will celebrate Thanksgiving.

And unlike last year, I pray that many of us will have the blessing of being with family and friends. I feel extraordinarily grateful to be going to my parents home and that our extended family will join us. I am at the same time holding the duality of this very holiday.

The origin story that many of us learned in school or picture books or around the Thanksgiving table and how it is or is not accompanied by a more brutal reality of the colonization of the land of this country, the genocide and erasure of the indigenous peoples and the much more complicated history of this nation.

As I return to New Fairfield, Connecticut. I acknowledge that the land is the traditional territory of the Schaghticoke, which means, “gathered waters.” In 1724, colonial settlers received approval from the General Assembly of the Colony of Connecticut to establish a township on the land of this tribe.

And as the history goes, actually they think that some of the Native Americans were sold as slaves. 

I also acknowledge that the land that our Sanctuary and Community House are built upon is the traditional territory of the Lenape, who named this land, the Island of Manhatta, which means, “hilly island.” There is no simple and pat way to make the displacement of Native Americans to go away, just as the name Ya’akov didn’t go away after he became Yisrael. There is no disloyalty to my lived experience as an American to acknowledge and name that those that came before me on this land were native to it. It is not because I am woke. That I give voice to this story, this duality, their names. It is because I was taught by our incredible tradition to be a ger, a sojourner, not fully at home anywhere.

And for that, I am eternally grateful. And gratitude is also the name of our people, Yehudim. Leah conceived and bore a son and declared,

פַּ֙עַם֙ אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יְהוָ֔ה עַל־כֵּ֛ן קָרְאָ֥ה שְׁמ֖וֹ יְהוּדָ֑ה

This time I will thank God.

Therefore, she named him Yehuda. May we hold the struggle of the Yisrael and the gratitude of Yehuda, and may we tread lightly on this land that has multiple names, and be blessed to be the eternal “ger” with our feet on the ground and our soul in the heavens.

Shabbat shalom.