Between the Lines—Va-yishlah

Insights from Midrash with Rabbi Abigail Treu

בראשית רבה פרשה עז ב

ר' חוניא אמר נדמה לו בדמות רועה לזה צאן ולזה צאן, לזה גמלים ולזה גמלים. אמר לו העבר את שלך ואחר כך אני מעביר את שלי. העביר יעקב אבינו שלו אמר נחזור ונחמי דילמא אנשינן כלום מן דחזר ויאבק איש עמו. רבי חייא רבה ורבי שמעון בר רבי נסבין ויהבון בפרגמטיא בהדין מטכסא עלון להדא צור ועבדון עבידיתהון מן דנפקי מן פילי אמרי נלך ונתפוס אומנות אבותינו נחזור ונחמי אי אנשינן כלום חזרון ואשכחן מחיילא דמטקסין, אמרין לון מן הן אית לכון אמרין מן דיעקב סבא דכתיב ויותר יעקב לבדו.

"And there wrestled a man with him." (Genesis 32:25)

Rav Huna said: He appeared to him in the guise of a shepherd. Thus each had flocks, and each had camels. Said he to him: "Take yours across, and then I will take mine across." Then he went back to see if he had left anything behind, when immediately, "there wrestled a man with him."

Once Rabbi Hiyya the Elder and Rabbi Simeon ben Rabbi were trading silks at Tyre. After they had left the town, they said: Let us go and emulate the example of our ancestors; let us see if we have left anything behind. They went back and found a bale of silk. On being asked whence they had learned to do this, they replied: From the Patriarch Jacob, who likewise went back. (Genesis Rabbah 77:2)

The question of the recipe for Jewish identity and survival remains unanswered, but there are some ingredients upon which all agree. A certain degree of memory, flavored by adherence to traditions passed on by one's forebears, and a carrying on of those memories and traditions in whatever new lands and circumstances form the present circumstances of contemporary Jews, are two of them. Here Rabbi Hiyya the Elder and Rabbi Simeon ben Rabbi, speaking in a foreign language (Aramaic) in a city outside their historic homeland, put it well: "Let us go back and emulate the example of our ancestors; let us see if we have left anything behind." That they do go back into the treasure trove of ancestral memory and find something of value—a bale of silk—is redolent with symbolism for those of us, thousands of years later, who wish to dig into our roots in hopes of finding something of value that we can bring from the past into the present. Teshuvah is a multivalenced concept: most often translated as repentance, it literally means return; and of course, from the expulsion of the Jews from their land in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE, the theme of return carries not only spiritual but physical valence. As Jews we seek to return in order to move forward; we take three steps back before our 'Amidah prayers, and then three steps forward.

There is a blessing to be recited upon visiting a place where, earlier in life, one had experienced danger (like a car accident, a mugging or other personal attack, or a sudden health crisis): "Blessed are You, Lord our God, who performed a miracle for me at this place." It is the going back which occasions the blessing, which is not recited at the time the "miracle" occurs. Even the bad things that happen to us must be revisited, and our survival of them considered miraculous. In our journeys—be it the daily intercourse of business, as the Rabbis in the midrash were engaged in, or the metaphysical journey for our spiritual and psychological selves—we go back in order to find meaning, and encounter bales full of blessings.