Fathers Making Peace With Sons


“If God will be with me …  so that I shall return to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God and I shall erect a monument” [Genesis 28:20-21].

A soldier’s father once vowed to give $100 to a local synagogue if his son returned from a war b’shalom — in peace, usually understood to mean alive, whole, without wounds. The soldier returned but with a gentile wife and their child. The soldier’s father now claimed that the conditions of his vow had not been met since the forbidden marriage constituted a breach of b’shalom. The shul disagreed, claiming that as long as the son had returned home from the front without a wound, the father owed the money. Both parties agreed to abide by the ruling of Rabbi Yeshoshua Baumel, who ruled that the father was required to pay the money to the synagogue, based on a Mishna in the little-known Tractate Tvul Yom.

What does it mean to “return… in peace” (b’shalom) to your parents’ home?

In Vayetze, Jacob is still haunted by having deceived his blind father by posing as his brother Esau, thereby getting Isaac’s blessing under false pretense. Jacob then sets out on a dangerous journey, taking a vow that if God protects him and returns to Isaac’s home b’shalom, Jacob will then erect a monument to God.

Then we encounter the betrayal of Reuven, usurping or interfering with the sleeping arrangements of his father Jacob after the death of Rachel. 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 Leah (Reuven’s mother), Reuven’s action was a flagrant invasion of the private life of his father.

It is one of the most striking passages in the Torah, not because of what it says but because of what it does not say. The Reuven episode ends, “And Israel [Jacob] heard about it” [Gen. 35:22]. What follows in the parchment is a complete break in the Torah writing. It is not just a gap of white space but a gap continuing until the next line, an open parchment space that generally signals a wordless moment fraught with deep emotion. The Torah is telling us, between the lines, that when Jacob heard of his son’s deception, he became enraged, but he holds his wrath inside, remaining silent — perhaps amidst many tears.

The text continues by presenting us with an almost superfluous fact: “Now the sons of Jacob were twelve,” including Reuven. Then comes a listing of all the sons, followed by: “And Jacob came unto Isaac his father, to Mamre, to Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron” [Gen.  35:23-27].

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 led to Jacob’s reconciliation with Isaac? The blank space might have begun with Jacob’s rage, but perhaps concludes with a resolve for rapprochement. Jacob still thinks that Reuven’s arrogance is beyond contempt, but how can a father divorce himself from his son?

Even more importantly, is it Reuven’s fault that he acted the way he did? Perhaps Jacob was thinking: Am I, Jacob, not at least partially to blame for having rejected my first-born Reuven in favor of the younger Joseph, Rachel’s son? Perhaps Reuven was trying to say — albeit in a disgraceful and convoluted way — that he was the rightful heir but was rejected unfairly. Jacob decides, at last, that if he can and must forgive Reuven, is it not logical to assume that his father, Isaac, who was also guilty of preferring one son over the other, has forgiven Jacob 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, Jacob can make peace with himself.

When does a son return to his father b’shalom? Only when the father accepts the son, and the son accepts the father, in a personal and emotional sense.

So, returning to Rabbi Baumel’s question, does the soldier’s father have to pay $100 to the synagogue?

Only if the father is ready and able to accept his son and his new wife b’shalom, in peace. 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 is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and is chief rabbi of Efrat.

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat Candles: 4:19 p.m.

Torah: Genesis 28:10-32:3

Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14:10 (Ashkenaz); 11:7-12:12 (Sephard)

Havdalah: 5:20 p.m.