Many years ago Paul Simon sang a popular song titled "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover". In essence the song's message was that we seem to find many varied ways to bring endings to relationships, all of them meant to avoid having to say a meaningful and honest goodbye.
The Parsha of this week gives evidence to the truth of Simon's insight. In the parsha of Vayetze, near the end, Yaacov decides to return from the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, after twenty years and return to his family and birthplace.
Yaacov is a much changed man over those twenty years. He came poor and leaves wealthy. Moreover he came a bachelor and leaves with four wives and 12 children.
Yaacov has every reason to say goodbye to his father-in-law. His leaving would certainly leave a vacuum. Yaacov and his entourage mattered. Yet Yaacov chooses to flee, not telling Lavan or his wive's family that he was departing.
Its clear Yaacov prefers to avoid the farewells. And why? Well just look at the earlier sections of the same reading of this week.
After fourteen years with Lavan and after Yosef is born the Torah tells us that Yaakov thinks to move-on. This time, unlike later, Yaacov begs leave from his father-in-law explaining that its time to go. In response Lavan pleads with Yaacov to stay, and offers him a chance to make real money. Seeing an opportunity for himself and his family, Yaacov decides to stay another six years.
So why this time when preparing to leave does Yaacov do as the Paul Simon song suggests and "slips out the back Jack".
The Torah itself alludes to the answer. When Yaacov first thought to leave the relationship with Lavan was on cordial, if not warm, terms. Yaacov had little and would leave with little. Saying goodbye was unlikely to cause discomfort. Six years later the Torah tells us that Yaacov was painfully aware of Lavan's resentment toward him. He was embittered that Yaacov was no longer the dependent sheppard but rather a wealthy man of means. Lavan found Yaacov's metamorphosis disturbing. It made him envious. Yaacov knew that saying goodbye now would inevitably bring on recriminations and ill will. In Yaacov's mind it was better to avoid than confront.
We know all too well the preferance to avoid rather than confront. In our own lives over and over we avoid the painful goodbyes preferring instead to find a way to "slip out the back..." And its not only the goodbyes we avoid because we fear confrontation. Often we choose not to say hello to people we fear will be reactive to us. We pretend we don't recognize someone, or cross the street so we don't have to acknowkledge them and deal with the complexities of our connection to them. Moreover so often we hide our feelings from others, even those closest to us. We choose, at times, to lie so as to create the pretense of shalom, when in reality its not real peace we have gained but rather avoidance of an honest expression of self and a chance for healing and conflict resolution.
Unless we risk confrontation with its unpleasantness we stand no chance of resolving our conflicts and finding our way to the peace that may be there for us on the other side.
Yaacov discovered that very lesson in his attempt to avoid confrontation with Lavan.
What happened after Yaacov fled? The Torah tells us that Lavan chased after him. A strong and forceful confrontation ensued, the very thing Yaacov wanted to avoid. Harsh and heated words were exchanged.
Only after each, Yaacov and Lavan, had expressed the fullness of their feelings was a reconcilliation possible, one that indeed occurrs at the reading's end.
At the close of the story Lavan and Yaacov come to an understanding. They sit down to a feast. No, they are not friends. But they are reconciled. Each comes to closure with the other and with a sense of personal integrity. Isn't that what peace is all about?
Not surprisingly when Yaacov has another confrontation looming, this one with his brother Esav who has sworn to take vengence on him, Yaacov does not avoid. Rather than flee, Yaacov send messengers to Esav and sets up the rendezvous even as we will read in next week's portion. Yaacov learned his lesson. Avoidance is understandable but a poor substitute for honest confrontation.
The challenge for we who walk in Yaacov's footsteps is will we too summon up the courage to risk confronting the persons and issues that hang over us. Will we find a way to stop avoiding and speak our truth? To flee offers a momentary relief but no potential for resolution. Only in the honest encounter is there opportunity for healing and peace.