Jewish learning Our Spiritual Legacy: Torah, Lovingkindness, Struggle, Uncertainty

By Rabbi Becky Silverstein `14

Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” I find myself wondering: How many baskets should you have? Will you be carrying the eggs or storing them? Are these real eggs and baskets or metaphorical ones? And in any event, what is your goal? When does it make sense to heed this wisdom and separate our eggs, and when might we need to put all of our eggs in one basket. Also, given our choice to separate them or keep them together, what do we do when the eggs break?

This week, we find our ancestor Jacob heeding the wisdom in this phrase well before it was made known to us in this form. En route back to Canaan from Lavan’s house, Jacob sends messengers to his brother Esau, “in hopes of gaining favor in his eyes.” (Genesis 32:7) The messengers return, sharing that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 people. The text continues:

וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד וַיֵּצֶר לוֹ וַיַּחַץ אֶת־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־אִתּוֹ וְאֶת־הַצֹּאן וְאֶת־הַבָּקָר וְהַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁנֵי מַחֲנוֹת׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אִם־יָבוֹא עֵשָׂו אֶל־הַמַּחֲנֶה הָאַחַת וְהִכָּהוּ וְהָיָה הַמַּחֲנֶה הַנִּשְׁאָר לִפְלֵיטָה׃

Jacob was greatly frightened; in his anxiety, he divided the people with him, and the flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, thinking, “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape.” (Genesis 32:8-9)

In this moment of reconciliation and possibility, Jacob acts out of his fear, hedges his bets, and separates his camp.

In Masechet Sanhedrin 98b, we find the Rabbis confronting their own fears and imagination of the future:

Ulla says: Let the Messiah come, but after my death, so that I will not see him. Likewise, Rabba says: Let the Messiah come, but after my death, so that I will not see him. Rav Yosef says: Let the Messiah come, and I will be privileged to sit in the shadow of his donkey’s excrement.

Given that Rabbinic theology centers on acting in such a way that will both bring the Messiah and ensure one’s place in the world to come, why would Ulla and Rabba state that they would rather the Messiah come after their death? The same section of Sanhedrin explains that those who have veered from the path of mitzvot will endure pain and shame when the Messiah comes. Ulla and Rabba fear the moment of reckoning, of asking, “Is what I have done enough to carry me through from this world to the world to come?” Like Jacob, they approach a moment of profound possibility with fear.

The Talmud continues like this:

Abaye asks Rabba—isn’t it the case that learning Torah and doing acts of loving-kindness will spare us? Rabba responds: perhaps I have done one sin that would outweigh all of this! Haven’t you heard what Rabbi Yaakov Bar Idi has taught about our ancestor Jacob? Jacob had Hashem’s assurance that Hashem would be with him (Genesis 28:15) and he still divides his camp into two!

In juxtaposing their own experience with Jacob’s, the Rabbis attempt to rationalize their own position by acknowledging the uncertainty of their future. Even if we had Gd’s assurance, they say, we would be right to be concerned about our stake in the world to come. This explains why they don’t choose to redouble their efforts of Torah learning and mitzvah-doing: no amount of Torah or mitzvot could bring the assurance that they would move through the transition into a new world painlessly. Unwilling to confront even the possibility of pain and disgrace, Ulla and Rabba choose the certainty of death over the potential of experiencing the beauty of the world they have been working to bring.

While Ulla and Rabba are driven by the quest for certainty, Jacob’s splitting his camps is an expression of leaning into the uncertainty. Jacob, responding most directly to the news that his brother is approaching with an entourage of 400 people, creates a plan B. We know that there is an entire history behind that interaction, fraught with sibling rivalry, poor parenting, and even divine action, and so his actions seem entirely reasonable, even if we might want Jacob to envision a more positive encounter.

Like our Rabbinic and Biblical ancestors, we are in a moment of assessing the world laid out before us and our future. Our individual and communal relationships to fear, to the messiness of the journey, to certainty are being called into question. We may have an inclination about the best path forward, but certainty is elusive at best, and we make our decisions with neither divine assurance nor the assurance that our fear and desire for Jewish safety and liberation will be taken seriously by our neighbors or policymakers. Even if we had those assurances, the Talmud teaches, it is better to split our eggs, to allow for a multiplicity of possible paths.

There is no wrapping this up neatly: The Messiah has not yet come, the world to come is still in process of arriving. The messiness is all around us, as are different communal responses: Support Israel at all cost! Cease fire! Follow the lead of Israeli activists! End the occupation! Our different baskets are set. It’s too soon to know how things will unfold; we must hold to the sacred uncertainty that we just don’t know yet. Many of us are sitting in the very pain and shame that resonates with the experience that led Ulla and Rabba to choose death over the possibility of redemption and liberation. Some are the source of that pain, believing with certainty that their path is the only way to move forward.

Our parashah this week continues. Alone on the banks of the river, Jacob wrestles with an angel. Before parting at daybreak, Jacob is renamed Israel; our communal identity and a new reality is born. We do not have the same divine assurances that Jacob did, we do have the blessing he struggled for—each other.

May we strive to see the various camps in our community with generosity and as part of our work in bringing the world to come. May our struggles be in service of birthing a world in which our own humanity, the humanity of all people, and the divinity that flows through our world, are uplifted. May peace soon be known in Israel, in Gaza, in the West Bank, and throughout the world.

Rabbi Becky Silverstein `14 (he/him) believes in the power of community, Torah, and silliness in transforming the world. Becky is on the faculty of SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, and is the co-director of the Trans Halakha Project.

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