Yom Sheini, 22 Iyyar 5779
Monday, 27 May 2019
Parashat Vayishlach 2013

Parashat Va-yishlach
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

15 November 2013

Lessons in Conflict

How do we deal with conflict? It’s a question that each one of us should address to ourselves. We are familiar, of course, with the litany of conflicts around the globe – not least, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So what fuels these conflicts? Sometimes, they arise when there is a clash of interests; when those involved are protecting, defending or advancing what they see as their own – their land, their tribe, their class, their people, their rights – and/or when they are fighting over scarce resources. Too often, conflict generates violence, death and destruction.

But does conflict only rage out there in the world? Is conflict just what happens between peoples, nations, religious and ethnic groups, classes, political parties? And is conflict always negative? Anybody who has a sibling or siblings, however nourishing and nurturing their family home may have been, knows about conflict at first hand and has experienced as a child the feelings of rage, hurt, and indignation that get expressed in sharp pushes and pinches and scratches and kicks. What do siblings fight about? The elder child feels displaced by the younger child. The middle child feels squeezed in between. Parents are ‘unfair’ and seem to favour ‘him’ or ‘her’ over ‘me’. Growing up is a struggle and children can feel that love and attention are scarce resources and that they are not getting enough of them.

Sounds familiar? Why are we so outraged by the conflicts we see in the world around us, when we know from our own experience, the feelings that generate conflict? Is it because we also know that we fail, so often, to manage the conflicts we engage in ourselves, in our own lives? Issues we had with a brother or sister, when we were a child, continue into adulthood. We act out the scripts of conflict we learned as children in our relationships with partners and spouses.

In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Va-yishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), we read two narratives, in which the protagonists involved deal with the respective conflicts in very different ways. The main theme of the parashah is the reunion of Jacob and Esau after twenty years of Jacob’s enforced exile in Haran with his mother Rebekah’s, brother, Laban, and his family. As the portion opens (Gen. 32:4ff.), Jacob is terrified of meeting his brother again. When the messengers Jacob has sent to meet him report that Esau is coming with 400 men, he is convinced that Esau will kill him and all his camp. So Jacob takes measures to divide the camp in two, and also arranges to send gifts to Esau to appease him. Twenty years have passed and he now has a family of his own, but it is clear that Jacob is recalling, as if it were yesterday, that the last time he saw his brother, Esau wanted to kill him.

And then, when Jacob can do no more, and has sent his wives, his two handmaids and his eleven children over the ford at Yabbok, and is left alone (Gen. 32:23ff.), the text tells us that ‘a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day’ (32:25). When day comes, Jacob emerges with a limp (32:25) and a new name, Yisrael, ‘for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed’ (32:29). Yisrael: literally, ‘one who struggles with God.’ The unknown man and God are one because, ultimately, Jacob struggled with himself and his own sense of identity, as he reached beyond himself to struggle with the other, his twin brother and his God. It is as if Esau had actually been present, wrestling with him in person that night, because when they encounter one another the next day, both men are ready to meet again (33:1ff.). Jacob is still apprehensive and cautious, placing the least loved members of his family at the forefront, as Esau approaches him, and then bowing seven times as he goes ahead to meet Esau. But then his more impulsive brother breaches the space between them as he falls on Jacob’s neck and kisses him – and then they both weep (33:4). The conflict is not simply dissolved in that embrace. What transpires next demonstrates that Jacob and Esau have learnt from the conflict between them and have both grown through it. They remain very different characters, and having found their own ways of meeting one another, they then manage a very cordial exchange before they go their separate ways. They have succeeded in dealing with the conflict between them, which includes acknowledging that they can’t ‘live happily ever after’ together.

And what of the other conflict related in parashat Va-yishlach? As if the purpose of this portion was to teach us the futility of violence in resolving conflict, we read the terrible story of Dinah (Gen. 34:1ff.), the daughter of Leah and Jacob, who ‘went out to see the daughters of the land’, only to be raped by Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite. The terrible vengeance wreaked by her brothers, Shimon and Levi, leaves their father, Jacob, distraught, as he fears the reaction of ‘the inhabitants of the land’ (34:30). None of them seem concerned with Dinah herself, whose voice is silent throughout. In this tale, we see the reactive bloody nature of so much conflict. Yes, Esau would have killed his brother – just as Cain killed Able (Gen. 4) – but Jacob got out of his way, and both men then had the space to find their own way in life before they met again. There are lessons here about how to deal with conflict for all of us.