This week’s parashah, Vayishlach, reads like the script of the next Quentin Tarantino movie. It has everything: from death, violence, abduction and revenge, to the supernatural and even family broiges.
It tells the story of Jacob, who returns to the Holy Land hoping to reconcile with his estranged brother Esau. Before he is able to do so, he is visited in the night by an angel with whom he wrestles until morning, suffering a dislocated hip in the process. Jacob emerges victorious, and after he reconciles with Esau, the story turns to Jacob’s wife and children in the city of Shechem. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is abducted by the prince of Shechem, and Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi avenge this by murdering all the male inhabitants of the city. Jacob’s journey continues, and before long tragedy strikes again when his second wife Rachel dies in childbirth. Reuben, Jacob’s first son, then loses his birthright for interfering in his father’s marital life, and the story draws to a close with the death of Isaac at the age of 180.
Once we’ve all had the chance to pause for breath, I will focus on Jacob’s clash with the angel. Over time, this has been interpreted by the Rabbis in various ways. Rashi comments that the angel was Esau’s ministering angel. I understand this as Jacob having to overcome his fear of retribution for stealing his brother’s birthright, trusting that their brotherly bond would overpower any feelings of envy or vengeanceinEsau.
This is a powerful message for all of us. Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, and Esau overcame his resentment for Jacob, we, as individuals, a community and a nation must battle with our own metaphorical angels. If we are to have any chance in this eternal battle, we must fight using deep introspection. Along this journey of self-reflection, mankind has obsessed itself with the unfathomable questions that define us. The most fundamental of these is: why do we exist?
This is a question that I’m unable to answer. But now that we are here, it is up to us to make the best of it. We must all wrestle with our own selfish urges and desires to ensure that they do not overwhelm us and dictate the way we live our lives. We have theory established society that is based around controlling and managing these feelings, but a lack of self-control has always plagued our species and will continue to do so until the very end. The more we allow feelings of greed, envy, hatred and vengeance to control us, the closer we bring our species to the end.
So how can we as Jews make a difference? In short, it won’t be easy! Here’s a statistic that has always fascinated and humbled me: there were twice as many people in the 1.8% margin of error in the 2010 Chinese census than there are Jews in the world. This used to stir up in me a feeling of overwhelming powerlessness until I realised that if every Jew had that attitude, we’d be doomed!
If like Jacob and Esau, we can all vanquish our own internal angels by giving a little more, thinking a little more, and doing a little more for each other and the planet we live on, we might just be able to create a lasting culture of Tikun Olam. So instead of wrestling with unanswerable questions, we should all be asking ourselves, how can I make this world a better place for those around me and for generations to come.
Jonny Kay, along with his wife, Sam Kay, is a member of NNLS. Jonny is a financial services solicitor at a global insurance company.