When I was a boy the Shabbat table was a place for my father to assert himself. From the singing of zemirot to the topic of conversation, he ran the show. When I matured and marked the occassional Shabbat at home with family I noticed that my father's role at the table had changed. While he sat at the head of the table as before, he no longer controlled the table dynamics. He let others, in particular his now older children take the lead. And while he may well have wished for more zemirot or less casual banter, he held his peace. It appeared sometimes as if he was a guest at his own table.
In the parsha of this week, Vayishlach, we seem to witness a similar change in our father Yaacov. At the outset Yaakov is a man to be reckoned with. He wrestles an angel to a draw, holding the angel hostage until he receives from him a blessing.
Earlier, at the close of last week's reading, Yaacov had engaged his father-in-law, Lavan in a heated confrontation. This week we read where Yaakov meets Esav, his intimidating brother, entirely prepared for every eventuality, be it a peaceful rendezvous or war.
And then, rather abruptly, Yaacov begins to fade as a dominant personality. When Dina, his daughter is raped and then held by the prince of Sh'chem the Torah tells us that on hearing the news Yaacov "held his silence" waiting for his sons to deal with the atrocity. Later when he challenges Shimom and Levi for having wiped out the town, telling them that their actions had put him and the family in mortal danger, he lets his two sons have the last word.
And so Yaacov's personal eclipse continues. The Torah tells us that Reuvan did something seriously wrong in regards to his father's marital bed after Rachel died.
Did Yaacov react? According the text we are told "Yisrael (Yaacov's new name) heard", and seemingly did nothing. And next week when we read of the enmity the brother's had for Yosef because of his grandiose dreams the Torah tells "the brothers were envious and Yaakov observed the matter". Yaacov did not try to make peace between the brothers and Yosef. On the contrary he let the process unfold without his intervention. How different the story might have been if Yaacov had tried to bring peace between them.
How do we understand this change in Yaacov? What happened? And I might well ask the same question regarding the change in my father. What made him become to retiring?
I think the key to understanding the change in the character of Yaacov can be gleaned from what the Torah tells us about our father at the point where we noticed he was no longer the same. It happened directly following the confrontation with Esav. Yaacov comes to the city of Sh'chem 'shalem' meaning complete and whole in every way. There he erects an alter to G-d in thanksgiving. He called the alter for "G-d the G-d of Yisrael".
What's interesting here is that Yaacov calls himself "Yisrael". G-d did not give him that name untill later in the story as we read in following chapters. It was only the angel who blessed him who gave Yaacov that name, yet that's sufficient for Yaacov to claim the name as his own. Here he is, Yaacov coming home, and he is no longer the son who stole his brother's blessing, the weak link in the family. He wrestled an angel and received a blessing in an open strugggle rather than by deception as earlier in his life. That represents the final stage of Yaacov's emergence into the light and redemption of self. He feels complete, 'shalem'. He has reached the place in his life where he no longer needs to prove anything. He is whole and sated with who he is. Even before G-d calls him "Yisrael" Yaacov claims the name. It belongs to him by dint of who he has become.
Once Yaacov feels the peace of self, he no longer needs to take the lead in fighting the battles of life. He is now ready to let others assume the limelight. He can watch the process unfold and wait with no need to assert himself and control the dynamics. And so Yaacov "holds his silence", and he lets others have the last word, and he "hears" but does not react, and he "observes" letting the process unfold in the way it needs to. Yaacov, the most passionate of the Avot, the one who showed anger on several occasions when he felt wronged, can now, as he reaches the place of inner quiet and fulfillment, sit tight and assume a place in the background. He no longer has the impulse to react.
I believe my father reached that place in his own life, a place of inner satisfaction, where one knows who s/he is and has nothing more to prove. It is a blessed place. And when one gets there one no longer has the urge to combat the wrongs of the world, though sometimes one must. In that place one has patience and even when responding responds with a deliberateness and thoughtfullness, not in a frenzy.
The truth we are being taught through the unfolding story of our father Yaacov is that not all our passion, even for the good things, is a sign of our inner well-being.
When we are reactive to things, even though the cause be just, it is likely because we are unsettled ourselves and have not yet come to a place of inner peace. Strong emotional responses only arise in the person in a state of inner unrest. True the cause of the emotional reaction maybe something external.I may be reacting to the wrongdoing of my child or my husband's insensitivity or some inexcusable injustice of life. Yet I would not react to the situation the way I do unless I was already in flux within. The strength of my response says more about me than about the circumstances to which I am reacting.
I hope in my life and yours we will come to that place where we no longer need to fight every battle, react to every hurt. I pray we will know the settledness within that will give us the wherewithall to have patience and be thoughtfull even in times of duress. I know that kind of 'shalem' only comes through a life's journey. Most of all it requires that we be truly happy with our self as we are.
Yet in the end, the goal of a blessed life is not to win every battle but rather to reach a place where we do not feel the urgency so strong to make them our fight.