The Gift of Atonement: VaYishlach

© Trisha Arlin
About four years ago, I embarked on a personal program of mindful practice regarding how I react to feeling threatened or hurt.  For years, my hurt or frightened reactions looked like anger and attack instead of the protective reactions they were and they were alienating and unsustainable.   Sp I was just starting out of a practice of mindful compassion instead of reaction when, one day, I walked into a subway car and sat down on a bench that had just enough room for me.  Now, I am a wide person, and I take up a bit more space on a subway bench than someone who is not a wide person, and sometimes i push against someone inadvertantly with my wide self.  And this time, apparently I had, because the man sitting next to me made an angry noise and said something like, ” well, go ahead and knock into people, obviously you don’t care” which was weird because a) i hadn’t been aware of pushing into him at all, just squeezing in to a slightly tight fit and b) when people are mad at you on the subway they usually don’t say anything, they just glare at you and send you bad vibes.  But this guy said something.  And I sat there and watched how i reacted, and I heard myself thinking, screw you buddy, It was an accident, get over yourself, what do you want from me, are you making fun of me because I’m fat, is everybody staring at me because I’m fat, I hate you, and I wanted to ignore him, and i wanted to curse him, and i wanted to sink into the floor, because I’m fat.
Hold that thought.
I mostly understand the world through stories and the struture of stories, and the Book of Genesis, the Book of Bereishit, is chock full of them.  Sometimes the stories are grouped together in a parsha in a way that makes sense to us, and sometimes not.    This week, the two main stories in Vayishlach, meaning, he sent, as in Jacob sends messengers and maybe later God sends an angel, are the story of the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, with Jacob’s wrestling with the mysterious night visitor preceding that, and then, the rape of Dinah, the only daught of Jacob that we ever hear about, and the subsequent murder of every male in hapbitant of Shechem by Jacob’s sons in revenge for that rape.
The two  stories are about many things, and today, perhaps because of turmoil in the world and my fear that we’re  about to start in or have already started in to World War Three, today  i’m looking at them as examples of conflict resolution, one which ends in atonement and peace, and one which ends in honor killings and death.
Let me tell the stories very briefly in case you’re unfamiliar with them:  Jacob has been working for his Uncle Laban for twenty years, he has two wives and two servants he sleeps with and many children and livestock.  He’s cool, he’s achieved, he’s made himself rich and he wants to go home, but he’s afraid his brother Esau is still mad at him for stealing his father’s blessings, and his brother Esau is a hunter and a warrior and could easily kill him.  So Jacob sends messengers  with a placating message to Esau, he send lots of presents to Esau, he approaches Esau’s camp but first he divides his family and his possessions up so in case Esau attacks not all will be lost, and the night before he is to meet with Esau forthe first time in many years, he spends the night alone, across the river.  During the night, an unnamed man appears and wrestles with Jacob.  Jacob forces a blessing out of the mysterious man, whom Jacob believes is a divine being, and he gets a new name, Israel.  Then Jacob/Israel crosses the stream, humbles himself before his brother, Jacob is forgiven and though the brothers do not stay together, they part, maybe not as friends, but not as enemies, and the guilt and fear that Jacob must have been living with the whole time he was away, is gone as is the anger Esau has been living with.  So this is good.
The second story, comes later.  Jacob with all his people and possessions is camped out outside the city of Shechem, which is ruled by the chief, Hamor.  Hamor’s son, also named Shechem, sees Dinah, Jacob’s daughter, and under circumstances we are not told about, rapes her.  We never hear what Dinah’s reaction is to this or anything that occurs later, let’s stipulate the awfulness of this.  This entire story is told from the men’s point of view.  So Shechem has fallen in love with Dinah, go figure, and asks his father to get  Dinah for a wife.  This is a system for getting a wife that I have heard of in other cultures alive even today, horrible as it is, so even though it seems insane to us, it doesn’t to Shechem.  Anyway, Shechem gets his father to offer whatever it takes to get Dinah, including the idea that the people of Shechem will intermarry with Jacob’s people and they will all live happily ever after.  Jacob is silent at this point, but his sons are outraged at Dinah’s rape and they demand that all the men be circumcised before any of this can take place.  The men of Shechem do this, and when they are lying helpless after the procedures, Simeon and Levi, Jacob’s two most unpleasant sons, kill all the men in town, and the rest of the sons plunder and destroy the town and take the remaining women and children as slaves.  Lovely. When Jacob yells at them for the strategic disaster they have committed, the brothers of Dinah say, “Should our sister be treated like a whore?”  Their concern is for how Dinah is seen, not for her suffering or how she feels, let alone all the innocents who lived in Shechem. So, this is bad.
Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisel writes, “Jacob’s genuine fear, and the fear we should all carry with us, R. Menachem Mendel tells us, is the fear of pride. Pride, not in the sense of acknowledging our good deeds or accomplishments, or our affirmation of our identity and who we are, but rather a pride which makes it hard for us to say that we are wrong, that we don’t know and that we need help. It is a pride of independence, a pride that wants to be seen, acknowledged and respected by others, a pride that cares about whether people praise or criticize us. It is our protection of our sense of self.”
I think this sense of self is very fragile, especially when we are young.  One can imagine Jacob’s wrestling match as being with his sense of pride, of his belief in himself, in the rightness of his decision to steal the blessing from his brother when they were young, in his own sense of his destiny.   And that destiny is confirmed by the mysterious man, who might be an angel, who is called Elohim and who might be God, who wrestles with Jacob and who blesses and gives him a new name and maybe this mature sense of self, this confidence in himself that does not require bluster or outside confirmation, is what enables him to do whatever he needs to do to make it up with his brother. I don’t think Jacob thinks he’s done anything wrong, he was just fulfilling his destiny when he stole the blessing, Jacob is the better man to carry on the legacy.  Jacob doesn’t need to be forgiven.  But Esau needs to be able to forgive.  He can’t go on until he does.  Jacob gives Esau a lot of material presents to Esau, but this is his real gift to him, what Devora Steinmentz , in her book, From Father to Son calls, the gift of atonement.
Jacob blesses his brother, he atones for the way he wronged him, he gives Esau back his pride, his sense of self and this enables Esau to forgive him and even be affectionate.  But also, Jacob, who is no fool,  keeps the blessing that was not gotten by deceit, that was given by Isaac when Jacob left home, that was confirmed for him the night before.  In this situation, everybody wins.
And then, only two or three verses later, bam, we’re in Shechem and Dinah is getting raped and the young men take this, apparently, as such an affront upon their fragile sense of self that their only recourse is revenge and emasculation and honor killings.  How Dina feels about all that is not recorded and one doesn’t get the sense that they care.  So all of Jacob’s hard earned learning and maturation is thrown away, lost.  And, as a writer, my sense of structure is violated.  In a good story, we usually get the bad example first, then the hero learns his lesson and we see the good example.  But here, the hero has learned his lesson which is thrown out the window.  Jacob tries to atone for this by setting up a new idol, but that doesn’t do the trick, which sets up all the bad family feeling that leads the sons to throw Joseph in the pit, an action that is heinous but that must occur in order to get them all to Egypt and into slavery and then to freedom and then to Moses and Sinai and the law and Torah and God.  Coming soon at a shul near you.
Okay, back to the beginning of this drash. So, I’m on the subway with the guy who feels like i pushed him with my big ass, thinking all my scared and angry thoughts, but then I tried my practice.  I stopped, I breathed, and thought about what he was feeling, why he had said what he said, and I realized, it had nothing to do with me, he was someone at a low ebb, clearly his sense of self was really fragile, so fragile that me squeezing into a seat next to him on the subway felt like an assault on his very being.  And I had a choice, I could prop up my own fragile self and continue that assault, either in my mind or out loud, or I could try to help him.  Only my pride stood in the way. 
So, even though I’d done nothing wrong, even though I was right and he was wrong, I turned to him and I said, I’m sorry, it was an accident, I didn’t mean to push you, I hope you can forgive me.”   I didn’t need to be forgiven, but he needed to forgive me.   “Humph”, he said, “well okay”.  And the anger was gone.  And it cost me nothing.  In fact, it gave me the world.  I gave him the gift of atonement, and he gave me…the rest of my life.   Huge.
 When I look at the conflicts in Israel and Palestine and Syria and all over, all that revenge and honor killing and murder of innocents, I wish all of those antagonists would stop and breathe and feel empathy and give each other those gifts, the gifts of atonement and compassion, the gifts of God-ness and One-ness.  I wish them for you.
Shabbat Shalom

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