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Genesis  33 - Robert Wiltshire

Jacob, Esau & Peanut Butter Sandwiches

This is the third version of this sermon. And as I am writing it there may even come a fourth but let's assume this becomes the definitive version. As my headmaster used to say to me :if at first you don't succeed.....then maybe failure is your thing.

I know exactly why it has been so difficult to write about today's parasha - it's because Jacob is such a complicated character;and to be honest not a great role model and as a result I have struggled - or wrestled if you like with the notion of him becoming called Israel. The nominal founder I guess of the people of Israel.

The torah is not of course a commentary it is a narrative. It does not of itself judge Jacob’s actions and as a result others have sought to justify, assess and interpret Jacob and his relationship with his mother,father brother,wives,and children that paints him in as good a light as is possible.

In fact in some commentaries Esau is blamed for the whole episode of the selling of the birthright…. because he was hungry.
So in the first version of this sermon I started to talk about familial relationships - we all have families and the baggage that goes with that. Sibling rivalries, difficult parents especially as they get older,difficult children even, although obviously not in my case. Sometimes, and here I accept I may have broken the 10th commandment I have looked at other families and seen some kind of perfection where I know deep down there isn't once you scratch below the surface. The reality is that all of us are human, we all make mistakes and without wishing it or realising it we have created a problem in a relationship as a result of unintended consequences - including I suppose hunger.

I then went on to talk about reconciliation because at a superficial level this morning's parasha seemed to be about Jacob meeting up with Esau after 20 years,embracing and letting bygones be bygones. Except if you really look at it that doesn't appear to be what happens either.

What does Jacob do when he sees his brother ? Feel happy ? rush out and see this moment as the end of a period of estrangement ? To be fair I suppose Esau is approaching with 400 men but Jacob actually lines up his family in order of popularity as Esau comes over the hill.

He lines up the slaves and their Children,then Leah and her lot and eventually at the back he puts Rachel and Joseph. I am sorry but he is really not coming out of this well.

He reminded me immediately of something  Marx said - I studied politics in my youth but in this case it’s Groucho Marx - Behind every man there is a woman and behind her is his wife

And then just to ensure there is no happy ending it turns out that after this so called reconciliation with Esau - they go there separate ways and only see each other again once more in their lives.

And Jacob doesn't even seem to learn from his relationship with his father and brother - the whole Joseph episode which we will come to in the coming weeks does nothing to enhance his ability to deal well with family dynamics.

I tried to be clever in version 2 and talk about reconciliation in respect of divided societies, Brexit and the Trump election. The truth of that was that it wasn't really working either. The problem is that the whole of this year has been too complicated politically, we don't know how any of this will play out, and well it sounded incredibly contrived and just a bit pompous. So I binned version 2 as well.

So I am left with what I really feel,and that is that we are all flawed and just struggling ever so slightly to make sense of what we do and how act with people,: our family and our friends

I have a policy in my family. The four of us, that's my wife,children and myself must always be together on Pesach and either on Rosh Hashonah or Yom Kippur. This year my son, who for those of you who don't know me lives in Tel Aviv didn't have enough holiday so I decided to fly out with Alex and our daughter to be with him and we would go to Shul there. Now the eagle eyed among you today will know that Oliver actually came home for Rosh Hashonah - but I didn't know he was coming and I was only told the night before which was lovely… and that I'd paid for his flight which was a surprise on so many levels.

In any event being away for Yom Kippur brought a couple of dilemmas with it. Firstly I always help Howard take the family service on Yom Kippur as he helps me on Rosh Hashonah. It's our minhag and it means a lot to us both.

The other minhag we have is the at the end of Yom Kippur we stand together with Paul and Celia on the Bimah as the Shofarot are blown. I whisper the same thing in Rabbi Paul's ear as I do every year -and at Havdalah Alex provides peanut butter sandwiches for the Rabbis and Howard - either crunchy or smooth depending on preference.

We do this every year. And this year I missed it.

Yet it was more important to be with the family and so Israel it was.

And it was great but I did feel slightly conflicted. I had arranged for peanut butter sandwiches to be supplied as always in my absence and the message to be got to Rabbi Paul. But it wasn't the same.

I tried to do what was right. But I really wrestled with it and being away from my community : and next year should it come to it I will wrestle with it again.

Three weeks ago I was on a train. I picked up a discarded Evening Standard and there was an article about a Haredi woman who had married at the age of 19 and had four children before she was thirty. Her children went to school but could read no English and learnt no secular subjects. She was disillusioned with this insular life and felt trapped and imprisoned by it. She wrestled with this just as I wrestled with reading it. It seemed to her and it seems to me that our religion, no any religion, should be empowering us to be the best we can be as people.

A framework for human interaction not some prescriptive straightjacket.

She approached an organisation called which helps people explore living a Jewish life freed from the confines of an inward looking community and at great personal risk managed to forge a new life for herself and her children.

The conclusion that I have come to in this version at least of my sermon on the subject of Jacob is this.

Cane and Abel, Noah and the flood, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and all that is in Genesis are stories of real resonance to us all if you really read them as more than just stories.. or musicals.

In the same way we experience trials and conflicts in our lives, these very human experiences of people wrestling with their very personal failings lead inexorably to the 10 commandments being handed down to the children of Israel to give them a framework to live by with each other, implicitly acknowledging that we are not perfect but that we mean to do the right thing more often than not.

Jacob became Israel - which literally means he who wrestles with God. We all wrestle with issues; in my case letting down friends to make sure I don't let down my family,  or even leaving a community for the sake of a family. Jacob is all of us. Not perfect - well meaning but flawed and prone to making mistakes.

In the first sermon subsequently binned, I desperately tried to include something from Mel Brooks because the scene of Esau coming over the hill reminded me a bit of the desert scene in Blazing saddles and it led me to one his quotes which in the end is pretty appropriate to today:

As long as the world is turning and spinning were gonna be dizzy and we're gonna make mistakes.

Actually I didn't  make a mistake by being with the family in Tel Aviv on Yom kippur but they knew it was difficult for me. As we left the shul on Frishman street after Havdalah our daughter,Georgina handed me a peanut butter sandwich and one for all of us as we walked home.

Somewhere in Hertfordshire at exactly the same time, that minhag was being repeated.

Shabbat Shalom

Robert Wiltshire


Tue, 20 October 2020 2 Cheshvan 5781