Parshat Vayishlach

Torah Reading for Week of December 7-December 13, 2008

“Missions of Meaning”

By Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D.
AJRCA Dean of Academic Affairs

The Hebrew root ShLCh, meaning “send,” has the unique distinction of appearing in the title of three weekly sidras: Vayishlach, Beshalach, and Shelach Lecha. In the first, Yaakov sends messengers ahead of him to Esav. In the second, Pharaoh is sending the Israelites out of Egypt. In the third, Moshe sends spies into the land of Israel. Each “sending” initiates a dynamic that seems straightforward, but quickly encounters challenges.

Especially fascinating are the parallels between the events of Vayishlach and Beshalach. After Yaakov’s sending of messengers, he creates diversionary tactics for the encounter with Esav. After Pharaoh lets the Israelites go, G-d directs them in a roundabout route to avoid hostile encounters. Yaakov finds himself in a mysterious struggle with a spirit or angel; the Israelites find themselves trapped by Pharaoh’s chariots and arguing among themselves.

After crossing the Jabbok, Yaakov reconciles with Esav and is free to go home. But he stops in Shechem instead, and his daughter Dina is raped. After crossing the Sea, the Israelites move on; but Amalek attacks the weak ones at the rear. Battles ensue in both cases.

Yaakov continues to home to “settle” (parshat Vayeshev), although his beloved Rachel dies. In the parallel, the Jewish people continue on to Sinai. Yet despite this culmination, life continues to be unsettled: Yaakov sends Yosef to spy on his brothers, with grievous long-term results; and, many parshiot later, Shelach Lecha recounts the sending of spies which brought grief for 40 years upon the people in the desert.

Each of these parallels is a study of its own. What is striking is that all these challenging events come with “sending” and being “sent.” In each case, things happen that, as we say, weren’t part of the plan. A person (or a people) who is sent has a life not of his own making.

Being sent is different from being banished, like Cain. Cain, like Yaakov, was sent away from his home against his will, but G-d left him adrift. He gave Cain protection, ensuring a long life, but to no purpose. Yaakov’s ostensible purpose was to save his life and find a wife, and he succeeded. But his fuller mission, unexpected but fully accepted, was his wrestling “with G-d and with man,” with jealousy, fear, outrage, shame, and heart-wrenching grief, and through all that to “return home at peace” (Gen 28:21).

The mystery of human life is the intertwining of our G-d-given personal will with the will of the One who sends us into life. We sometimes prefer not to believe in a mission; or we half-believe it, but become angry and frustrated at the challenges. Or we may be afraid of being stretched beyond what we think we can bear. We need no greater reminder of what it can mean to be a shaliach than the murders of two young Chabad shluchim in Mumbai.

But without the sense of being sent, we would be, like Cain, only wanderers.
Yaakov’s life is testimony to the fact that being sent is what makes life worthwhile. And perhaps, in an ironic twist on the name of the parsha, Yaakov’s own mission was ultimately fulfilled by the son he sent out, when Yosef declared that “to give life [mechayah] G-d sent me ahead of you” (Gen 45.5). G-d confirms that ultimate purpose when he reassures Yaakov, in a final dream at Beersheva, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there” (Gen 46:2).

To be shluchim is not comfortable. And our missions may not end with our own lives. But we as Jews are all living witnesses that being sent does make a difference. Od avinu chai.

This essay is dedicated to my daughter Devora Rachel, sent into this world 19 years ago during the week of parshat Vayishlach.

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