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Overcoming Trauma through Blessing – Parshat Vayishlach 5775

For a printable PDF version click here: Parshat Vayishlach – Overcoming Trauma through Blessing 5775

Reflecting on the Last few weeks

It should not surprise me how the reality of our lives, both personal and national, seem to always intertwine with what we are reading in the Torah.  It should not amaze me that shouting out from the pages of our ancient text, our modern situation both from a personal and national perspective find expression…..and yet it always does.  This week’s parsha is no different.  There is a message, inherent in the narrative, that resonates profoundly in our souls today.  The very absurdity of our existence, the complexity of our identity and the intense existential struggle and suffering we have to endure as a nation and as individuals, is one that begins with our forefather Yaakov.  In the Parsha in which we receive our national identity – Yisrael, we also receive our national destiny – to struggle, to suffer and to be blessed and give blessing.

The last few weeks have been a traumatic one for us as a nation.  The imagery of blood spilled in the holiest of places, righteous men bound up in their teffilin – the symbol of our binding to the Holy One – lying soulless on the floor, killed just because they are Jewish, is of course reminiscent of the fate of our grandparents and great grandparents less than 70 years ago.  Nothing is ever simple, in 1948, at the very moment we were finally given statehood, independence and redemption, we were faced with extinction.  We are a nation that is constantly dealing with trauma of every kind.  We have to learn how to recover from our experiences, how to make the suffering bearable, how to find meaning or expression to repressed feelings and emotions, and sometimes we don’t know how.

Many who underwent the horrors of the Shoah, could not and would not go back to that dark place, choosing instead to ‘forget’ looking only forward.  It took many years for some who had not spoken to recount their stories.  My grandfather Zeev Racker ז”ל, a Holocaust survivor who had lost his entire family and went through all the camps,  chose to look forward, fighting for Israel in the war of independence and then meeting my beloved grandmother with whom he moved to England and built a new family and created new beginning.  But he never spoke of the horrors he endured, except for once recalling small episodes to his grandson, his story was never told.  He died at 67, young and before people started speaking about their holocaust experiences.  His was one of the stories, the traumas, that will never be fully known, and that is painful.  It is painful for those that survive him knowing there is so much left untold.  But equally painful is knowing that perhaps that the person themselves never had full redemption.  In not ‘telling’ their experiences they remained stuck in the mode of trauma, buried deep inside themselves, never to be uncovered.

As a nation we too have our traumas, we too know resilience and recovery.  We move forward with eyes to the future, seldom settling too long on the past pain so as not get stuck.  It is not an easy game this, it requires an incredible amount of strength and fortitude to keep forgetting, it drains us and perhaps needlessly.  There is something to be gained in speaking through a trauma.  It is never easy, it requires honesty, openness and the knowledge that I open myself up to pain, but yet perhaps without doing so we cannot ever be fully complete.  Our identity is tied inextricably to our suffering.  I am most certainly not one who believe’s that suffering makes us who we are, but rather how we react to our challenges and suffering composes an essential element of our identity.  How do we respond to the pain we undergo, how do we integrate our experiences into our identity and create someone new?

Yaakov and the strange encounter at Yabok

Yitzchak quite literally undergoes a holocaust.  As a result he is robbed of everything that he valued and cherished, his father, his mother, his brother, his sons.   He never speaks, cathartic redemption never materialises for him.  He remains stuck in the moment of the Akeida, eyes blinded, hands tied.

Yaakov, as a young lad, lives under the trauma of his parent – the holocaust survivor.  In many ways he too lives under the veil of repressed memory.  He too desires the antithesis of his father’s life – a simple tent existence, far removed from the tempestuous experiences of Yitzchak.  But this was not to be.

As we discussed last time in donning the ‘clothes’ of Eisav, he integrates an element of his brother into himself, and by doing so embodies a new, foreign identity.   Yaakov has moved from a simply constructed reality to one of complexity and entanglement.  There is a reluctance on the part of Yaakov to play the role of the deceiver, his mother Rivka, almost seems to force him into that role.  The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) expresses this reluctance when it says: He went and took and bought to his mother’ –‘ under duress bent and weeping’ (Bereshit Raba 65). 

Despite Yaakov’s supposed reluctance to betray his father, he does so, and with that comes a lifetime of repressed guilt.  Like his father Yitzchak, Yaakov has become the object of another’s plan, a pawn in the game of other players.  It would be easy to blame others, to point the finger at Avraham or Rivka, to say ‘I had no choice – I am who I am  due to the trauma imposed upon me, out of no free will of my own’.   Yaakov may very well have had little choice in his own undoing.  The very fact the text never tells us of any reunion with his mother, is deeply indicative – there is perhaps an antipathy towards the mother who forced his hand to actions that were arguably not his own.  The classic tension between determinism and free will, fate and destiny unfold in this story and resonate throughout the ensuing narrative.

Uncertain of the moral integrity of his actions, Yaakov spends his life in search of redemption.  First in marrying Rachel, then through material means (working under Lavan).  Nothing seems to satisfy him, everything that transpires throughout his life is littered with subconscious reminders of his deception.[1]  At no moment does he find comfort, or peace. He has in some way become the parallel image of his own father, from whom he so badly wanted to be different.   Yaakov should have left Lavan many years earlier; his delay in leaving can perhaps be attributed to his reluctance to face his own duality.  Living with Lavan it is easy to forget, far away from his past, his family, even his destiny, it is easy to keep the repressed memories of deceit and pain buried deep within himself.  But God beckons him to leave (31:3), interestingly he commands him to do the opposite of Avraham. Whilst Avraham must leave behind his birthplace and father’s household, whilst he must ‘forget’ in order to become anew, Yaakov is commanded to ‘return’ to his birthplace and his father’s household.  Yaakov must ‘remember and return’ in order to become.  The interplay of forgetting and remembering expresses itself in the narrative of the encounter between Yaakov and the stranger at the river edge.  But before this encounter there are messages passed between Yaakov and Eisav.

Fascinatingly through the message Yaakov sends to his brother we detect the ‘otherness’ that has enveloped Yaakov ever since his moment of deceit:

וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם.  ה וַיְצַו אֹתָם, לֵאמֹר, כֹּה תֹאמְרוּן, לַאדֹנִי לְעֵשָׂו:  כֹּה אָמַר, עַבְדְּךָ יַעֲקֹב, עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה

4 And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom. 5 And he commanded them, saying: ‘Thus shall ye say unto my lord Esau: Thus saith thy servant Jacob: I have sojourned with Laban, and stayed until now.

(Bereshit 32)

Yaakov recounts to Eisav that he has been living with Lavan and he has been אחר – delayed – until now.  The delay in returning can also be attributed to his sense of אחר – otherness within himself.  To not be sure of self can lead to a delay in movement.  If we are ‘stuck’ in past ruminations we cannot possibly move forward.

It is at the promise of God to be at his side that Yaakov begins he journey of ‘return’ in order to build his own future and that of his nation.

We then have the famous verse, that through Yonatan Razel’s beautiful rendition (link at the start) has become well know:

יא קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים, וּמִכָּל-הָאֱמֶת, אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ, אֶת-עַבְדֶּךָ:  כִּי בְמַקְלִי, עָבַרְתִּי אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן הַזֶּה, וְעַתָּה הָיִיתִי, לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת

11 I am not worthy of all the mercies, and of all the truth, which Thou hast shown unto Thy servant; for with my staff I passed over this Jordan; and now I am become two camps.

(Bereshit 32:11)

Here again we have a very strong hint at the existential struggle deep within Yaakov.  There is a feeling of un-deservedness, because of what he did, Yaakov allows everyone to take advantage – Rachel, Lavan, even God.  The two camps within himself, cannot find a resting place.  They haunt him.  The voice of Yaakov and the hands of Eisav, the guilt of deception and the struggle for wholeness.

It is no surprise that the offering Yaaov gives to Eisav is one of עיזים – goats (32:15) a dutiful reminder of the fact that he is aware of his misdemeanours, he knows he wronged his brother and yet he also knows that it had to be done.  The tension within himself, the uncertainty of his actions, the duality of his existence is finding expression once more, just before he is to meet face on the part of himself he has tried so hard to forget.

At this moment we hear of a strange, almost mystical encounter:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.  כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.  כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי.  כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב.  כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל:  כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹקים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.  ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם.  לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל:  כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹקים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי.  לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ.  לג עַל-כֵּן לֹא-יֹאכְלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-גִּיד הַנָּשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר עַל-כַּף הַיָּרֵךְ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:  כִּי נָגַע בְּכַף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּגִיד הַנָּשֶׁה.

25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’ And he said: ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’ 28 And he said unto him: ‘What is thy name?’ And he said: ‘Jacob.’ 29 And he said: ‘Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.’ 30 And Jacob asked him, and said: ‘Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.’ And he said: ‘Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?’ And he blessed him there. 31 And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: ‘for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.’ 32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Peniel, and he limped upon his thigh. 33 Therefore the children of Israel eat not the sinew of the thigh-vein which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day; because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh, even in the sinew of the thigh-vein.

(Bereshit 32:25-33)

There is much to be said about this encounter.  In the first instance who is this man with whom Yaakov struggles? We are told in the first verse that Yaakov is alone and then immediately that he struggles with a man.  How can he be alone and struggling with another, if not for the fact that perhaps the ‘other’ is in fact the ‘other’ within himself.  There is of course no end to the wordplay in this narrative. Words that repeat themselves and interlink (שמך, פנים, פני, פניאל, שרית ישראל ,יעקב, יבק, ויאבק), hinting at a kind of integration of things.  It is where Yaakov becomes Yisrael, where the ‘behind/after’, becomes ‘straight/seen face to face’.  But to understand the narrative in light of our theme of repressed traumatic memory being uncovered to create a new identity we need to focus on verse 28 and 29.  Yaakov is struggling with a stranger; in a literal reading, with some sort of man/angel/Divine figure, in a more metaphorical psychological reading, he is struggling with elements of self and identity.  As the sun is rising, as dark turns to dawn and a clarity begins to emerge, at that very moment the angel asks a startling question to Yaakov – a question we recognise going back to the moment of deception ‘what is your name’.  This time however Yaakov response is clear, there is no covering up or becoming of another, he replies very simply ‘Yaakov’.  This is the moment of redemption.  Here Yaakov relives that moment of trauma that has haunted him his whole life.  Here is a rectification, an admission that he is in fact Yaakov.  But the response to this is telling – the angel/man/duality of self responds to Yaakov and says ‘ no you are no longer Yaakov’.  That singular uncomplicated, un-integrated self no longer exists.  You have become someone new, taken a new identity.  You are to be ‘Yisrael’ – since your essence is in itself a paradox – you are at once both Yashar -straight, and complicated – sarit – struggle.  That is your destiny,  that is who you became the moment you put on the hair of Eisav.  Your identity will never again be chalak – straightforward/clear.  But  ותוכל” – you prevailed” – equally you can prevail in your struggle.[2]

The ‘Gid Hanashe’

Immediately following this Yaakov then asks the name of the man/angel/other ‘ וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ’ . In a brilliant observation Shmuel Klitsner[3] points out that within this question is a phonetic wordplay on the later stated ‘ גִיד הַנָּשֶׁה’ – Sinew of the thigh that cannot be eaten since that is where Yaakov was harmed by the Angel – it is inherent in the question (see the bold).   In fact the commentaries seem to suggest that there was some kind of dislocation of the thigh from the socket.   Rashi here suggests that the dislocation comes from the term ‘nashe’ – to forget as when Yosef calls his child ‘Menashe’ – for God has caused me to נשני- forget all my tribulations and all my father’s house’[4]. In forgetting there is a dislocation from my past. The interplay of these two ideas is bought about through the text.   In Klitsner’s words:

On the surface level of reading and storyline, the ‘enabling’ (vatukhal) injury is that of the dislocated sinew. But as indicated by context by intertextual reference, and by sophisticated phonetic wordplay, it is also a threatening and simultaneously cathartic injury that accompanies a struggle and confrontation with self, And all of this involves at its core – the gid hanashe as the telling of the repressed.

To know himself and be able to move forward Yaakov had to confront himself and his past. He had to relive painful memories and find a way of identifying a new self. He had to learn to ‘להגיד הנשה’ – to speak of the forgotten.[5]

Becoming Shalem – Whole

In asking, questioning, talking and trying to ‘identify’ elements of self Yaakov is able to make himself whole.  There is part of him that wants to ‘name’ the side of him that has gone through this.  In order to understand ‘why’ this has happened he needs to be able to name the experience.  The response is telling ‘ וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. – Why do you ask my name? And he blessed him there’. There are times when we feel we need to explain events, make sense of the nonsensical, name the suffering, the pain. God’s response to this attempt by Yaakov is unequivocal.  The ‘why’ is not as important as the ‘what’.  Don’t attempt to name or identify elements that cannot be disclosed, instead hold tight don’t let go until you receive a blessing – until you make a blessing out of your suffering.  Indeed Yaakov knows this already, even before this he held tight to the angel refusing to let him go until he received a blessing.  He has learnt long ago that even if there are things that are out of our control, we have the ability to find within them a blessing.  But here Yaakov learns something’s more.  He leaves ‘צלע’ – limping. He is not the same after this encounter.  He has scars, he has been hurt, he is hurting.  But equally he has faced the past, he has come face to face with God and with self and in doing so has been able to re-identify himself.  To name who he is and to know that through prevailing in his encounter with self and God he has been empowered and blessed.  The text emphasises this wholeness in the following verse:

יח וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב שָׁלֵם עִיר שְׁכֶם, אֲשֶׁר בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, בְּבֹאוֹ, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם; וַיִּחַן, אֶת-פְּנֵי הָעִיר.  יט וַיִּקֶן אֶת-חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר נָטָה-שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ, מִיַּד בְּנֵי-חֲמוֹר, אֲבִי שְׁכֶם–בְּמֵאָה, קְשִׂיטָה.  כ וַיַּצֶּב-שָׁם, מִזְבֵּחַ; וַיִּקְרָא-לוֹ–אֵל, אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 

18 And Jacob came in peace(whole) to the city of Shechem, which is in the land of Canaan, when he came from Paddan-aram; and encamped before the city. 19 And he bought the part of ground, where he had spread his tent, at the hand of the children of Hamor, Shechem’s father, for a hundred pieces of money. 20 And he erected there an altar, and called it El-elohe-Israel.

(Bereshit 33:18)

After these events Yaakov travels ‘shalem – whole/complete’ to shechem.  He buys a

חֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר נָטָה-שָׁם אָהֳלוֹ, – a ‘chalak sade’ – a part of a field (clear field) to pitch his tent – it cannot be by chance that the text chooses again to integrate these two elements of Yaakov – A tent dweller and the man of the field – the chalak – clarity and sade – entanglement.  Only in his integration of dual identity does he becomes – shalem.

On Post Holocaust Thought and Israel today

Whilst this may be a wholly personal psychological reading of this narrative, one cannot help but see the national elements inherent in it too.  That we as a nation have had to endure our traumas and national crises and consequently  reassess ourselves, rebuild ourselves and re-imagine our national destiny many times over is an undeniable part of past and present history.

In the Post Holocaust literature that I have studied over the years there are many variant themes and propositions. From those that believe we are wholly responsible for our situation due to our sinful nature,[6] to those that reject God arguing that any God who wilfully executes 6 million of his beloved children must lead us to proclaim the ‘death of God’.[7]  Both of these divergent views agree that we suffer as a result of our sins.

There are other thinkers who refuse to give in to the classic ‘for our sins we are punnished repsonse’, though not strictly a ‘Post-Holocaust’ thinkers, Rav Soloveitchik essay Kol Dodi Dofek (Fate and Destiny) offered a new way of understanding our suffering that did not fall into the trap of classic theodicy.[8]  It has a message that relates deeply to the Parsha and our current situation.

What is fascinating is that in the last year there has been a quiet revolution occurring, so quiet in fact that one might almost miss its enormous impact.  The mothers, the wives, the women of our nation have been responding themselves to our tragedies.  The mothers of our three kidnapped and murdered boys, the wives of the four men killed in Har Nof. These women have offered us a response to our suffering as a nation and to their own personal suffering in such eloquent profound ways.  Ways that are not necessarily contingent with their own society’s beliefs.  They have not for instance ‘blamed’ the enemy, or even attributed it to our own ‘sins’ or ‘misdemeanours of society’, instead they have begged us to find national meaning through their own individual suffering.  In an interview Racheli Frankel speaks of her unimaginable pain, of not knowing why such suffering occurs but equally of her belief that something good came out of this tragedy.[9]  Equally the women who lost their loves ones in the Har Nof Massacre last week, also spoke, littered with tears and pain, of their belief that through this tragedy we must find way to see the ‘other’, to unite as a nation – to become whole. Their response, though powerfully expressed in modern language is a response we see through Yaakov in this week’s parsha and one that Rav Soloveitchik so eloquently expresses.

As opposed to other post holocaust thinkers who seek means of explaining ‘why’ the holocaust happened,  Rav Soloveitchik argues that the ‘why’ can never be understood. Of course we must ask and give space to expressing the pain and the questions, but we must also know that the only true response is not in the ‘why’, but in the ‘what’.  Though my suffering is not random, i also do not choose to suffer, and so having endured the pain and suffering, I must ask ‘what am I to do with this experience’.  Like Yaakov and Yitzchak, there are things that happen to us that are out of our control – the covenant of fate.  We cannot determine everything in our lives.  But there are things that we can control.  We are also told of a covenant of destiny. We are each and every one of us given the ability to determine the response to our suffering. Whether we let ourselves be blinded and buried by the pain, cursed forever, never able to move forward, or whether we take destiny into our own hands, admit that there are some things we may never understand or be able to change, but with the ‘what’ on our lips beg of God and goad ourselves to create a blessing out of our sufferings.

The survivors of trauma beyond human imagination, understandably will want to forget.  They may never have been able to tell the untellable,  but even in their forgetting, there is an element of remembering.  In as much as my Grandfather suppressed his incomprehensible suffering, he simultaneously used that suffering to create an immeasurable amount of blessing.  So though sometimes we cannot ‘Lehagid ma she neshe’ – say that which is forgotten, we must never let our suffering consume us so much, that we cannot limp forward. [10]  And so we play the game of remembering and forgetting.  And though we may try to forget our pain we remember this: That whilst we are a nation of the covenant of fate, we are also a nation of the covenant of destiny.  We remember that whilst we are Yaakov, behind, clinging to the heel, scared to look behind constantly searching for clarity of vision, we are also Yisrael, straight, clear but also struggling and fighting with God and man, constantly moving towards a renewal and clarity of identity.  We remember that by looking behind we can look forward and transform a life of sorrow and trauma into a life of blessing, light – Shalem and Shalom – peace and completeness.

Our hope and prayer is that we become like our ancestor Yaakov, that we search for the completeness through unity and the identity of our nation not through a single undivided vision, but through an integrated dual nature that makes space for the ‘other’ and allows each person to fulfil his or her destiny.

Shabbat Shalom

[1] See Nechama Leibowitz Toldot 2 (p264)

[2] After this we see Yaakov existence is indeed not a simple one, he loses his beloved Rachel, his daughter is raped, his sons kill men in a city with whom he has business ties, his favourite son is presumed dead, his eldest son sleeps with his handmaiden.  There is no end to his suffering – and yet he does prevail, he continues knowing that ultimately his life will be blessed and he will provide blessing for others.

[3] Shmuel Klitsner: Wrestling Jacob p125

[4] Bereshit 41

[5] It is fascinating with this in mind to look at another narrative at the end of Yaakov life when he blesses Menashe, putting Ephraim before Menashe.  We will develop this in its entirety in a later blog, but suffice to say that Yaakov favours ‘remembering’ over ‘forgetting’.

[6] See Ignaz Maybaum that sees the Jews as the suffering servant of mankind and from another completely different perspective but also a theodic one Satmar: Yoel Teitelbaum: Va-Yoel Moshe, a book that accuses Zionism of causing the Holocaust.

[7] Richard Rubenstein in After Auschwitz

[8] Theodicy is the attempt to explain or justify why a good Just God would allow for evil in the world.  There are those that argue that Soloveitchik essay has theodic elements to it – but in general it is accepted by most as anti-theodic – as response rather than an explanation of evil and suffering.

[9] She never once attributes states that the tragedy happened ‘so that’ we would unite as a nation, but rather ‘as a result’ of the tragedy unification of the nation occurred – these are very subtle but theologically different perspectives.

[10] Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch brings a beautiful commentary on the verse of the גיד הנשה he writes that the prohibition from eating it, teaches us that we must never be ‘consumed’ by our suffering to the extent that it leads to our total submission.  On the contrary we must renounce our suffering in order to continue our existence.

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