All real living is meeting.- Martin Buber
As is so often the case, the events of the last weeks and their questions resonated with the parshayot (torah readings). How should we relate to the other that we fear? Who are our fellow travellers? Where is God in the tortured conflicts of our time?
In the Bible portion Vayetze Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva in the Holy Land and goes north to Haran. The Hasidic commentator 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 (worldliness). In parshat Vayishlach, last week’s portion, Jacob is returning to the Holy Land and therefore to the place of p’nimiyut, which besides internality can also paradoxically mean the Face (panim). Jacob will descend into his own depths and emerge to a confrontation with the face of the Other.
“And Jacob was left alone (levado)”(Genesis 32:25). The Midrash says, “Jacob was left alone (levado)”- this is like the aloneness of the Holy One who pervades all the universe (Genesis Rabbah, 77:1)”. How is Jacob’s aloneness like the aloneness of God?
The Holy One’s aloneness is described as ein od milvado -there is nothing besides Him alone (Devarim 4:35). On one level Jacob is in a place of great aloneness where he must rely on his own resources (Rabbi 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 Isaiah: “And human haughtiness will be humbled and people’s pride be brought low, YHWH alone ( levado) will be exalted on that day (Isaiah 2:17)” Here Jacob lets go of pride and self and thus attains to an “aloneness with the alone”. Jacob’s aloneness is one where he comes into an unmediated meeting with the Divine presence, as taught by the Shem Mi-Shmuel (Vayishlach 1878). This last type of aloneness is a seclusion even from ideas of self and other, past and future. Jacob enters into a deep stillness where he transcends stories about himself and his brother. Jacob is alone, but not in the sense of isolation. 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.Jacob wrestled with a man until dawn. Jacob wrestles with a “man” (ish)- in my reading, his own personification of the Other (Genesis 32:25). Jacob’s journey is not complete and he must integrate his experience. The next day when he meets Esau he is greeted by Esau with a kiss. However first he bows to Esau sheva pa’amim– seven times (Genesis 33:3). Seven symbolizes completion- Jacob bows completely.
Esau embraces Jacob and tells him he bears him no enmity any longer- a result the Rabbis explicitly connect to Jacob’s wrestling the night before with Esau’s guardian angel or in our reading with Jacob’s projection of Esau as threatening Other. And how telling in this respect is Jacob’s response to Esau “I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God”. Jacob’s statement reveals that in his aloneness his vision has been reborn and remade. Now he recognizes that the unmediated face of reality, the unmediated face of his brother Esau, is the face of God.
The meeting of Jacob and Esau has been understood as having been potentially messianic. Jacob does not go with him, however, but sends him on ahead, promising to catch up with him in Se’ir. The commentators say that if Esau had been ready for union with Jacob, the messianic age would have dawned. Is it really Esau who was not ready, as the traditional commentators claim, or was it Jacob? Jacob, after his healing glimpse of Esau beyond objectification, falls again into fear. He has not emerged from his wrestling with his personification of the Other completely whole after all- rather he walks with a limp.
By the end of the Torah portion we read “Jacob arrived safe – and he encamped before the city (of Shechem) (Genesis 33:18).” And Esau? “And Esau 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 Jacob (Genesis 36:6).” The Torah now calls him “Esau, who is Edom (Genesis 36:1).” He is now no longer identified with Abraham and his family; he is from now on identified as Edom, the forefather of the Edomites. He has left the family and mission of Abraham. Even more ominously, Esau’s son Elifaz takes Timna, sister of a Horite chieftain, as a wife. Their son is Amalek, the archetypal anti-semite ((Genesis 36:12), ancestor of the genocidal Haman of the book of Esther.
What would have happened if Jacob had gone with Esau and positively united their destinies? Isaac, certainly, did not desire Esau’s banishment from the family but rather favoured him. Traditional Jewish commentary has argued for Esau’s bad intentions at length: Esau was feining forgiveness, or his forgiveness was short-lived; Esau did not really kiss Jacob- he bit him. Is this protesting too much? Are we straining to cover for our own lack of love?
Jewish sages have said that reconciliation between Jacob and Esau, the frightening other, will happen in the messianic future. But isn’t this deferral to the future just another way of avoiding confronting what we must do? Whoever is Israel, awake and struggling: let’s not wait. Let’s learn from Jacob and Esau, from this tortured family drama (there is really no other kind of drama). What if we united our destiny to that of the other? What if we travelled together? Can we forget what we think we know about Syrian refugees, about ISIS, about Palestinians, or whoever else appears as the threatening other for us? What would happen if the people of modern day Israel were to truly embrace Palestinian Arabs as fellow travellers instead of a demographic and military threat? Violence we already have. We might have some more, but might we also have the beginning of peace? By refusing to deny the Other humanity and fellowship the future is changed.
By going into a place of aloneness, the place of the all-embracing God, 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. In renewing ourselves this way the other is renewed too. Every time the unmediated face of the Other appears to us, and necessarily then the image of God- by an act of grace beyond our imagining or conception- the messianic age, the kingdom of God- is present.
All real living is meeting.- Martin Buber