How do we make peace with someone we have mistreated? How do we make peace with those who have mistreated us? How do you make peace within a family built on discord and mistrust? Yaakov came back from Haran a rich man. He had wealth, he had a large family, he had the Canaanite dream. But the dream masked a deeply troubled life. His wrestling with the mysterious angel may have given him the name Yisrael, but he had been wrestling his whole life and his material success had not ended it.
At the outset of the parashah he is met by his brother Esau. The man he cheated out of his blessing is now the leader of not only his own large family but also hundreds of armed men as well. This does not fill Jacob with confidence. He splits his family to try and ensure that if there is an attack at least some will escape. In so doing, he emphasizes the deep divisions already there in his household; how do you choose which wife or kids to put in harm’s way to help the others live?
Thankfully, Esau does not attack but seems grateful that his brother has returned. Perhaps his own success has reassured him that the blessing his brother stole did not come at his material expense. Ultimately, he and his descendants may be spiritually impoverished but that does not seem to bother him.
Jacob’s relief at the peaceful reunion is shattered when his daughter Dinah is raped and forcibly taken by the prince of the Canaanite town of Schechem. Caught between his desire to avenge her and his wish to have peace, Jacob remains paralyzed while his sons Shimon and Levi put their own plan into action. Having learned the ways of deception from their father, mother and grandfather they fool the citizens of the town into thinking they will join their families together if the Canaanites all circumcise themselves. Then, while they are in the throes of painful recovery, the brothers sweep into the town and slaughter them to a man.
To round out the complications in this parashah, Jacob loses his favorite wife Rachel in childbirth. Even as Benjamin is born, Rachel dies and is buried apart from the others of the family. She is laid to rest near modern day Bethlehem instead of in Hebron. Which is where Jacob must take Isaac when his death is recorded near the end of the parashah as well.
Peace does not, it seem, come from financial gains or material security. Jacob is still learning that he must actively shape his own life and his family to create peace among them and with their neighbors. Similarly, as individuals, a community and people we have the same task.