Tag Archives: brothers

Parshat Va-Yishlah

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We came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you, and there are four hundred men with him.” (Gen. 32:7 (6))

What did Yaakov’s messengers really mean? A well-known explanation says that Esav was coming to fight him: “We came to your brother, but he behaves towards you like Esav, the one who hates you” (Bereshit Rabba, Pseudo Jonathan, Rashi, Radak). Others consider they reported only plain facts: “he comes to see you the same as you come to see him” (Ibn Ezra, Nahmanides). Other commentators see here the happiness of the reunion: “Esav comes with a large retinue to welcome his brother joyfully and cheerily” (Rashbam, Hizkuni).

So, how should we deliver a piece of information? How should we tell somebody, somebody else’s message?

Even though there is not an exclusive way or technique to do that, three basic qualities are to be met by a messenger: objective approach, empathy and control of emotional sensitivity.

Objective approach: to rely on facts, without adding or omitting elements.

Empathy: to try and understand what the receiver of the news feels (not “how”, but “what” he/she feels), without being emotionally involved. Emotional engagement may lead us to not to understand other person’s feelings, but to be engrossed in our own feelings and to react according to the latter.

Control of emotional sensitivity: to understand the emotional process we go through, so as to prevent these feelings from interfering.  Our feelings may lead us to detachment and coldness (out of distress to deal with the facts), or to overexcitement, or even to decide not to deliver information that is hard for us to grasp (assuming it will be hard for the receiver to hear). In other words, our feelings thwart our real understanding of the fellow person, they dazzle the soul and may lead us to act in a paternalistic way (“my feelings know better what is good for him or her”). At any rate, we should not annul or neutralize the feelings – the real challenge is to control them.

These three qualities must be present together. Relying on only one of them may cause us to deliver a wrong message, an inappropriate one, which consequences may be disastrous… even having the best of the intentions… like Yaakov’s messengers.

They failed to apply two out of the three qualities. They were very objective in their report, but they were neither empathetic, nor did they measured their own feelings. They described the facts without taking on account Yaakov’s situation, his problematic relationship with Esav, his fears, or even the threat of death because of which he fled the land he’s now returning to. Maybe they felt it was better for Yaakov not to return. Maybe they were full of anger against Esav. It is possible that they preferred not to influence Yaakov in any way, so they took the objective approach. At any rate, they did not measure the emotional sensitivity required by the situation.

The messengers transmitted only facts, without any context. Over-objectivity, that was not objective at all, since the context was lacking. And the context is a built-in part of reality.

In this way, they let Yaakov’s fear and anxiety tint the information with tonalities of loss and destruction. His apprehension coming from the past conquered him and prevented him to properly judge the now different current reality.

It is not easy to put in practice the three basic qualities of transmitting a message. Especially hard are empathy and control of emotional sensitivity. But to ignore them is tantamount to disembarrass oneself of the great responsibility of being a messenger of truth.

Parshat Toledot

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One of the challenges that parshat Toledot forces us to face is whether we develop independence or dependency in the parent-children relationship.

The Torah opens by: “these are the generations of Yitzhak” [v’ele toledot Yitzhak], yet it does not go on with the latter’s children (like in other instances in the Torah) but with the generations of Abraham: “Abraham begat Yitzhak”. A known midrash tells us that God formed Yitzhak’s face similar to Abraham’s, for everybody to know that it was he who fathered Yitzhak (see Midrash Agadah, Bereshit 25:19 and also Rashi). Maybe our Sages felt how difficult it was for Yitzhak to get free from his father’s influence. We find indeed in our parashah, Yitzhak mirroring many times Abraham’s behavior. But his results weren’t as successful. Imitating the success of the previous generation is not a way of gaining accomplishment.

Yitzhak’s dependency on his father, or Abraham’s difficulty in letting the son of his old age go and develop himself, all made it hard for Yitzhak to walk independently. Who knows? Maybe the story of the Binding of Yitzhak, the Akeda, symbolizes the sacrifice of the dependent child on the altar of a parent who cannot release him … and yet God says to him: “Let him go!”

A lesson for all the generations.

We meet then the two siblings: Esav and Yaakov, who struggle with the imprint cast by their parents – the names, that fix behavior; the preference, that fixes behavior. The names: Esav, a man of doing (esav-aso = alef-samekh-vav = to do), a man of handwork. A practical person without any thought, reflection or cogitation, without any ability to evaluate. He’s a man of here and now – either he does, or he dies. And Yaakov, a person who arrives at his goal by indirect ways – he tracks [okev], he bypasses [okef] , he follows [meaqev], he hampers [meakev]. They both mirror what their parents established for them. And everybody, parents and children alike, enter into a series of actions/mistakes that only perpetuates the difficulty of recognizing the value and the dissimilarity of each one of them, as well as the value of being dissimilar.

Another lesson for all the generations.

It will take two parshiot, 21 years, and a lot of suffering from both sides (mainly from Yaakov), until both brothers would be able to be free from repeating the model established by their parents… and to meet… and to recognize each other… but the wounds and the scars will remain.

Everyone meant well and thought of the wellbeing of their children. But they not always regarded their children. In fact, they saw in their children their own reflection, forgetting that “toledot”, generations, speaks of “going forth” and not “going back”. It speaks of “we give, we guide, we show, we teach… and you must go on without imitating”.