Vayishlach

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

"Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother - from the hand of Esau. I am afraid of him, for he can come and kill us all - mothers and children alike." (Genesis 32, 12)

Far from a non-believer, Jacob, whose plea this is, is understood to be the personification of the individual totally devoted to G‑d. It was through Jacob that the initial plans for the first terrible Galus, the Diaspora begun in Egypt were made. Instructing his sons, he had the necessary educational infrastructure established in Goshen prior to his arrival. His spiritual presence was so potent that, unlike his father and grandfather, the Rabbis say of him, mitaso shlema, his bed was complete, indicating that all of his children remained righteous Jews. In fact it was only after the passing of his children that the dark cloud of servitude enveloped the Jewish People in Egypt.

If this is truly Jacob, the righteous and practical Patriarch of the first Galus, how can we understand his plea before G‑d? Did he not possess the religious Faith to confront his brother after all those years? Was he not confident that it was G‑d's Will that he be the progenitor of the Jewish People and not Esau? And lastly, did he not have the common sense to develop a well thought out plan to best Esau?

Obviously, something is missing. May I suggest that if we but pay careful attention to Jacob's petition we can unearth his true dilemma? For no matter the degree of immorality, the degree of treachery, which marked the life of Esau, first and foremost, Jacob saw this man who was coming to meet him as his brother. That sense of brotherhood, that love that defies all logic, that binds us to our kin and those we consider our kin can be a debilitating trait when, as Jacob continues, entreating G‑d that he be saved from the "hand of Esau." Fully cognizant of the nature of his brother, Jacob feared that his filial love for Esau, his only sibling, would overpower him. All the more would this be the case if Esau came in peace, in brotherly love. Would Jacob, in such a situation, be able to maintain his distance from his only brother? Jacob knew all too well that Esau, his life style and values, would have a negative influence upon the future of the Jewish People. Jacob, at all costs, had to leave this encounter, as he had entered it - separate and distinct from his brother.

This conundrum of our Patriarch is relived by thousands each day. G‑d help the family in which a member becomes a narcotics addict. Torn between their love for this person, aware of the havoc such an individual can and will shower upon the family unit, many are not able, when all else fails, to sever themselves from their own child. As Jacob, they must separate so that the family unit can survive, so that all they have labored to build, everything they hold sacred, will not be destroyed. "Rescue me, I pray from the hand of my brother, from Esau."

No one should ever minimize the pain of such a decision. No one has the right to judge one who felt compelled to make such a decision. For the wrenching anguish of our third Patriarch, beseeching G‑d to Help him in fulfilling his decision is ample proof of the magnitude of this necessary stance.

My own experience bears this out to be true. My wife and I at various times during our marriage have felt compelled to take young men into our home who were faced with problems. One such person has been with us for more than twenty years. As a Chaplain in a county jail, I was confronted with a problem. A nineteen year old Jewish young man was incarcerated awaiting extradition for supposedly stealing his own father's charge cards. The papers from the other state never arrived. In the interim, a number of inmates attempted to rape him. He was beaten quite severely. With no half-way houses under Jewish auspices, I felt compelled to remove him from jail. A meeting with the judge, a bit of flexing of the muscle of the clergy, and this young man was a member of my household.

Affable, handsome, quite intelligent, my wife and I soon learned of his fundamental problem. He had an addictive personality. Medications, "downers" were his drugs of choice, although heroine was high up on his drug "menu" as well. There were times in our lives when he was a welcome part of our family. Warm, loving and caring, he truly was "my brother." However, these moments were all too short in duration. For most of our two decades together he was and is Esau. An Esau who could steal your money, endanger the welfare of the family that he so loved, drag me into experiences on the dark side of society I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. And yet we persevered. I couldn't turn him away. He was "my brother" he is "my brother" for I have developed a deep bond with him.

Sadly, that bond is reciprocal. I say sadly because, as Jacob, I seem ever drawn to him. During the past few months I had to make a decision. I elected to throw him out of my home and onto the streets. After a while I arranged to have him placed in a convalescent center where I was hopeful there might be a chance for him to finally come to grips with his situation. This week I was informed that they couldn't handle him and would be throwing him out. He will be on the streets for the winter. And so I, as our third Patriarch, turn to G‑d with a broken heart pleading, "Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau. I am afraid of him - for he can come and kill us all - mothers and children alike."

To all who must utter this self same petition, my heart goes out to you. I pray G‑d gives you the strength to overcome this seemingly insurmountable obstacle to your family's stability and peace.