Quick Comment Parashat Va-yishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43)
Rabbi Beth Davidson and I
Rabbi Beth Dina Davidson and I worked together (she was the first female rabbi in the history of Nashville Tennessee) for six years. We shared similar perspectives on almost every important issue, and enjoyed a wonderful partnership.
Our patriarch Jacob was the one subject on which we could never agree.
For me this week’s Torah portion culminates 20 years of change in which Jacob grows from a self centered knave willing to cheat and steal to get what he wants into ישראל (Yis-ra-el) Israel, the one worthy to carry on the Covenant God first made with Abraham.
For Rabbi Davidson, though she acknowledges he did some good things, Jacob never changed. He always remained the selfish manipulator willing to do whatever it took to accomplish his ends.
When Rabbi Davidson invited me to serve as scholar-in-residence in her current congregation, we led Torah study together on Shabbat morning. We decided to consciously model our disagreement about Jacob to an eager group of participants.
We saw the session as an opportunity to show how two individuals who are avid students and lovers of Torah could disagree sharply about one of Torah’s most significant figures.
I will always treasure Rabbi Davidson’s comment that, “Your chapter about Jacob in What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives makes your case for him as strongly as possible. But I still disagree that his character changed as you contend.”
The word Yis-ra-el means “One who struggles with God.
I know that my book’s chapter on Jacob is much stronger because of the “struggles” Rabbi Davidson and I shared while we worked together. When two people deeply love Torah, our disagreement about Jacob proves for me both the value of “struggle” and the conclusion of our Sages about sincere disagreements: “Both are the words of the living God.” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b)