Parsha Vayishlach 5777
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Parsha Vayishlach 5777

Shabbat Shalom

I was going to do the most innocuous warm feeling sermon today. I had found a story that I will share with you…but not now. No, I will share with you in the not too distant future.

I will tell you that my computer is a pain in my neck; Literally and figuratively. As you know, years after my neck surgeries it is difficult to remain at the key board for a longtime…I am one of those “hunt and peck” typists; not my proudest admission. So physically it is hard. But also, as I write, I get pop ups of the latest emails received.

And so as I wrote this sermon, prepared to tell you a heartwarming story, I got a number of pop ups from right wing Israel advocacy groups about Trumps latest nominees.. He’s to fill the position of ambassador to Israel. His name is David Freedman. The political right loves him. The Jewish right refers to him as the greatest thing to have happened to Israel. And in symbolic ways, for THEM, he may be. He is an advocate of moving the embassy to Jerusalem.

He is opposed to a two state solution. He favors increased settlement building. He referred to liberal critics of Israel as KAPOS…a new star has been born for the Jewish right.

I’m going to speak about this in order to understand a dimension of Jewish values and Jewish aspiration. And place Jacob and Esau’s reconciliation in perspective.

Let me begin by saying that I think everyone shares a goal of peace. I think that peace with security is what serves our people and all people well. I know what “they” do and we all read what the other side does that serves as a michshol, stumbling block to peace. And you know we can’t control them. We can only control ourselves and what we do.

That is why we need to be strong. That is why the defense arrangements that have been made both in terms of the iron dome and the huge defense military packages that have been received as well as the delivery this past week of the highest advanced technological war planes, the F35, given to Israel in the last few weeks are so important. Israel needs to have a superior military advantage in that region. And they have been assured of that in the recent past…and we can thank America and you know what that means for all of that aid.

America too realizes that we can only control what we do and so we have given extraordinary and unprecedented support to Israel’s defense, even when we differed about policy. God bless America.

When thinking about Israel and policy I do respect Israel as an independent sovereign nation, a democratic state. And I also am fully aware that her decisions are made with the desire to protect her citizens. I did not go to the IDF. My children did not serve in the IDF. And I hold the highest respect for those who did and those who do; including some of your grandchildren, and yes, Boaz’ daughter, Tamar. And I believe that their highest aspiration is to create peace, knowing that this has been the desire for 68 years now. And I’m sure that every one of them, like every one of us is at some point confronted with the question of how one creates peace. What are the steps to peacemaking? And what are the values implied?

Is peace of less importance then land? Is land more important than peace and life? For some it is. For some territory and the preservation of settlements is a calling from God and they would choose to lose lives for this. For others it is that life is of supreme value and they are willing to compromise. Can we honestly say or believe that moving the Embassy brings us closer to peace and security? Expressions that deny Palestinian statehood will create peace? Expansion of Settlement can create more security? I don’t think so.

I have learned and taught again and again in various contexts that the first ethical assertion or value of living a Jewish life is life, and that begins with self- preservation. After that all other values are considered. And so, with that framework I choose to think that we must operate in that way. We must make sure we are defended, and we must do what we can do to promote a just peace. Fr there is not greater security then peace.

I’m not a black and white thinker. I’m not suggesting that we simply give away territory and then we will have peace. I’m not naïve. But I do believe that we need to lay the groundwork. With each decision we make. There are local implications. There are people whose lives are affected. There are two peoples in this proposition…Israelis and Palestinians. They will have to make the peace.

We are aware of the work that must be done in education. And we should know the work that has already BEEN DONE IN EDUCATION AND SCHOOL BOOKS. There Are multiple projects on the ground that are struggling for coexistence. Their victories will be our victory. And we should support them.

I also, like you, value democracy. Its imperfect, but it’s the best system yet devised for governance, that’s what Churchill said. And, for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic nation, progress towards a two state solution has to be our goal.
Sadly, I fear, forces opposed on both sides may be winning. Where should America be in this? Where should a Jewish American stand? I recognize that my opinion may not be yours…

Well I speak of this today not only because of the nomination of Friedman but because today’s parshah may be a lesson in peace making….And that’s where I want us to focus…

Jacob, our father Jacob has been on the run long enough. He can no longer avoid the confrontation that is inevitable with his brother Esau. Esau is strong and powerful. But we learn that Jacob too has amassed great wealth.

He has herds of cattle and goats and camels…He has wives and children and lots of wealth. But it all means nothing if he loses it to his brother. Don’t forget, this is the brother that he deceived multiple. This is the brother who he assumes wants his death and the destruction of his people.

So he strategizes. He sends messengers with offers of gifts to his brother. He’ll give him lots of livestock and wealth…whatever he wants. And this is a strategy of appeasement. Sometimes appeasement works. Usually it doesn’t it eaves both parties dissatisfied. It leaves, at least one party, in a continual state of war.

He divides his camp. He thinks to himself. Well if Esau attacks at least half of my people will survive. This is a strategy for survival, but not a winning strategy.

And then after bringing his family, cattle, servants and possessions across the Jabbok, he goes to sleep. And again Jacob has a dream. He wrestles throughout the night with a “man”. We don’t know if it’s an angel, we don’t know if it’s Esau, we don’t know if it’s himself…The text doesn’t tell us. But he awakes in the morning and he is a changed man. His hip was hurt, he’s wounded, we might say he is made vulnerable. His name has been changed from Jacob to Israel. It means you have wrestled with God and human beings.

He is then able, now with a limp to encounter his brother. And his brother Esau accepts him. They hug each other. They each have known enough pain. They need not inflict more, they need not take anything more from the other. He doesn’t want his offerings or his. Neither brother needs anything from the other. They have both arrived at a place of self-sufficiency, satisfaction and comfort. Perhaps that is why they can make peace. Perhaps it is because they show respect for the other.

And there is a line that cried out to me as I read THIS TEXT. Jacob, now Israel, says to his brother, his former feared enemy, “If you would do me this favor, accept this gift, for seeing your face is like seeing the face of God”
That’s what the Torah says here.

In the other, we have to battle, and we have to battle to get to the place where we not only see the humanity of the other but the face of God. And that’s a large struggle.

That means, not seeing the others strength, rather their vulnerability. Seeing that they too have sons and daughters and homes and possessions and land….
It goes both ways. It needs to go both ways and we need to have that conversation, but in the Jewish community way too often, that conversation is repressed!

A teacher of Torah, one of the best in the world, Aviva Zornberg taught the following;
Jacob sought the wrestling match. He needed to be able to test himself. He had to learn the limits of his own power. We need to be able to struggle with ourselves. Jacob holds on to the angel for the night because he learned that in the personal struggle he learned about himself.

One of the saddest things in our contemporary conversations about politics and religion and certainly Israel is that there are forces, on both sides,, that want to quiet the other, fear the arguments, won’t listen to the positions of others….and so we don’t or can’t struggle with ourselves….and sometimes we need to do that. This is a time when we will need to do that. Because we need to pursue justice, and truth and peace…and we need to do it because of the humanity we represent and the Divine image in the humanity we know….

In the Midrash the rabbis have Jacob saying: If you want peace I am with you, if you want war, I am ready for you. They see Jacob as a model of using his strength, not to initiate war and continue hostility, but as a model of power that teaches us how to pursue peace through power we need not just dominate and occupy – through power and strength we can pursue coexistence and peace.

That’s a good model…over 2500 years old and still, a living model.

Shabbat Shalom