Va-yishlach features one of the iconic episodes of the Jewish story, i.e. Jacob’s wrestling match with the stranger, which leaves him lame in body but strengthened in spirit. According to one tradition, this stranger is Sameal, the guardian angel of Esau and the incarnation of Evil. According to others, however, it is a holy angel. It would certainly be strange for an angel of Jacob’s enemy and an incarnation of Evil to bless Jacob and to give him the name Israel. Consider, too, that when Jacob finally meets Esau, the older brother he had deceived and who had threatened to kill him in return, Esau is all kindness and forgiveness. Jacob says something extraordinary: “For seeing your face is like seeing the face of the Divine, you have received me so favourably.” Does the divine dwell in the face of an evil man? Surely, Esau’s actions and Jacob’s words demonstrate that hatred can turn to love and that other people, whom so often we fear, can hold within themselves their own imprint of the divine.
It is important to bear the story of Jacob and Esau in mind when we come to Va-yeishev, another version of sibling rivalry and the beginning of Israel’s encounter with Egypt. This week’s parsha starts badly. A precocious and rather vain younger brother, perhaps not sufficiently controlled by his doting father, irritates his bothers so much that, driven by jealousy and resentment, they sell him into slavery. Yet already by the end of the parsha, despite the dire circumstances in which it ends, with Joseph in prison for a crime he had not committed, there is a ray of light, and that is Joseph’s growing wisdom and his moral uprightness. He could have curried favour with his mistress by sleeping with her, but he refuses to betray his master.
Before I end, allow me a little addendum. Joseph has been unjustly treated, but he has not been killed. Neither Potiphar, in a fit of jealousy, nor his wife, in her fit of pique has taken a dagger to him. At the risk of stating the obvious, this shows that there was a legal system and a concept of justice in Egypt. This is very important and gives us a moral context in which to place many of the laws which are given to the Israelites after the Exodus. What is important about these laws is not so much that they regulate our social and legal behaviour, but that they must be justly and fairly administered. The law is a ragged and dirty instrument when it favours wealth and power over impartiality. Israel’s mission will not be to follow a mass of laws and rulings but to use them as the foundations of a just society.
To hear the story of the sons of Jacob and to share in prayer, song and conversation, come to the service this Saturday at 10:30. Liz Berg will lead us in tune.