I tend to get a bit introspective at this time of year. It’s a season of home and family: Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and birthdays of lots of family: mother, father, brother, both sisters, father-in-law, sister-in-law, two brothers-in-law, daughter, and me. And usually one or more of these will be accompanied by a family reunion, though increasingly smaller as time goes by.
Family reunions play an important role in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, as Jacob eventually makes it back home to Isaac. His path roughly mirrors what happened more than 20 years before. In each case, Jacob deals with a conflict with Esau and there’s some divine communication accompanied by a renaming (the place Beth El then, Jacob himself now). But now Jacob is not penniless and alone, but a wealthy man with 2 wives, 2 concubines, 11 sons, 1 daughter, and lots of servants and flocks.
Nevertheless, his reaction to hearing Esau is coming is fear. Of course, Esau is accompanied by 400 armed men, so fear is prudent. After strategically dividing his household, he spends the night alone and wrestles with someone/something until dawn when he forces the being to tell him he will be re-named Israel, because he has “striven with beings divine and human, and … prevailed” (32:29). This wrestling incident has given rise to much commentary over the centuries (natch), which I’ve reviewed here. To my mind, what is key is that Jacob must wrestle to get the being’s blessing. Jacob’s meeting with a very (too?) genial Esau is treated with suspicion by the rabbis (e.g., putting dots in the scroll over “and kissed him”). I just had a thought – maybe Esau never intended to attack but was just showing off his (physical) strength. Jacob demonstrates how adept at soft soap he has become, with lots of gifts and bowing to Esau and general obsequiousness. They part peacefully, and Jacob settles in the city of Shechem in Canaan.
We are not told why Jacob stops there. Why he leaves is one of the few things I found plausible in Anita Diamant’s blockbuster historical novel (her description) The Red Tent. Daughter Dinah is seduced or raped by the local prince, also named Shechem, who then wants to marry her. Dinah’s brothers insist all the men of the town first be circumcised. While they are recovering, Shimon and Levi massacre all of them. I’d say that would provide motivation for hot-footing it out of town.
They head on to Beth El, where Jacob’s name is formally changed to Israel and the household is purified (no more little household idols) and they continue toward Isaac in Mamre. But Rachel dies on the way, giving birth to Benjamin. Rebecca’s nurse also dies (what’s she doing here?), and Reuben sleeps with Bilhah, Rachel’s surrogate. Finally, they arrive in Mamre (aka Hebron). Home.
But it’s not the home of Jacob’s past. Rebecca, presumably, has died. Esau is gone, not just from Mamre but soon from our story; the portion ends with a list of his descendants. And, finally, Isaac dies and is buried by both Jacob and Esau. Jacob and family are really home.
Home is more than a place or memories or even family. When I was going on job interviews after several years away, when I was in the Philadelphia area and heard the local, generally maligned accent and speech patterns, I thought,”I’m home.” And when I reconnected electronically with high school classmates and cousins and others fondly remembered from my past, I also felt “I’m home.” Home is the past and present that enable us to proceed to the future with confidence, even serenity.
Next week: Joseph and his brothers.
I have had lots of names: First, Irene Plotzker, with and without middle initial G, with and without middle name Greenwald, with no title or with Dr., Mrs., or Ms. Then, Yocheved Ester Bat Mordechai v’ Rivka Leah and shorter versions thereof. And referring more explicitly to roles, Mrs. Richard Plotzker, Rich’s wife, Roz’s Mom, Alan’s Mom, that woman, the woman wearing a tallis, and the reading lady. There are a few family nicknames I prefer not to publish worldwide. My main requirements for what I am called accuracy and appropriateness. Example: Dr. and Mrs. Richard Plotzker is accurate, if old-fashioned; Dr. and Dr. Richard Plotzker and Drs. Richard Plotzker are not, since I am not Dr. Richard Plotzker. Example: According to formal etiquette, titles are used in the U.S. only for military, clergy, and medical (incl. dental, etc.) designations, not doctorates (Ph.D., Ed.D., etc.) in general. So I’m not fussy about being “Dr. Plotzker”. But if I am in a situation where the custom is to call everyone with a doctorate “Dr.” I expect that, too.
But forget about spelling. It only took about 5 years of marriage for me to collect 22 misspellings of “Plotzker.” My favorite was in Montreal, where our name was on the reservation list as “Blutsger.” Try that with a French accent.
http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_home.html (pp. 1 and 3)
Quotes about going back home
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. (This one’s a favorite of my brother’s) Robert Frost
Family reunion jokes
After 50 years of wondering why he didn’t look like his younger sister or brother, a man finally got up the nerve to ask his mother if he was adopted.
“Yes, you were son,” his mother said as she started to cry softly. “but it didn’t work out and they brought you back.”
The children of a prominent family chose to give the patriarch a book of their family’s history. The biographer they hired was warned of one problem. Uncle Willie, the “Black Sheep,” had gone to Sing Sing’s Electric chair for murder. The writer carefully handled the situation in the following way: “Uncle Willie occupied a chair of applied electronics at one of our nation’s leading institutions. He was attached to his position by the strongest of ties. His death came as a true shock. – from Ka Pupa Nihonih (Mayflower Quarterly – Nov 1990)
Flattery Will Get You Nowhere
On the way home from a party, the woman said to her husband, “Have I ever told you how handsome, sexy and irresistible to women you are?”
“Why no,” the flattered husband said.
“Then what the hell gave you that idea at the party?” she yelled.
Funny Name and Job (selections)
Guy and Will have researched some more which may make you smile. Where possible we have shown where the names come from. Sadly we cannot guarantee their accuracy:
- Bankers, Wallowa County, Oregon:Cheatham & Steele
- Chorister, Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey:Justin Tune
- Gynaecologist, New York Hospital, New York City:Dr Zoltan Ovary
- Dentist, Roslyn Heights, New York: E. Z. Filler
- Phlebotomist, St Mary’s Hospital, Portsmouth, UK:Lavinia Blood
- The national Director of Surgery at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C. Dr Blades
- Vice, Malefactor, New Orleans, Louisiana. Arrested 890 times and convicted 421, probably a record (International Herald Tribune)
- Interior decorator, Reading, UK:Derek Paynter
- Funeral Director, Sydney, Australia: D’ Eath and Sons
[Will once knew a Mrs Pine-Coffin from Devon, UK but she was an owner of holiday cottages not an undertaker]
- Landscape Gardeners from Salisbury, UK called:Budd and Bush
- Silent Movie Organist, Rochester, New York: Sharp Minor
- Central City, Kentucky automobile salesman:Henry Ford Carr
- Mr Robbins is a renowned ornithologist (bird scientist and bird-bander) at a Federal wildlife research center in Maryland, USA. He is co-author of the guidebook “Birds of North America”.
A two-night TV version of The Red Tent will air on Lifetime on Dec. 7 and 8. There is a pretend interview with Dinah at http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2014/12/04/red-tent-interview-dinah.
If you found at least a chunk of the book to be, well, ludicrous, you might want to look at “159 Thoughts We Had While Watching ‘The Red Tent’. We Watched It So You Don’t Have To.” at http://forward.com/articles/210153/-thoughts-we-had-while-watching-the-red-tent/ .