The Angel of the Other (Parshat Vayishlach)

All real living is meeting.- Martin Buber

In last week’s parsha, Vayeitze Ya’akov left Be’er Sheva in the Holy Land and went north to Haran. The Sfas Emes points out that this symbolizes the soul leaving behind the well (be’er) of Shabbat (sheva) to go into the materiality of the world- from the place of p’nimiyut (internal spirit) to the place of gashmiyut (mundane concern). Now he is returning to the Holy Land and therefore to the place of p’nimiyut, which besides internality can also paradoxically mean the Face (panim). As we shall see Ya’akov will be tested on the way with a meeting with the face of the Other, the face of his brother Esav.
Ya’akov has sent messengers and gifts along before him to his estranged brother and sent his family along ahead of him. He has prepared for possible battle with him and the men that accompany him. Ya’akov will stay alone for the night.
“Vayivater Ya’akov levado- And Ya’akov was left alone (levado)”(Bereishit 32:25). The Midrash says, “Ya’akov was left alone (levado)”- this is like the aloneness of the Holy One who pervades all the universe (Bereishit Rabbah, 77:1)”. How is Ya’akov’s aloneness like the aloneness of Hashem?

The Holy One’s aloneness is described as ein od milvado -there is nothing besides Him alone (Devarim 4:35). On one level Ya’akov is in a place of great aloneness where he must rely on his own resources only (R’ Tzvi Elimelech of Dynov, Igre de-Kala, quoted by Rav Itamar Eldar). This is one way in which his aloneness is like the Holy One’s- it is an aloneness of self-sufficiency.

Further R’ Tzvi Elimelech and others connect this verse to another one from Yeshaya: “And human haughtiness will be humbled and people’s pride be brought low, YHWH alone ( levado) will be exalted on that day (Yashaya 2:17)” Here Ya’akov lets go of pride and self and is thus attains to an “aloneness with the alone”. Ya’akov’s aloneness is one where he comes into an unmediated meeting with the Divine presence, as taught by the Shem Mi-Shmuel (see Shem Mi-Shmuel Vayishlach 1878).  This last type of aloneness is a segregation- a hitbodedut- even from ideas of self and other, past and future. Ya’akov enters into a deep stillness where he transcends stories about himself and his brother. Ya’akov is alone, but not in the sense of isolation.

We see here that Ya’akov attains an aloneness of self-reliance, humility, divine presence, and seclusion from his usual way of looking at things, even to the extent of transcending ideas of himself and his brother. Lastly in this aloneness his consciousness becomes unrestricted, and it is in this sense that his awareness “pervades all the universe like the Holy One”.

It is from this ultimate place that the Other can be met completely, free from the cage of concepts based on the past. Here transformation of our attitude to the other can really occur, even if we only glimpse this state briefly. Without it, change tends to be more superficial.

V’ya’vak ish imo ad alot hashachar. The next thing that happens is that Ya’akov is met by a “man” (ish)- in my reading, his own personification of the Other, with which he wrestles ad alot hashachar- until the dawn (Bereishit 32:25). Ya’akov’s journey is not complete and he must integrate his experience. Ya’akov wrestles with the man triumphantly and the next day when he meets Esav he is greeted by Esav with a kiss. However first he bows to Esav sheva pa’amim- seven times (Bereishit 33:3). Seven symbolizes completion- Ya’akov bows completely.

Esav embraces Ya’akov and tells him Esav bears him no enmity any longer- a result the Rabbis explicitly connect to Ya’akov’s wrestling the night before with Esav’s guardian angel, or in our reading, with Ya’akov’s projection of Esav as threatening Other. And how telling in this respect is Ya’akov’s reponse to Esav “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God”. Ya’akov’s statement reveals that in his aloneness his vision has been reborn, remade, and now he recognizes that the unmediated face of reality, the unmediated face of his brother Esav, is the face of God.

The meeting of Ya’akov and Esav has been understood as having been potentially messianic. If Esav had been ready for union with Ya’akov, the messianic age would have dawned. But Esav was not ready, and so Ya’akov does not go with him but sends him on ahead, promising to catch up with him in Se’ir. The lesson here is spiritual and ethical.

Ya’akov, after his healing glimpse of Esav beyond objectification, falls again into self protection. He does not go with Esav out of fear. He has not emerged from his wrestling with his personification of the Other completely whole after all- rather he walks with a limp. Jews do not eat the gid hanasheh, the sciatic nerve, of an animal in remembrance of Ya’akov’s injured hip. The mitzvah not to eat the gid hanasheh is a remembrance of the hope of reconciliation between self and other. One day we hope Ya’akov will be completely reconciled to Esav, beyond fear, guilt, and anger, and thus a space will open for Esav to be reconciled to Ya’akov. The pyche will be beyond “what I have done to him or her, what I am doing to him or her, what I might do to him or her” and of course “what he or she has done to me, what he or she are doing to me, what he or she might do to me”. Ya’akov and Esav will embrace eachother and travel together without fear. Until then perhaps Ya’akov is right to not travel with Esav- he senses not that Esav is not ready but that he himself is not ready.

By the end of the parsha we read “Ya’akov arrived whole – and he encamped before the city (of Shechem) (Bereishit 33:18).” And Esav? “And Esav took his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the persons of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his substance, which he had acquired in the land of Canaan; and went into another country away from his brother Yaakov (Bereishit 36:6).” The parsha then calls him “Esav, who is Edom (Bereishit 36:1).” He is now no longer identified with Avraham and his family; he is from now on identified as Edom. He has left the family and mission of Avraham. Even more ominously, Esav’s son Elifaz takes Timna, sister of a Horite chieftain, as a wife. Their son is Amalek, the archetypal anti-semite, ancestor of Haman of the Purim story (Bereishit 36:12)!

What would have happened if Ya’akov had gone with Esav and positively united their destinies? Yitzhak, certainly, did not desire Esav’s banishment from the family but rather favoured him.Traditional Jewish commentary has argued for Esav’s bad intentions at length: Esav was feining forgiveness, or his forgiveness was short-lived; Esav did not really kiss Ya’akov- he bit him. Is this protesting too much? Are we straining to cover for our own lack of love?

Chazal have said that reconciliation between Ya’akov and Esav will happen in the messianic future. Whoever is Israel, awake and struggling: let’s not wait for the future with whoever in our life is Esav. By letting go of our pride and our attempts to rely on others, and going into a place of aloneness, segregated even from our concepts of self and other, us and them, we can renew our eyes and see again the face of God in the face of the other. Everytime the face of the Other appears to us- by an act of grace beyond our imagining or conception- then the messianic age may dawn in that moment.

Author: Matthew Zachary Gindin

Freelance journalist and teacher. I write regularly for the Forward, All That In Interesting, and the Jewish Independent, and have been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Elephant Journal, and elsewhere.

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