Exile and Survival: Jacob's Legacy

Jacob and the Jewish people have learned powerful lessons from the experience of exile.

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In Parashat Vayishlah, Jacob is transformed from successful itinerant businessman to spiritual ancestor of the people of Israel. Events include a solitary nocturnal struggle with the legacy of Jacob's past, personified variously as God, God's emissary, or a projected human form. This dramatic episode grabs our attention because it provides the powerful name both Jacob and we have borne throughout history--Israel, the God wrestler.

Jacob and Esau's Reconciliation

This drama, so replete with images of symbolic wounds and archetypes of shadow sides, completes a process that enables Jacob to approach his brother Esau in a fashion that leads to reconciliation. Esau embraces his brother. This surprise conclusion is hardly anticipated by the text, which makes clear at every possible turn that Esau's retinue of 400 men was clearly understood by Jacob and his representatives (who failed in their mission to placate Esau's enmity) to be a military show of force.

Was it Jacob's limping that evoked his brother's sympathy? Was it his directness and simple courage in moving forward alone, ahead of his own troops, contrasted with his hightailing it out of town decades earlier--his stolen birthright in tow?

Jacob's Spiritual Growth

The answers may be inferred from three subtle hints of language in the opening verses of chapter 32 of Genesis, which include the beginning of our parashah. They indicate that the process of spiritual growth began for Jacob in his exile experience.

Jacob is the first of our ancestors with true, lengthy, exile experience, since Isaac never left the land and Abraham's excursions were clearly temporary. That he understood the significance of his experience can be inferred from the very last word of last week's parashah: “machanaim” (Genesis 32:3) – i.e. "Two Camps," Jacob’s name for the place on his journey home where he first encountered God's messengers/angels. The commentator Rashi describes the two "camps" as the differing spiritual presences (angels) to be experienced in the galut (diaspora) and in the Land of Israel. Shortly we will see the lesson Jacob learns from this prior experience.

The first hint of a process that we might see as preparing for reconciliation with Esau is contained in his instructions to his servants carrying his peace offerings. Before describing his material success and offering gifts, he requested that they tell Esau,"I was a ger (sojourner, resident alien) with Laban" (Genesis 32:5, "garti im Lavan") these many years. Rather than stress his material and familial success, his summation of his experience was, "I now know what it is like to be dispossessed of power and control."

Jacob's Shift in Charachter

Though it appears from the text that this message was never delivered, perhaps the experience was so powerful that it conditioned Jacob's gait and appearance so clearly that Esau responded automatically to the vulnerability visible in his usurping younger brother.

When the servants returned without success and warned Jacob of Esau's approach with 400 men, Jacob's emotional response and then his actions give two more hints of his progress and development. We learn that he was both afraid and distressed (32:8)-- afraid, that he might be killed, but also distressed that he would be involved in killing others, according to several commentators.

Just like the prospective soldier in Deuteronomy (20:8), who is both fearful and fainthearted for the same reasons, Jacob's moral universe has shifted from the heel-grabbing, birthright-snatching materialist to one who would attempt to resolve conflict non-violently as a matter of first priority.

The Benefits of Two Camps

Finally we see an interesting, perhaps strategic decision to divide his entire people into two camps (32:8). One midrash views this as prudent, common sense (derech eretz). We shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket. If Esau has aggressive plans on Jacob's people, then at least one camp will escape and serve as a refuge.

The analogy to the experience of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora was not lost on future commentators. Surprisingly, there were Rabbis in the talmudic period who also detected a positive rationale for the galut beyond its survival benefit. R. Elazar and R. Yochanon commended the galut for its result in adding proselytes to the Jewish people (Tractate Pesahim 87b).

The Midrash on Song of Songs (1:4) compares the Jewish people to a flask of perfume, which emits its scent when shaken, as in the experience of Abraham who was instructed to wander about in the world so that his name would become great in God's world.

Spiritual Potential in Exile

Recalling his experience at Machanaim, Jacob's behavior seems to reflect a notion that there is spiritual potential in the galut. Certainly his experiences in galut were powerful influences on the man who then makes reconciliation with his brother.

Sometimes in Jewish history, galut experience can be the spiritual cutting edge for the descendants of Jacob/Israel, when spiritual deadness pervades the land of Israel (or vice-versa.) In addition, a careful study of the metaphor of galut in rabbinic literature indicates that the potential exists for the experience of galut/exile even within the borders of Eretz Yisrael.

Jacob was prepared for his epiphanous experience and for his reconciliation with Esau by learning the unique vantage point provided by our Jewish history of exile and return, by his discovery of the limits of violence to solve conflict, and by his identification with vulnerable, disenfranchised gerim (strangers). These lessons still have resonance for Jews the world over.

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Rabbi Gerry Serotta

Rabbi Gerry Serotta has served since 1982 as Campus Rabbi at George Washington University, and also serves as Associate Rabbi, Temple Shalom of Chevy Chase, MD.