Friday, December 1, 2017

Parashat VaYishlah: Vulnerability

A Message for Parashat VaYishlah 2017
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Parashat VaYishlah begins with a description of Yaakov’s overwhelming state of fear and instability. Fearing Esav’s approach, he split his camp into two separate groups, prepared tributary offerings and cried out to God for help. In an unexpected twist, however, Yaakov then separated himself and ventured off on his own:
And Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. (Bereshit 32:25)
Why did Yaakov do this? His underlying motives and actions are never made clear. The contrast between this episode and his proceeding demeanor is likewise puzzling. How did Yaakov – in a state of weakness and disillusion – muster the courage to fight this man – and prevail?
* * * *
Best-selling author and inspirational speaker Brené Brown distinguished between the often-confused states of vulnerability and weakness. She explained that according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin word vulnerare, meaning “to wound.” The definition includes “capable of being wounded,” and “open to attack or damage.” Weakness, however, is “the inability to withstand attack or wounding.” Brown noted that weakness often stems from a lack of vulnerability, because when we don’t acknowledge how and where we’re tender, we’re more at risk of being hurt.[1]

Researchers Peter Fuda and Richard Badham explained that when a leader is willing to expose their vulnerability to their subordinates, a “snowball effect” is created. The team members sense the courage of their leader and become inspired to follow. Fuda and Badham told the story of Clynton, the managing editor of a large German corporation who realized that his directive leadership was preventing others from taking initiative. Rather than working to change his behavior in private, Clynton stood up at an annual meeting of his top sixty managers and acknowledged his failings. He outlined his personal and organizational roles and turned to the others for input. The researchers suggested that the team’s subsequent successes in the realms of initiative and innovation resulted from Clynton’s exposure of his vulnerability.[2]
* * * *
As Yaakov prepared for battle with Esav, he sought strength. He understood that attempting to deceive himself and others of his true capabilities would only expose his weaknesses. Acknowledging his vulnerability, however, would embolden him. Yaakov therefore decided to “separate himself,” and underwent a difficult self-rendering. He stepped apart in order to come to terms with his true self by better understanding his actual abilities and deficiencies.

And he [the man] saw that he had not won against him [Yaakov], and he touched his hip-socket and Yaakov’s hip socket was wrenched as he wrestled with him…And he was limping on his hip. (32:26,32)

Although Yaakov seemed to emerge as the victor of the struggle, his noticeable limp exposed his vulnerabilities. And although the man renamed Yaakov, telling him: “Not Yaakov shall your name hence be said, but Yisrael, for you have striven with God and men and won out” (29), his name Yaakov persisted. As Nessiv (R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin) observed, Yaakov’s enduring limp made it clear that he hadn’t entirely won the fight.[3]

Preparing for battle with his brother, Yaakov began by courageously exposing his vulnerabilities. Rather than feigning strength, Yaakov showed that he was “capable of being wounded,” and “open to attack or damage.” He emerged a changed person with a new name. Although his identity as the physically weaker Yaakov was forever exposed, his hidden courage to bear his vulnerabilities as Yisrael sprang forth as his future source of strength.

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable. (Madeleine L’Engle)[4]

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[2] Peter Fuda and Richard Bandham, “Fire, snowball mask, movie: How leaders spark and sustain change,” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2011. 
[3] R. Naftali Sevi Yehudah Berlin, HaAmek Davar 32:32, s.v. va-yizrah.
[4] Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York, NY, 2016), pg. 182.