Coming home: The first step is making peace

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayetze (Genesis 28:10-32:3)                          

“If G-d will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and clothing to wear, so that I shall come back to my fathers house in peace, then the Lord shall be my G-d and I shall erect a monument.”  (Gen. 28:20-21)

What does it really mean ‘to return whole, in peace, (beshalom) to one’s parents home? Is it really possible to ‘come home’ again? The Torah portion of Vayetzeh speaks volumes about parents, adult children and what it really means to come home.

Rabbi Yeshoshua Baumel, in his collection of halakhic inquiries called Emek Halakha, writes the following fascinating responsum. A certain individual vowed to give a hundred dollars to a local synagogue if his son came back ‘beshalom’ – usually understood to mean whole-alive, in one piece, from the war. As it turned out, the son returned very much in one piece; the only problem was that he brought along his gentile wife, whom he’d married in France, as well as their child. The father now claimed that the conditions of his vow had not been met since the forbidden marriage constituted a breach of the ‘beshalom.’ The synagogue rabbi and board of trustees disagreed, claiming that as long as the son had returned home from the front without a war wound, the father owed the hundred dollars. Both parties agreed to abide by Rabbi Baumel’s ruling.

Rabbi Baumel ruled that the father was required to pay the money to the synagogue, based on a mishna in the little known Tractate Tvul Yom.

I believe that we need not go all the way to a mishna dealing with heave offerings in order to define the words ‘to return to one’s father’s home beshalom.’ Our biblical portion deals with the patriarch Jacob, setting out on a dangerous journey far from home, who also takes a vow saying that if G-d protects him and he returns to his father’s house in peace beshalom, he will then erect a monument to the Lord. The definition of ‘beshalom’ in the context of Jacob’s vow might shed more direct light on the question asked of Rabbi Baumel.

It should be noted that although Jacob leaves his Uncle Laban’s home and employ at the conclusion of Chapter 32 of the book of Genesis, he wanders all over the Land of Canaan until the end of Chapter 35, when he finally decides to return to his father’s house. I would submit that Jacob was waiting for the peace which comes from his being accepted by his father, the peace which comes from a loving relationship between father and son. Without this sense of parental acceptance no child can truly feel whole.  And you will remember that Jacob is haunted by his having deceived his blind father by posing as his brother Esau and thereby his having received his father’s blessing under false pretense!

Unless he feels that his father has forgiven him for the deception which haunts him throughout his life, he knows that he will never be able to ‘return to my father’s house in peace.’

Thus we can read the series of events that begins with Jacob’s departure from Laban at the end of Chapter 32 and his reunion with his father three chapters later as a crucial process in Jacob’s  development vis-a-vis his paternal relationship. It begins with a confrontation between the brothers in which Jacob bends over backwards to appear subservient to Esau, repeatedly calling him my master; plying him with gifts, urging him to ‘take, I pray, my blessing’ – all to the end of returning the fruits of the deception to the rightful biological first-born.

Then we encounter the worst betrayal of all, the terrible act of Reuven having usurped, or interfered with, the sleeping arrangements of his father. Whether we understand the words literally, that Reuven actually had relations with his father’s concubine, Bilha, or whether we follow the interpretation of the Midrash, that Reuven merely moved his father’s bed from Bilha’s tent to the tent of his mother, Leah, after the death of Rachel, his action was a son’s flagrant invasion of the personal, private life of his father.

We now find one of the most striking passages in the Torah – not because of what it says but because of what it does not say. The literal reading of the biblical text records that Reuven went and slept with Bilha, his father’s concubine. ‘And Israel heard about it… (vayishma Yisrael)’ [Gen. 35:22]. Not only does the biblical sentence end here, but what follows in the parchment scroll is a complete break in the Torah writing. It is not just a gap of white space that continues on the same line, but it is rather a gap which continues until the next line, an open parchment space which generally signals a wordless which is fraught with deep emotion.  I would suggest that between the lines the Torah is telling us that when Jacob heard of his son’s deception, he became enraged, even livid with anger, but holds his wrath inside, remains silent – and thinks a great deal, perhaps amidst many tears.

The Text continues by presenting us with an almost superfluous fact: “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve (Gen. 35:23) – including Reuven. Then come four verses listing all the names of the twelve sons, at long last followed by the verse, ‘And Jacob came unto Isaac his father to Mamre, to Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron…’ [Gen.  35:27].

Apparently now – and not before – Jacob is finally ready to come home. But why now? Is it not reasonable to assume that the last event which the Torah records, the cause of understandable rage between Jacob and his son, is what surprisingly led to Jacob’s reconciliation with his father Isaac! I would suggest that the blank space following Jacob’s having heard of his son Reuven’s indiscretion might have begun with rage, but it concluded with resolve for rapprochement. Jacob still thinks that Reuven’s arrogance is beyond contempt, but how can a father divorce himself from his son? But even more importantly, is it Reuven’s fault that he acted the way he did? Am I myself not at least partially to blame for having rejected my first-born Reuven in favor of the younger Joseph? Perhaps Reuven was trying to tell me – albeit in a disgraceful and convoluted way – that he was my rightful heir, and I had rejected him unfairly. So does Jacob agitate within himself. And he decides at last that if he can and must forgive his son for his deception towards him, it is logical to assume that his father, Isaac, who was also guilty of preferring one son over the other, Esau over Jacob, must have forgiven him for his deception as well.

Now, finally, Jacob is ready to return to his father’s home in peace… He has made peace with his father because he believes his father has made peace with him. Finally he can make peace with himself.

When does a son return to his father beshalom? Only when the father accepts the son, and the son accepts the father, in a personal and emotional sense as well as in a biological one.

So, does the father in our responsum have to pay the money to the synagogue? Only if he is ready and able to accept his son and his new wife beshalom. And that depends on the father and on the son in all the fullness, complexity and resolution of their relationship – past, present and, only then, future.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Orthodox) is Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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