Yom Rivii, 12 AdarI 5781
Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Parashat Vayishlach 5776

Rabbi Richard Jacobi
27th November 2015


The soap opera is a very popular genre of entertainment in this country, just as it has been in its country of modern origin, the United States of America. It was there that the name was given, derived from the advertising by detergent and soap companies in the 1930s when the first radio soap operas were broadcast. Nowadays, the ‘soap’ tells the supposedly everyday story of people like you and me, except that so much happens to the inhabitants of one street, square, or village.

This week’s portion from the book of Genesis shows us that the genre is much, much older than we might have thought. The much-delayed reunion between the traveller Jacob and his older brother Esau is prefaced by an overnight transformational incident. Was it a dream or a night vision? Was it an actual fight between a woken up Jacob and an opponent or messenger from God? Either way, it results in Jacob being told “Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for as a prince you have power with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:29).

Then Jacob and Esau meet and they embrace and kiss – the ‘kiss’ that Jewish tradition questions: might it have been a bite of revenge, rather than a kiss of brotherly love? No sooner have Jacob and his family returned than his only daughter is raped (or it might have been an ill-fated ‘Romeo and Juliet’-style relationship), for which two of his sons extract a bloody revenge. Fearing retaliation, Jacob moves on again.

Rachel’s nurse, Deborah, dies. Shortly afterwards, Rachel dies while giving birth to Benjamin. And then Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, has sexual relations with Bilhah, Rachel’s maid and mother to two of Reuben’s half-brothers. Before the portion ends, Isaac, his father dies, and then we read the long family tree of Esau.

There is a lot going on, and in all these and later events, we still hear of this character primarily as Jacob. Why? After the names changes of his grandparents, both are only known as Abraham and Sarah, so much so that many people can’t state their original names when asked. Yet Jacob does not give way to Israel, we continue to refer to the man by his original name – central to the prayer life of Jews is the trio of ‘fathers of Israel’ – Avraham (not Avram), Yitchak, v’Ya’akov (not v’Yisrael).

Maybe, this is a further insight into the character of Jacob and the example we are all asked to learn from. It is not the idealised, God-given name of Yisrael that we seek to emulate, but the human-named, imperfect Jacob. It’s not that we’re being told ‘a leopard cannot change its spots’. Instead, I think the lesson for us is that we have to keep seeking to be the best person we can be, despite and because of the imperfections that make us uniquely who we are.

Our lives may, on occasion, resemble an episode of a soap opera, but more often than not, real life has a slower and more balanced pace than either portion Vayishlach of Genesis or the soap operas of today’s television channels. In this world, we can mend relationships with siblings, we can hold back from revenge and retaliation. Not every crisis needs to be an escalating drama. Perhaps we can make this Shabbat a time of mending relationships with siblings, family or friends.