Parashat Vayishlach
Jacob Cytryn, Director
At this time of the year, Yael and I spend our weeks proudly selling the powerful impact of summers at Ramah to prospective families. On grant applications and in conversations and communications with current and prospective donors, we are asked, repeatedly, to “dream big” and “keep doing what we’re doing” by foundations and donors.  A recent webinar, imagined and ably executed by camper parent and public relations professional Amy Rotenberg, made a compelling case for the impact and power of summers spent at Ramah and how our campers can help tell their camp stories to greatest impact on their college applications. (Click here to listen to the webinar.)

And I believe that the key to a powerful reading of this week’s parashah, Vayishlach, is in exactly what Ramah does at its best: promote a culture of reading, interpreting, and valuing Jewish texts and stories that allows them to speak in relevant and fresh ways to all parts of our lives.

The book of B’reishit (Genesis) weighs heavily upon us.  It is the longest book in the Torah and filled to the brim with narrative snippets that pack a punch.  With the exception of some genealogies, there is little minute architectural description, law code, or speechifying that provide breaks in each of the other four books.  Perhaps this is why we ascribe so much import to the characters who make up the book and their actions.  And that import is nuanced:   the stories we are in the midst of reading represent complex and human characters, besieged by character flaws and the messy dynamics of familial relations.

Major strands of Rabbinic tradition help to make sense of the complexity of these stories by utilizing two interpretive techniques:  projecting the Rabbis’ own values system and self-defining characteristics on our ancestors and demonizing those whose offspring do not end up as the Children of Israel.  In other words, they anachronistically turn Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph into proto-Rabbinic saints and simultaneously make Esau, Ishmael, and others into villains.  In doing so, unfortunately, they turn difficult and nuanced narratives into simplistic “us vs. them” sketches.

How do we allow ourselves to appreciate and remain in dialogue with our traditional sources while allowing them to speak anew to us wherever we stand each year?

Ramah’s educational goal is to produce Jews who feel comfortable enough to turn, first, to our classical sources, to close readings of the Biblical text and to prominent Rabbinic and modern commentaries.  Beyond that, however, we help our alumni feel an agency that allows them to disagree with aspects of interpretation without dismissing the perspective and entirety of a given voice within the tradition.  Finally, Ramah’s hope is to lay the groundwork for a new voice to synthesize and respond to details and alternative traditions to reaffirm a connection to the tradition itself.

This week, beset as we are by the terrible news from the Philippines about the impact of Typhoon Haiyan, we search for a message that affirms the universality of humanity.  And as the inescapability of the political divides and challenges that threaten to divide our nation become ever clearer, we seek a message that affirms our ability to come together.

And so, reading Vayishlach, we may find solace in an often overlooked part of the familial infighting of these stories:  brothers coming together, even after terrible insults and having made very different life choices.  Just as Isaac and Ishmael came back together to bury their father, and just as Joseph and his brothers will reunite in Egypt, the feared encounter between Jacob and Esau that begins this week’s Torah reading is a relief.  Jacob’s internal angst, represented by his wrestling with the angel, appears to be for nought.  Though Esau will neither carry on the relationship with God nor fulfill the promises made to Abraham and Isaac, the text presents him not as a demon but as a person, perhaps even less morally flawed than his trickster brother who becomes the namesake of Israel. 
I encourage our Ramah family to take the lessons of Jacob and Esau’s latter years rather than those of the former ones and utilize them for action.  We can be voices for reason, patience, and a shared sense of responsibility in our communities and in our world.  We can consider helping those who are in need at this time by donating to support recovery efforts in the Philippines, through the American Red Cross, Joint Distribution Committee, or American Jewish World Service. To understand why it is best to give money as opposed to collecting goods, read this from USAID.
Shabbat Shalom