You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Vayishlach.
From Rav Kook
VaYishlach: Reuben’s Sin
In an enigmatic passage after the death of Rachel, the Torah harshly condemns Reuben: “Reuben went and lay down with Bilhah, his father’s concubine” (Gen. 35:22).
According to Talmudic tradition, what actually transpired was far less shocking. Reuben was in fact protecting his mother’s honor and place in the family. When Rachel was alive, Jacob kept his bed in Rachel’s tent. After she died, Jacob moved his bed to the tent of Rachel’s handmaid, Bilhah.
But Reuben, Leah’s first-born, was upset. Perhaps his aunt Rachel could displace his mother as Jacob’s primary wife; after all, Rachel had been the woman that Jacob intended to marry. But surely Rachel’s handmaid held a lower position in the household than his mother Leah! So Reuben removed his father’s bed from Bilhah’s tent and placed it in the tent of his own mother, Leah.
The Talmud in Shabbat 55b explains that we should not think that Reuben literally slept with Bilhah; rather, he “disturbed Bilhah’s sleeping arrangements.” The Sages could not accept the idea that one of Jacob’s sons was guilty of incest. Furthermore, the verse immediately continues, “Jacob had twelve sons.” Surely we know this already! The Torah is emphasizing that, even after this disruption in Jacob’s household, all twelve were still sons of the tzaddik Jacob; all twelve were equally righteous.
Still, we need to understand. If the incident in Jacob’s house occurred the way the Sages described, why did the Torah not write it that way? Why does the Torah ‘mislead’ us into thinking that Reuben had performed such a serious offense?
Two Perspectives on One Event
Rav Kook wrote that the Torah describes events in a particular way so that they will make a certain desired impression. Every detail in the Torah is carefully measured, so that the narrative will suitably affect us.
Sometimes a story, when written in a straightforward fashion, cannot be properly appreciated by those reading it, especially if they are greatly removed from the incident in time and place. From afar, we may not be properly sensitive to the moral outrage that took place. In such instances, divine wisdom dictates the precise fashion with which to clothe the story, in order that it should make the appropriate impression on the reader.
Together, the two Torahs, the Oral and the Written, paint a complete picture of what occurred. The Written Torah gives a simpler account, providing the emotional impact to which we are accustomed from our youth. The Oral Torah adds to the written account a more insightful understanding that is acquired through careful examination.
The activities of the Patriarchs deeply influenced, and continue to influence, the Jewish people. The spirit of Jacob’s house lives with us to this day; the light of his family will forever illuminate our hearts. Any dimming of that light, any inner strife or moral imperfection, will also be felt by us. In fact, even more so: any minor eclipse of light from that time will reach us from afar as a serious and deeply disturbing darkness.
For us, the true extent of Reuben’s offense – upsetting the delicate balance in his father’s household and eroding Jacob’s authority in his own home – is as if Reuben had actually committed incest with Bilhah. The literal account of the written Torah corresponds to our natural feelings of hurt and indignation.
But if we wish to accurately evaluate this offense in terms of Reuben’s moral level, we must return to the Talmudic version of this event. Here the Midrashic insight reveals the event as it actually occurred: Reuben disturbed the sleeping arrangements in his father’s house, in order to protect his mother’s honor.
From Rishe Groner
This week, we hear the names of two women who are mentioned little elsewhere in the entire corpus of Jewish texts.
Dinah, daughter of Yaakov; the only daughter mentioned.
Dina, the embodiment of judgement.
Dina, conceived as male, transformed in the womb to female.
Dina, curious to see the world, going out of her boundaries, out of her constriction, to bring transformation to the world.
Dina, embodying an energy of balance, of righteousness, of judgement; of balance between masculine and feminine polarities –
Seen and witnessed by the people as holding the power they so desire to experience, of holding the experience of Oneness they are seeking.
In the story of Dinah, she goes out.
Woman, going out of the space she was allocated.
Woman, hidden away, for her own protection.
Woman, taking the space they were denied, and being hurt in the process.
Woman, intent on taking on a spiritual role of transformation and revolution, becoming the pawns of the men who hold power over them.
Woman, hoping to redeem with love, steamrolled by an ancient patriarchal desire for blood and fire.
And so –
Energy sucked dry without consent.
Body violated by the will of another.
And her will?
We don’t know Dinah’s intentions, we don’t know her thoughts, we don’t know her feelings.
We know that Dinah’s rape sets up a complex story of family dynamics, betrayal and violence; from the apparently well-meaning men of Shechem who seek to make things right by creating an alliance with her family; to the brothers who seek to defend their sister’s honor through violence, mercilessly murdering the entire town after they lie weak from the circumcision ceremony they were asked to undertake in order to create a potential family alliance.
And it sets up an opportunity for us to consider:
What would be Dinah’s voice, if we could hear her?
A woman among men, connecting to the ‘benot ha’aretz’, the ‘daughters of the land’.
Carrying a potent energy for transformation and co-creation, and that energy is witnessed by the prince of the local tribe.
He sees it, he wants it for himself, he knows how potent her energy is, and what it will enable for him and his entire city.
But he can’t control himself, he can’t approach her in the way she deserves, in the way that is one of mutuality and consent. He takes her against her will, and hurts her in the process.
And yet, he is now infatuated.
Aware of that power of feminine presence, that ability to weave worlds and create sacred space in between, that being of Dinah; of sweetening the harshest judgements into the magic of presence in reality.
And he wants it all for himself.
He speaks to her with words of love.
Perhaps he has apologized, perhaps he has learned. Perhaps she has forgiven him; perhaps she has transformed him. Perhaps she is devastated and afraid of a world of captivity. Perhaps she is traumatized and all she wants is freedom. Perhaps she has come to healing.
We don’t know.
Because Dinah’s voice is silent.
And so is that of her father.
Ya’akov: Father, aware of his daughter’s power; dismayed, uncertain, hands tied. We don’t know what he thinks: his voice is quiet.
And then the brothers enter the scene.
In order to access this power, they say, you need to sacrifice part of yourself. Circumcise yourselves, give over of your blood from your most vulnerable place on the body, and maybe, just maybe, you can come into connection with our sister’s power this way.
But the two who won’t have it – Shimon and Levi – move directly to violence.
The fire, the violence, the blood and the anger is too much.
When they explode, so does the entire tenuous alliance.
What if we had asked Dinah what she wanted?
What if Dinah had her say?
What if we knew her greater intention, her ability to create an alliance and transformation with the entire town? What if Shechem had been able to hold himself back, to be transformed by her instead of rushing to take what was not his, too early?
We don’t know.
Devorah, another woman whose voice is not heard, who we know little about. Except, her name and her title:
Devorah – the word, dibbur, speech.
Devorah – the honeybee, embodiment of the Divine in many ancient civilizations. The sacred art of tending bees was a priestess activity, one that enabled connection between worlds.
Devorah, the ‘meyneket’ – nursemaid, of Rivkah, mother of Ya’akov. The one who nourishes. The one who gives. The one who feeds, the one who suckles.
Devorah, whose death is mentioned in the Torah as one line that speaks worlds. Of a woman whom the people mourn and wail as she is buried under a sacred tree.
And Devorah, who our commentators teach us was far more than just a simple nursemaid.
A teacher, a governess, a wise woman of the household.
And perhaps, as her name says, she was more than just a woman, called Devorah.
She WAS Devorah. The embodiment of the bee. In other words, the bee priestess.
Just as we know of ancient priestesses called Melissae (bee), of women in Egypt and Greece and the Celtic lands who worked with bees to create sacred spaces and transmit oracles of wisdom…
Perhaps this Devorah, like the Devorah of the book of Judges, was carrying a title: The Devorah. The oracle, the bee priestess, the teacher, the wise woman.
Perhaps this Devorah, too, was the nurturer, the meineket, the one who fed wisdom and spirit to the people.
Her voice is not heard, so we don’t know.
Like Dinah, Devorah was a powerful spiritual teacher; a pioneer, a woman of strength and wisdom.
So when we read this week’s Torah portion, and as we walk in our lives, all we can do is seek to embody these women.
To listen to their voices, whispering from between the texts.
To consider how we embody judgement, nourishment, speech and wisdom.
How are we din?
How are we meinekot?
How are we Devorah?
This is the week to move forth, to explore, to find out what we can be when we allow the DNA to unfurl and share with us the secrets of the women whose voices were not recorded.
Where all we can do is sing, chant, dance, pray, sit under the tree and walk in their footsteps,
And perhaps, very softly, hear their voices calling us.
To a week of healing, listening, and giving voice to the voiceless,
From J. The Jewish Weekly
Self-preservation and compassion collide in competing readings of this week’s Torah portion
BY RABBI AMY EILBERG
I have long loved the core passage in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach: the dramatic climax of the drama of Jacob and Esau. To me, its meaning is obvious and deeply resonant with my most treasured values.
Jacob had left home 20 years before, fleeing Esau’s murderous rage after Jacob had cheated Esau out of the birthright and the paternal blessing that were rightly his as the firstborn son. After two tumultuous decades in his uncle Lavan’s house, it becomes clear to Jacob that it is time for him to come home. But he is terrified that his brother will still wish him harm, and so Jacob makes elaborate preparations to defend himself and his household should Esau attack.
When the brothers encounter one another, Esau seems to have become a different person. To Jacob’s utter amazement, “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). Esau asks about Jacob’s family and flocks, regarding Jacob with respect, curiosity and love. Jacob expresses his profound relief and gratitude, saying, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably” (Genesis 33:10).
This encounter illustrates the profound blessing of reconciliation after prolonged estrangement. Especially with family, our expectations of our loved ones can be based on outdated and essentialist memories of who they were long ago. But with the gifts of time and maturity, Jacob’s fears turn out to be unfounded. Esau, too, has grown past the volatility of his youth, and has found it in his heart to embrace his brother again. It is what we pray for in all of our personal conflicts and in the world.
But there is a completely different view of the story. For several of the classical commentators (including Ramban and Abarbanel), and for many Jews today, the story I have told above is hopelessly naïve, dangerous and simply false. After all, the Torah itself identifies Esau with Edom, and the Edomite nation became an enemy of the Israelites. In rabbinic literature, Esau comes to be equated with Rome (the power that destroyed the Second Temple and oppressed the Jewish people). Later, Esau and Edom come to be identified with Christianity as well. Esau becomes the paradigm for those who have hated and persecuted the Jewish people.
Reading our text with all of those associations to Esau in mind, it would seem ridiculous to understand the story as a beautiful scene of reconciliation. Rather, from this perspective, a minor feature of the biblical text becomes salient. Oddly, dots appear in the text of the Torah over the word vayishakeihu (he kissed him). Some rabbinic commentaries suggest that the dots call attention to the fact that the written text is wrong, and that the correct reading of the word is vayishacheihu (he bit him). Bringing a hermeneutic of suspicion to the text, as Jews suffering under Christian rule might well have done, this reading makes more sense than mine.
In the circles in which I move, the positive reading of the text, as an exquisite scene of reconciliation, is self-evidently true, and the negative reading is xenophobic and even paranoid. But to Jews living under oppression or in fear of anti-Semitic violence, the reading that is so obviously true to me is patently ridiculous.
Which reading is correct?
I might say that both readings are equally valid. The text gives rise to multiple interpretations, and which is most salient is in the eye of the beholder. We view every text from the context of our own lives, and so different perspectives naturally arise from different life circumstances.
Yet, I will not stop advocating for my reading of the text. I fiercely want for this sacred story of reconciliation to show the way toward a vision of transformation of entrenched conflicts. I will argue for it to serve as a paradigm for our people’s profound commitment to peace, even when it seems difficult or impossible.
Still, this exercise in multiple readings of a single text can lead us to loosen our certainty about the truth of our own points of view. Only God has access to absolute truth. We discern truth as best we can — and if we want to live with other people, we must practice the art of honoring the possibility that the other side may also be right.
From My Jewish Learning
Why the Angel Asks Jacob His Name
By asking Jacob his name, his wrestling adversary challenges him to examine himself.
BY RABBI NEAL J. LOEVINGER
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Jacob sends messengers ahead to his estranged brother Esau, who has a large assembly of men coming toward Jacob and his family. The night before he meets his brother, Jacob wrestles with the angel who changes his name to Israel. The meeting with Esau goes peacefully. When Jacob and his family arrive at the town of Shechem, his daughter Dinah is sexually assaulted by the prince of the town, and Jacob’s sons go on a violent rampage in retribution. Both Rachel and Isaac die and are buried. The Torah portion ends with a review of all of Isaac’s descendants.
“Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ He [Jacob] replied: ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He answered, ‘Jacob.’ He said ‘No longer will your name be Jacob, but Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have prevailed.’” (Genesis 32:26-28)
All alone on the night before he is to finally meet up again with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob is approached by a mysterious stranger, who wrestles with him until the dawn. The text says this figure is a “man,” but most of the commentators assume it was some kind of angel or a holy vision. Jacob holds on until he can reach some understanding of the moment; at the end of the struggle, the mystery wrestler announces that Jacob, like his grandfather Abraham, will receive a new name.
There have been many, many interpretations of Jacob’s “God-wrestling.” (A term coined by Arthur Waskow, I believe.) Some commentators, as noted above, understand this as an encounter with an angel, and some, especially Rambam, understand Jacob as experiencing some kind of holy vision, rather than an actual wrestling match.
While most of the commentators focus on the homiletical meaning of Jacob’s change of name, they tend to gloss over the passage before it, presumably assuming that it’s just a rhetorical setup for the announcing of the name Yisrael. By asking Jacob’s name, and getting the reply “Jacob,” the messenger can more dramatically announce the new name by which Jacob will be known.
Along these lines, Radak (R. David Kimchi, a 12th century French commentator) seems to explain the angel’s question as just a formality:
This question is an opening to the conversation, like “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9) and “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2), and other similar places, because he knew his name when he was sent to him.
The first example Radak offers of a rhetorical question is from story of the Garden of Eden. After the man and woman eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they become self-conscious of their nakedness, and attempt to hide from God in the Garden. God asks–knowing full well the answer!–“where are you?”
Radak’s second example comes from Moses’ experience at the burning bush. When Moses doubts that the people will believe that God has sent him, God turns Moses’ staff into a snake, prefacing the miracle with the question “what is in your hand.” Again, both Moses and God knew exactly what was in Moses’ hand, just as the wrestler knew Jacob’s name.
What’s going on here? We might say that God was just striking up a good conversation, but Torah stories of encounters with the Divine tend to be terse and focused. In each of the three stories Radak offers as an example of a rhetorical question, the main character is about to begin a new chapter in life — Adam is about to leave the Garden, Jacob is about to meet his long-estranged brother, and Moses is about to confront Pharaoh.
Perhaps the question is not merely a conversation-opener, but the main point of the conversation. In the case of Jacob, the messenger seems to want Jacob to think deeply about the meaning of his name, which we learned at his birth would represent the depth of his troubled relationship with his brother. (Cf. Genesis 25:25-27 and 27:35-37.)
The messenger knows not just Jacob’s name, but his history — he’s asking if Jacob has wrestled sufficiently with his own identity. “What is your name?” in this context, can be understood as, “Are you still Jacob, the deceiver, or are you ready to become Israel, the person of conscience?”
What’s so striking about our passage is that Jacob receives a question in response to his demand for a blessing — it seems to me that the question itself is the blessing he receives.
The right question, at the right time, from the right person, can change a person’s life, enabling them to see and understand themselves in an entirely new light. When God asks a question, it’s not for the sake of an answer, but for the sake of an inner response, a change in the person.
Who am I? What is the name I have made for myself, and what is the name I am capable of achieving? Just to ask the question can move us towards a better answer — just to ask the question, and thus demonstrate our capacity for growth and introspection, is one of the greatest blessings we have as human beings.
Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
Why Jacob Returns for His Small Vessel
Jacob views material possessions as essential and indispensable.
BY JONATHAN NERIL
Before Jacob‘s epic encounter with Esau, reuniting with his brother after decades of estrangement, Jacob brings his family and possessions across a stream. He then returns at night to the other side of the stream, and the Torah narrates that: “Jacob remained alone.” The rabbis see the word “alone” (levado) as superfluous, and understand it as related to the similar sounding lecado, “for his vessel,” yielding, “Jacob remained for his vessel.”
That is, say the rabbis, he re-crossed the stream at night to recover a few small vessels he forgot to bring across. Why does Jacob, facing an imminent confrontation with Esau and his 400-man militia, leave his family alone and vulnerable at night to recover a few forgotten flasks? Why were they so important to him?
The seeming absurdity of Jacob’s action becomes understandable when one examines his worldview: he believes that everything in his possession comes from God, has a specific purpose, and must be used to its full potential. As one rabbinic commentary explains, each material item that a righteous person uses is a means toward spiritual repair in the world. Jacob went back for the vessels to ensure they were used in the optimal way. Had he not, their full potential would not have been realized.
The truly righteous recognize the value of their God-given possessions, and are very careful with them, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant they are. While not overly attached to material things, they do not dispose of objects prematurely or use them inappropriately. Indeed, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan, on his deathbed, told his students to remove the vessels from his room lest they become contaminated by his corpse, and thereby unusable (Berakhot 28b).
The Sefer HaChinuch, an exploration of the 613 commandments that was written in 13th-century Spain, offers insight into the spiritual root of Jacob’s action. Regarding the commandment not to wastefully destroy anything (bal tashchit), it says:
The root reason for the precept is known: for it is in order to train our spirits to love what is good and beneficial and to cling to it; and as a result, good fortune will cling to us, and we will move well away from every evil thing and from every matter of destructiveness…They will not destroy even a mustard seed in the world, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all their power.
The Sefer HaChinuch helps explain what motivated Jacob’s exceptional effort to save a few vessels: to love and cling to what is good in the world, and to avoid waste of any degree.
In this vein, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the command “do not destroy,” is “the most comprehensive warning to human beings not to misuse the position that God has given them as masters of the world and its matter to capricious, passionate, or merely thoughtless wasteful destruction of anything on earth.” He elaborates on this in his book Horeb by means of a hypothetical statement of God’s:
“Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My [God’s] teaching, only then are you a mensch and have the right over them which I have given you as a human…However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human…and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against my property, you sin against Me!”
Jacob’s re-crossing of the stream exposes a striking contrast between two worldviews on material possessions. One sees the things we own as essential and indispensable; the other views them as expendable and disposable.
For us, living in a world of abundance where it is so easy to throw things away, Jacob’s example presents a particular challenge. In 1955, the retailing analyst Victor Lebow highlighted a trend in consumer society away from greater mindfulness regarding possessions and toward a more short-term view. He wrote:
“Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate (The Journal of Retailing).”
The trend he describes has only become more pronounced in the half-century since Lebow wrote these words. We throw away useable items because they are a few years old and maybe outdated by new products; we discard clothing and appliances and buy new ones instead of repairing them; and we commonly buy goods wrapped in disposable packaging.
Little Things Matter
Our relationship with the resources we consume has significant consequences for the planet. Most of the big things that happen in the world are really just the consequences of a lot of small things put together. A global consensus of scientists has stated that human actions are changing the climate balance on earth, with likely negative impacts for human civilization. They foresee more intense storms and floods, shifting disease vectors, and sea level rise threatening hundreds of millions of people in low-lying areas.
How is it possible that human beings could cause such widespread imbalance? It really comes down to the small vessels–mining aluminum for one can, trucking one glass bottle to a faraway dump, as well as countless other small acts–multiplied by 250 years of industrial society and billions of people.
Today’s global environmental crises can be pinned on no group of people or nation, and solving them will require the participation of billions of individuals. It is on this crucial level of the individual that Jacob’s actions can speak so profoundly. Jacob’s going back for two or three vessels teaches us that little things matter. In our consumer age the message has only become more relevant. We all have the potential to be truly righteous. May we learn from Jacob’s example and come to live in a more Divine-aware and sustainable way.
Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.
From Rabbi Pam Frydman
For the Jewish Journal
This is a 20 min drash that covers various aspects of Vayishlach
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
You are sometimes what you learned
you are sometimes what you forgot
you are sometimes that higher self
all your transformative splendor
Then you are again King Baby
as if the transformative trip
Hey Jacob! Hey Israel!
Jacob Israel! Get in this house.
Saturday night, we sing: al tira avdi yaakov
don’t be afraid, my loyal* Jacob.
What has Jacob to be afraid of?
*His problems lucky to have him
his loyalty to them
From Rabbi David Kasher
UNDER THE WEEPING WILLOW – Parshat Vayishlach
A terrible wailing sound cut through the crowd. At first, no one could tell where it was coming from. As people stopped and cleared a circle, they could see it was Jacob himself, head of the household, now dropped to his knees and sobbing like a child.
He was bent over an old woman, who lay curled up on the ground, not moving. Who was that? The whisper of a name began to ripple out:
Deborah, Rebecca’s nursemaid, died, and was buried under the tree at Bethel. So they called it Alon Bachut – the Tree of Cryings. (Gen. 35:8)
וַתָּמָת דְּבֹרָה מֵינֶקֶת רִבְקָה, וַתִּקָּבֵר מִתַּחַת לְבֵית-אֵל תַּחַת הָאַלּוֹן; וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ, אַלּוֹן בָּכוּת.
Those assembled must have known who she was, but this is the first time we have heard that name. Who is this Deborah, and where did she come from? And why would the nursemaid of Jacob’s mother, Rebecca, be traveling with Jacob and his family? Rashi has an answer he says he learned from an earlier teacher, Moshe HaDarshan:
What connection does Deborah have to the House of Jacob? But this is from what Rebecca said to Jacob [when she sent him away], “I will send for you and fetch you from there,” (Gen. 27:45). So she sent Deborah to him at Paddan-aram, to tell him to leave. But then she died on the road back.
מה ענין דבורה בבית יעקב, אלא לפי שאמרה רבקה ליעקב (כז מה) ושלחתי ולקחתיך משם, שלחה דבורה אצלו לפדן ארם לצאת משם, ומתה בדרך.
Rashi’s comments take us back twenty years, to the day Jacob left home, fleeing from his older brother Esau. In those days, Rebecca was in charge. And Rebecca loved Jacob most. We know that Jacob tricked his father, Isaac, into giving away Esau’s blessing, but less often remember that the whole scheme was Rebecca’s idea, and that she put him up to it, even as Jacob resisted:
His mother said to him, “Your curse will be upon me, my son. Just do as I say…” (Gen. 27:13)
וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ, עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי; אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי
Then, when Esau became consumed with rage, and began to speak of killing Jacob, it was Rebecca who sent him away, to stay with her brother Lavan, “until [Esau’s] fury subsides.” As they said goodbye, Rashi notes, Rebecca specifically said she would one day send for Jacob and call him home.
So that must be why Rebecca’s nursemaid is suddenly here. Perhaps Deborah was the one who had been sent to fetch Jacob. In fact, we never knew why, after two decades, Jacob suddenly decided to leave Lavan’s house. We simply hear that, “after Rachel had given birth to Joseph,” Jacob asked Lavan to give him leave to return. Perhaps this was the day that Deborah arrived. And through her, Jacob’s mother was finally calling him home.
That might explain Deborah’s presence in the caravan of travelers that day. But the commentators are still puzzled by the force of Jacob’s reaction – all that crying. He surely had some relationship with Deborah; perhaps she even helped to raise him. But for him to break down in tears this way, over a character we’d never heard of until now – that is unexpected. And the rabbinic readers detect a particularly severe mourning in the naming of Alon Bachut, the “Tree of Cryings.” Not crying, but cryings, plural, as if there were many reasons to cry.
Rashi interprets the extra ‘crying’ as follows:
He was given the news there of a second mourning, for he was told that his mother had died.
נתבשר שם באבל שני, שהוגד לו על אמו שמתה
Only now, halfway home, does Jacob learn that Rebecca, whom he was journeying back to reunite with, is already gone. He was too late. He would never see his mother again. Now that is surely a reason for the bitterest of cries.
But if that is so, is this really the way the Torah wishes to inform us of Rebecca’s death? She is the second of the Great Matriarchs, the woman responsible for ensuring that the Children of Israel inherited the covenant – and her passing doesn’t even bear mentioning? We have to learn about it through some veiled reference, in the tangential story of a minor character?
Again, Rashi has an answer:
They hid the day of [Rebecca’s] death, so that people would not curse her, saying, “From her womb came Esau!” So scripture also refrained from publicizing her death.
העלימו את יום מותה, שלא יקללו הבריות הכרס שיצא ממנו עשו, אף הכתוב לא פרסמו
On this point, however, not all the commentators are willing to accept Rashi’s explanation. Thirteenth-century Spanish scholar, Moses Nachmanides – the “Ramban” – takes issue with the notion that Rebecca would have been held responsible for the deeds of her wayward son:
The idea of her being cursed is not clear, for when Isaac died, the Torah says, “His sons Esau and Jacob buried him” (Gen. 35:39)
וטעם הקללה אינו מחוור שהרי הזכירו במיתת יצחק (להלן פסוק כט) ויקברו אותו עשו ויעקב בניו
In other words, why would Rebecca be scorned for having produced Esau – so much so that her death had to be concealed – while Isaac, who was equally responsible for Esau (more so, because he actually favored Esau!), had his death announced openly – with even a mention of Esau’s attendance! This makes no sense, says the Ramban.
Yet he still must account for the strange silence surrounding Rebecca’s death. All of the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs so far have had their burials recorded. What happened to Rebecca’s funeral? He searches for an answer, and finds clues in a midrashic legend in the Tanchuma (Teitzei 4). And the scene he reconstructs from it is devastating:
It is possible that she had no one to honor her when she died. For Jacob was not there. Esau hated her and would not come. Isaac was already blind and never left the house. And so scripture did not want to record that she had to be buried by the the Hittites.
יתכן לומר שלא היה לה כבוד במיתתה כי יעקב איננו שם ועשו שונא אותה ולא יבא שמה ויצחק כהו עיניו ואיננו יוצא מביתו ולכן לא רצה הכתוב להזכיר שיקברוה בני חת
Rebecca died alone. A woman who ran the covenantal family with decisiveness and vision had no family around her during her final days. One son she had not seen in decades, and another still hated her for betraying him. Her husband was enfeebled, not even able to come to the gravesite. And she was far from her own native land and her family of origin. This great hero of our people, one of the most powerful figures in the book of Genesis, passed away quietly – without a word of eulogy, without a mourner to cry for her – and her burial was left to the local community to attend to.
It is this terrible news that Jacob heard that day on the road home.
But if that is so, let’s reconstruct the scene a bit. Who was it that told Jacob about his mother’s death? It must have been Deborah. No one else in that group would have known. The old woman collapsed on the arduous journey, and in her dying moments, she revealed the details of her mistress’ tragic end.
This also means, however, that Rebecca may not have actually sent for him. For she had promised to fetch him after Esau’s “fury subsided.” But according to the Ramban, it never did. Even her death was not enough to dissolve his burning rage.
Yet it seems that this fury, at first directed towards Jacob, had over time fixated on Rebecca. It was Rebecca, not Jacob, after all, who had orchestrated the theft of her older son’s blessing. In time, perhaps Esau could have forgiven his brother, still so young, for being complicit in the plot. But could he ever forgive his own mother for betraying him?
In fact, in one of the great scenes earlier in our parsha, Jacob had encountered Esau, face to face. And it very much appeared that Esau had forgiven him. They embraced, and kissed each other, and wept. It was, by every indication, a reconciliation between these two brothers.
Yet it seems that Esau did not inform Jacob of their mother’s death. That much he could not bring himself to do. For he still burned with bitterness at the very mention of Rebecca. His brother, he could embrace again. But his mother, he would not even bury.
And so Jacob had to learn what happened from Deborah, who had travelled all this way to honor a woman who had died without honor. And as his mother’s nursemaid died in his arms, Jacob wept. He wept, and wept, and wept. For he realized that, while Rebecca had managed to keep him safe all these years, allowing him to build a family and amass great wealth – that is, while he received the blessing she wanted for him – her pledge to him had been truer than he could have known:
“Your curse will be upon me, my son.”
עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Jewish Journey (Vayishlach 5777)
Why is Jacob the father of our people, the hero of our faith? We are “the congregation of Jacob”, “the children of Israel.” Yet it was Abraham who began the Jewish journey, Isaac who was willing to be sacrificed, Joseph who saved his family in the years of famine, Moses who led the people out of Egypt and gave it its laws. It was Joshua who took the people into the Promised land, David who became its greatest king, Solomon who built the Temple, and the prophets through the ages who became the voice of God.
The account of Jacob in the Torah seems to fall short of these other lives, at least if we read the text literally. He has tense relationships with his brother Esau, his wives Rachel and Leah, his father-in-law Laban, and with his three eldest children, Reuben, Simon and Levi. There are times when he seems full of fear, others when he acts – or at least seems to act – with less than total honesty. In reply to Pharaoh he says of himself, “The days of my life have been few and hard” (Gen. 47:9). This is less than we might expect from a hero of faith.
That is why so much of the image we have of Jacob is filtered through the lens of midrash – the oral tradition preserved by the sages. In this tradition, Jacob is all good, Esau all bad. It had to be this way – so argued R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes in his essay on the nature of midrashic interpretation – because otherwise we would find it hard to draw from the biblical text a clear sense of right and wrong, good and bad. The Torah is an exceptionally subtle book, and subtle books tend to be misunderstood. So the oral tradition made it simpler: black and white instead of shades of grey.
Yet perhaps, even without midrash, we can find an answer – and the best way of so doing is to think of the idea of a journey.
Judaism is about faith as a journey. It begins with the journey of Abraham and Sarah, leaving behind their “land, birthplace and father’s house” and travelling to an unknown destination, “the land I will show you.”
The Jewish people is defined by another journey in a different age: the journey of Moses and the Israelites from Egypt across the desert to the Promised Land.
That journey becomes a litany in the parsha of Massei: “They left X and they camped in Y. They left Y and they camped in Z.” To be a Jew is to move, to travel, and only rarely, if ever, to settle down. Moses warns the people of the danger of settling down and taking the status quo for granted, even in Israel itself: “When you have children and grandchildren, and have been established in the land for a long time, you might become decadent” (Deut. 4:25).
Hence the rules that Israel must always remember its past, never forget its years of slavery in Egypt, never forget on Sukkot that our ancestors once lived in temporary dwellings, never forget that it does not own the land – it belongs to God – and we are merely there as God’s gerim ve-toshavim, “strangers and sojourners” (Lev. 25:23).
Why so? Because to be a Jew means not to be fully at home in the world. To be a Jew means to live within the tension between heaven and earth, creation and revelation, the world that is and the world we are called on to make; between exile and home, and between the universality of the human condition and the particularity of Jewish identity. Jews don’t stand still except when standing before God. The universe, from galaxies to subatomic particles, is in constant motion, and so is the Jewish soul.
We are, we believe, an unstable combination of dust of the earth and breath of God, and this calls on us constantly to make decisions, choices, that will make us grow to be as big as our ideals, or, if we choose wrongly, make us shrivel into small, petulant creatures obsessed by trivia. Life as a journey means striving each day to be greater than we were the day before, individually and collectively.
If the concept of a journey is a central metaphor of Jewish life, what in this regard is the difference between Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?
Abraham’s life is framed by two journeys both of which use the phrase Lech lecha, “undertake a journey”, once in Genesis 12 when he was told to leave his land and father’s house, the other in Gen. 22:2 at the binding of Isaac when he was told, “Take your son, the only one you love – Isaac – and go [lech lecha] to the region of Moriah.”
What is so moving about Abraham is that he goes, immediately and without question, despite the fact that both journeys are wrenching in human terms. In the first he has to leave his father. In the second he has to let go of his son. He has to say goodbye to the past and risk saying farewell to the future. Abraham is pure faith. He loves God and trusts Him absolutely. Not everyone can achieve that kind of faith. It is almost superhuman.
Isaac is the opposite. It is as if Abraham, knowing the emotional sacrifices he has had to make, knowing too the trauma Isaac must have felt at the binding, seeks to protect his son as far as lies within his power. He makes sure that Isaac does not leave the Holy Land (see Gen. 24:6 – that is why Abraham does not let him travel to find a wife). Isaac’s one journey (to the land of the Philistines, in Gen. 26) is limited and local. Isaac’s life is a brief respite from the nomadic existence Abraham and Jacob both experience.
Jacob is different again. What makes him unique is that he has his most intense encounters with God – they are the most dramatic in the whole book of Genesis – in the midst of the journey, alone, at night, far from home, fleeing from one danger to the next, from Esau to Laban on the outward journey, from Laban to Esau on his homecoming.
In the midst of the first he has the blazing epiphany of the ladder stretching from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, moving him to say on waking, “God is truly in this place but I did not know it . . . This must be God’s house and this the gate to heaven” (28:16-17). None of the other patriarchs, not even Moses, has a vision quite like this.
On the second, in our parsha, he has the haunting, enigmatic wrestling match with the man/angel/God, which leaves him limping but permanently transformed – the only person in the Torah to receive from God an entirely new name, Israel, which may mean, “one who has wrestled with God and man” or “one who has become a prince [sar] before God”.
What is fascinating is that Jacob’s meetings with angels are described by the same verb ’p-g-sh’, (Gen. 28:11, and 32:2) which means “a chance encounter”, as if they took Jacob by surprise, which clearly they did. Jacob’s most spiritual moments are ones he did not plan. He was thinking of other things, about what he was leaving behind and what lay ahead of him. He was, as it were, “surprised by God.”
Jacob is someone with whom we can identify. Not everyone can aspire to the loving faith and total trust of an Abraham, or to the seclusion of an Isaac. But Jacob is someone we understand. We can feel his fear, understand his pain at the tensions in his family, and sympathise with his deep longing for a life of quietude and peace (the sages say about the opening words of next week’s parsha that “Jacob longed to live at peace, but was immediately thrust into the troubles of Joseph”).
The point is not just that Jacob is the most human of the patriarchs but rather that at the depths of his despair he is lifted to the greatest heights of spirituality. He is the man who encounters angels. He is the person surprised by God. He is the one who, at the very moments he feels most alone, discovers that he is not alone, that God is with him, that he is accompanied by angels.
Jacob’s message defines Jewish existence. It is our destiny to travel. We are the restless people. Rare and brief have been our interludes of peace. But at the dark of night we have found ourselves lifted by a force of faith we did not know we had, surrounded by angels we did not know were there. If we walk in the way of Jacob, we too may find ourselves surprised by God.
Feeling the Fear (Vayishlach 5776)
It is one of the most enigmatic episodes in the Torah, but also one of the most important, because it was the moment that gave the Jewish people its name: Israel, one who “wrestles with God and with men and prevails.”
Jacob, hearing that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with a force of four hundred men, was terrified. He was, says the Torah, “very afraid and distressed.” He made three forms of preparation: appeasement, prayer and war (Rashi to Gen. 32:9). He sent Esau a huge gift of cattle and flocks, hoping thereby to appease him. He prayed to God, “Rescue me, I pray, from the hand of my brother” (32:12). And he made preparation for war, dividing his household into two camps so that one at least would survive.
Yet he remained anxious. Alone at night he wrestled with a stranger until the break of dawn. Who the stranger was is not clear. The text calls him a man. Hosea (12:4) called him an angel. The sages said it was the guardian angel of Esau. Jacob himself seems sure that he has encountered God himself. He calls the place where the struggle took place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face and my life was spared” (32:30).
There are many interpretations. One, however, is particularly fascinating both in terms of style and substance. It comes from Rashi’s grandson, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam, France, c.1085-1158). Rashbam had a strikingly original approach to biblical commentary. He felt that the sages, intent as they were on reading the text for its halakhic ramifications, often failed to penetrate to what he called omek peshuto shel mikra, the plain sense of the text in its full depth.
Rashbam felt that his grandfather occasionally erred on the side of a midrashic, rather than a “plain” reading of the text. He tells us that he often debated the point with Rashi himself, who admitted that if he had the time he would have written further commentaries to the Torah in the light of new insights into the plain sense that occurred to him “every day”. This is a fascinating insight into the mind of Rashi, the greatest and most famous commentator in the entire history of rabbinic scholarship.
All of this is a prelude to Rashbam’s remarkable reading of the night-time wrestling match. He takes it as an instance of what Robert Alter has called a type-scene, that is, a stylised episode that happens more than once in Tenakh. One obvious example is young-man-meets-future-wife-at-well, a scene enacted with variations three times in the Torah: in the case of Abraham’s servant and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and Tsipporah. There are differences between them, but sufficient similarities to make us realise that we are dealing with a convention. Another example, which occurs many times in Tanakh, is birth-of-a-hero-to-a-hitherto-infertile-woman.
Rashbam sees this as the clue to understanding Jacob’s night-time fight. He relates it to other episodes in Tanakh, two in particular: the story of Jonah, and the obscure episode in the life of Moses when, on his way back to Egypt, the text says that “When they were in the place where they spent the night along the way, God confronted Moses and wanted to kill him” (Ex. 4:24). Tzipporah then saved Moses’ life by giving their son a brit (Ex. 4:25-26).
It is the story of Jonah that provides the key to understanding the others. Jonah sought to escape from his mission to go to Nineveh to warn the people that the city was about to be destroyed if they did not repent. Jonah fled in a boat to Tarshish, but God brought a storm that threatened to sink the ship. The prophet was then thrown into the sea and swallowed by a giant fish that later vomited him out alive. Jonah thus realised that flight was impossible.
The same, says Rashbam, applies to Moses who, at the burning bush, repeatedly expressed his reluctance to undertake the task God had set him. Evidently, Moses was still prevaricating even after beginning the journey, which is why God was angry with him.
So it was with Jacob. According to Rashbam, despite God’s assurances, he was still afraid of encountering Esau. His courage failed him and he was trying to run away. God sent an angel to stop him doing so.
It is a unique interpretation, sobering in its implications. Here were three great men, Jacob, Moses and Jonah, yet all three, according to Rashbam, were afraid. Of what? None was a coward.
They were afraid, essentially, of their mission. Moses kept telling God at the burning bush: Who am I? They won’t believe in me. I am not a man of words. Jonah was reluctant to deliver a message from God to Israel’s enemies. And Jacob had just said to God, “I am unworthy of all the kindness and faith that You have shown me” (Gen. 32:11).
Nor were these the only people in Tanakh who had this kind of fear. So did the prophet Isaiah when he said to God, “I am a man of unclean lips.” So did Jeremiah when he said, “I cannot speak: I am a child.”
This is not physical fear. It is the fear that comes from a feeling of personal inadequacy. “Who am I to lead the Jewish people?” asked Moses. “Who am I to deliver the word of God?” asked the prophets. “Who am I to stand before my brother Esau, knowing that I will continue the covenant and he will not?” asked Jacob. Sometimes the greatest have the least self-confidence, because they know how immense is the responsibility and how small they feel in relation to it. Courage does not mean having no fear. It means having fear but overcoming it. If that is true of physical courage it is no less true of moral and spiritual courage.
Marianne Williamson’s remarks on the subject have become justly famous. She wrote:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Shakespeare said it best (in Twelfth Night):
“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”
I sometimes feel that, consciously or subconsciously, some take flight from Judaism for this very reason. Who are we to be God’s witness to the world, a light to the nations, a role model for others? If even spiritual giants like Jacob, Moses and Jonah sought to flee, how much more so you and me? This fear of unworthiness is one that surely most of us have had at some time or other.
The reason it is wrong is not that it is untrue, but that it is irrelevant. Of course we feel inadequate to a great task before we undertake it. It is having the courage to undertake it that makes us great. Leaders grow by leading. Writers grow by writing. Teachers grow by teaching. It is only by overcoming our sense of inadequacy that we throw ourselves into the task and find ourselves lifted and enlarged by so doing. In the title of a well known book, we must “feel the fear and do it anyway.”
Be not afraid of greatness: that is why God wrestled with Jacob, Moses and Jonah and would not let them escape. We may not be born great, but by being born (or converting to become) a Jew, we have greatness thrust upon us. And as Marianne Williamson rightly said, by liberating ourselves from fear, we help liberate others. That is what we as Jews are meant to do: to have the courage to be different, to challenge the idols of the age, to be true to our faith while seeking to be a blessing to others regardless of their faith.
For we are all children of the man who was given the name of one who wrestles with God and with men and prevails. Ours is not an easy task, but what worthwhile mission ever was? We are as great as the challenges we have the courage to undertake. And if, at times, we feel like running away, we should not feel bad about it. So did the greatest.
To feel fear is fine. To give way to it, is not. For God has faith in us even if, at times, even the best lack faith in themselves.
 Bereishit Rabbah 77:3.
 He sets this out in his commentary to Genesis 37:2.
 See Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative.
 Rashbam to Gen. 32:29. Rashbam also includes the episode of Bilaam, the donkey and the angel as a further instance of this type-scene.
 Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love, HarperCollins, 1992, 190.
TIMNA’S STORY – Parshat Vayishlach
I’ll tell you the least important line in the Torah.
Timna was a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz; she bore Amalek to Eliphaz. (Gen. 36:12)
Well, it’s either that or one other. How do I know? I know because Maimonides says there are no unimportant lines in the Torah. But the way he says it tells you that there actually are. Let me explain.
In Maimonides’ ‘Commentary on the Mishnah,’ there is a famous section in Tractate Sanhedrin where he first articulates what become known as the “Thirteen Principles of Faith.” These are, essentially, thirteen things that he says you have to believe in order to be faithful Jew. Things like: there is a God; there is only One God; that God created the world; etc.
Now these propositions are somewhat controversial, as Judaism is a religion that famously celebrates debate, even in critical matters of theology. Not only that, but Maimonides himself seems to contradict many of these principles in other places. Nevertheless, they caught on, and became the foundation of Jewish orthodoxy. They are now printed in most traditional prayerbooks, so that they can be recited daily.
And the eighth of these Thirteen Principles mandates belief that the Torah “is from heaven, that the whole Torah given by Moses, all of it is from the mouth of the Almighty.” In other words, God “wrote” the Torah – all of it. And to emphasize the divinity of every single line Maimonides says the following:
There is no difference between “And the descendants of Ham were Cush and Egypt” (Gen 10:6), or “Timna was the concubine [of Eliphaz]”(Gen. 36:12) and, “I am the Lord your God,” (Exod. 20:2) or “Hear O Israel [the Lord is our God the Lord is One.]” (Deut 6:4) For they were all from the mouth of the Almighty, and they are all a part of God’s perfect, pure, holy Torah of Truth.
So what he’s saying, ostensibly, is that because every word of the Torah was uttered by God, they all have equal stature as Divine Writ. Sure, from our human perspective, this line may seem more interesting or important than another – but on some essential level, every line is as holy as the next. There are no throwaway verses.
That may be so, but if you think for a moment about the verses Maimonides has chosen, you’ll see that they certainly aren’t arbitrary. “I am the Lord your God” is the first of the Ten Commandments. And ““Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is One” is the central pledge of Jewish faith, which we recite twice daily. In other words, these two lines are clearly two of the most – if not the two most – important lines in the whole Torah.
And they are clearly being contrasted with the two other verses he cites: “And the descendants of Ham were Cush and Egypt” and – the line from our parsha this week – “Timna was the concubine of Eliphaz.” Which suggests that these two lines are – at least on some level – the least important lines in the Torah.
Now what makes these two lines so lowly? Well, for one thing, they both appear in the midst of lineage records. If you’ve read the Bible before, you’ve run into these sections – I call them “the begats” – that are just long lists tracing the generations in a family tree. So, “This guy begat this guy, and then this guy begat these other guys, and then they all begat more guys.” Begat, begat, begat. And on and on and on. They are, I think it’s fair to say, some of the least exciting readings in the Torah.
But besides their just being “begat” lines – there are lots of those, after all – both of these particular lines are also giving over the lineages of men of questionable character: Ham, who was cursed by his father Noah; and Esau, who was denied a blessing by his father Isaac. So these are not only begats; these are bad begats. So maybe that’s why Maimonides picks them as paradigmatic examples of verses you would think are unimportant or lowly.
The line about Timna, however, may just edge out its partner and claim the title of the lowliest verse of all. Because on top of all these other factors, this verse also tells us that Timna was a concubine: a kept woman, of second-class status – not exactly a prostitute, but not quite a wife either. Timna’s brief mention in the family tree is a record of her disgrace.
So who was Timna? And why mention her at all, if she was so wretched? Doesn’t the Torah have better things to do than detail every sordid affair that our ancestors had, and to highlight the shame of a poor woman?
The rabbis of the Talmud wondered the same thing, and they gave us a backstory. According to them, Timna’s story is much more complicated than it appears:
Who was she? Timna was the daughter of a King. And she wanted to convert. So she came to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But they didn’t accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz son of Esau, for she said, “Better to be a maidservant to this nation than to be royalty to another nation.” (Sanhedrin 99b)
Timna, it turns out, wasn’t just a poor girl, forced by economic hardship into terrible circumstances. She was a future queen, probably wealthy and comfortable. But she left everything she had and everyone she knew because she was compelled by the vision of this new nation. She wanted to become one of them, to pledge herself to their faith, and their way of life.
But they turned her away. Why? It seems we don’t know; the record is lost. She must have tried for a long time, because look, they say she petitioned three generations of patriarchs. And we know that the children of Abraham generally were open to converts, even sought them out. But in this case, again and again, they shut her out.
They probably had their reasons. Maybe she came from a suspicious land, or was connected to dangerous people. Maybe they doubted her sincerity, or questioned her loyalties. Whatever it was, they didn’t trust her. And they turned her away.
So she went elsewhere, trying desperately to get as close as she could to the life she wanted. Struggling to survive, she finally agreed to become the concubine of a powerful man. She had no choice, it seems, but to trade her dignity for a measure of security. And then she was trapped, stuck in a life of subjugation.
And then she had a son.
The Talmud continues:
From her came Amalek, who tortured Israel. And why? Because they should not have driven her away.
Amalek. Israel’s arch-nemesis. The predatory nation that would one day attack the Children of Israel when they were at their most vulnerable, fleeing from slavery. The nation that would reappear in different forms, again and again throughout history, as a force of pure evil, hellbent on destroying Israel.
And why? Because Amalek was born into disgrace. He was the son of a concubine, always aware that he was marked, that he was seen as less than those around him. He had no inheritance. No tribe. He would have to fend for himself. So he took the only power that was available to him: violence. And he used it against the people who had made him this way. The people who had turned his mother away when she was vulnerable.
He would make them pay. He would do everything he could to destroy them.
And so the Children of Israel have had to fight the nation of Amalek “from generation to generation.” (Exod. 17) Could all of this have been avoided? Looking back, the rabbis of the Talmud seem to wish we had just let Timna in. Perhaps we could have changed the course of history, and spared ourselves centuries of violence. But then again, who knows? It’s hard to predict the future of a rewritten history.
One thing we can say, though. It turns out Maimonides was right. Every verse in the Torah is important – even the ones that seem insignificant at first. It’s easy to recognize the greatness of a line like “I am the Lord your God.” That’s the centerpiece of our faith, the very essence of who we are.
But a verse like “Timna was the concubine of Eliphaz” we just gloss over. We keep reading. We forget that the second half of the verse, “she bore Amalek to Eliphaz” may contain the seeds of our destruction. When we forget Timna’s story, we may well be putting our very existence in danger. In that sense, upon this one line rests every other line in the Torah. There is, as Maimonides said, no difference.
So we should read our Torah carefully, all of it. And we should also be very careful whom we turn away from it.
Questions for Further Discussion:
1. Is it possible to rank verses of the Torah in order of importance? What would you say is the most important verse? The least?
2. Why do you think the Torah takes time to trace family lineages?
3. Should Timna have been allowed to convert? What are legitimate reasons to turn someone away from Judaism? Or from any nation?
4. What about that other verse: And the descendants of Ham were Cush and Egypt” (Gen 10:6) ? Given what we’ve discussed above, why do you think Maimonides chose this verse as the other example of a seemingly insignificant verse?
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
SHABBAT PARASHAT VAYISHLAH – 5775 – VOICE, JUSTICE, AND RECONCILIATION
By: Rabbi Gail Labovitz,
Associate Professor of Rabbinics
“Voice, Justice, and Reconciliation”
Torah Reading: Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah Reading: Obadiah 1:1-21
In her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, one of the foundational works of 3rd wave feminism, Susan Brownmiller writes: “A female definition of rape can be contained in a single sentence. If a woman chooses not to have intercourse with a specific man and the man chooses to proceed against her will, that is a criminal act of rape.” However, she then must add in the very next sentence, “Through no fault of woman, this is not and never has been the legal definition.” (8)
Is what happens to Dinah – the daughter of Jacob and Leah – in Genesis 34 a rape according to the “female definition” – The language of verse 2 seems to suggest so, but much hinges on how one term in particular is to be understood:
וירא אתה שכם בן חמור החוי נשיא הארץ ויקח אתה וישכב אתה ויענה
And Shekhem the son of Hamor the Hivvite, the prince of the land, saw her, and he took her, and lay with her, v’ya’neha.
At the moment I have several different translations open in front of me, and in them I find the following for that last word, from the root i,n,h: “forcing her” (Everett Fox), “by force” (Etz Hayim; W. Gunther Plaut, who adds “Literally, ‘…and forced her'”), and “and raped her” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary). But then there’s the Hertz/Soncino version (which many of us grew up with in our Conservative synagogues pre-Etz Hayim): “and humbled her.” Now, perhaps this is meant to be a somewhat euphemistic, more “genteel” way of saying the same thing as the other translations suggest, but it is also worth noting the notes that appear with this verse in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, which otherwise seems to have the most blunt translation:
From the usage in Deuteronomy one can conclude that innah means ‘violate,’ not ‘rape’ (22:23-24). Consequently, the word innah should not be translated as rape, and what happened to Dinah certainly should not to be understood as an act of rape in the modern sense of the word. Rather, the term demonstrates in this passage a downward movement in a social sense, meaning to ‘debase’ or to ‘humiliate’. In this particular text, the woman has no voice, and the narrator has no interest in whether or not she consented to the sexual act. Dinah would have been considered to have been disgraced even if she had consented. (191-92)
The question of whether Dinah might have consented is apparently immaterial to the biblical narrator. What is of concern is the disgrace to her family, and more specifically to the male members thereof, her father and her brothers.
In fact, no other clue whatsoever exists in the text to indicate how Dinah might have experienced events. She does not speak or act, except to go out to “see the daughters of the land” at the outset of the chapter/story, and from there on out it is men who speak about her and act upon her as an object. Throughout the chapter, she is described almost exclusively as she relates to and is seen through the eyes of others: “Leah’s daughter whom she bore to Jacob” (v. 1), “Jacob’s daughter” (v. 3, 7, 18; similarly 5, 8), “sister” (v. 13, 14, 27, 31), and – particularly in Shekhem’s eyes, “young woman” or even “girl” (v, 3, 4, 12).
In her discussion of this parashah and the women featured in it, Ellen Frankel, in The Five Books of Miriam, emphasizes the silence of Dinah, and notes that she does not speak a word, not only here but in all of Torah.
… from the moment of my birth, I was fated to remain silent. When I was born, my name, unlike my brothers’, was announced without interpretation. When I was raped, my cries went unrecorded. When my brothers negotiated with Hamor for my hand, my wishes were not considered. And when my father, Jacob, bestowed blessings upon his children, I received none. (65-66).
Dinah is left out of the count of Jacob’s children not once but twice in the course of this parashah, in 32:23 and 35:22. She is mentioned only once more in Torah, in Genesis 46:15, as the Torah enumerates the descendants of Jacob as they prepare to move to Egypt, where Joseph serves as second in power only to Pharaoh.
And yet herein, in the process of Jacob’s family journey to Egypt, lays perhaps a small measure of justice and redemption for Dinah. For while the etymology of her name may not be explained in Torah, its connection to the word din, meaning judgment or justice, seems obvious, and surely it is some justice that she deserves.
What became of Dinah after the events of Genesis 34 – As in so many instances, what the Torah did not see fit to relate, the rabbis later imagined and expanded and elucidated through the process of midrash. According to one tradition, related in Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer and further elaborated on by later commentators, Dinah became pregnant by Shekhem, and gave birth to a daughter. The child, however, was to Dinah’s brothers a constant, shameful reminder of the events that had led to her birth (and their role in the events which followed), and they thus sought to kill her. Jacob saved her by placing a protective amulet around her neck, and she was transported by the angel Michael to Egypt. There she was adopted by a childless Egyptian priest – that is, she is one and the same as “Asenat daughter of Potiphera, priest of On” (Genesis 41:45) – eventually becoming the wife of her uncle Joseph (the rabbis actually heartily approved of such inter-family matches) who recognized her as his kin because of her amulet. Asenat is the mother of Efraim and Menasheh. And according to this midrashic version of events, then, Dinah is their grandmother, and like her brothers stands among the progenitors of the tribes of Israel – indeed, is restored to our sacred ancestry twice over, since her grandsons generate not one but two of the eventual tribes of Israel. “So Dinah is doubly blessed” (Frankel, 71).
To which I would add one more observation that occurred to me as I was preparing to write this drasha: If we accept this midrash into our sacred narrative, we can also see Dinah as achieving a much needed reconciliation within the Israelite family. This family is one that is regularly described in Genesis as divided, wife against husband, wife against wife, sibling against sibling. Jacob, whose parents (and grandparents) played favorites among their children continues the pattern himself, favoring Rachel over Leah (and both over Bilhah and Zilpah; see 33:2), and (as a consequence) the children of one over the children of the other(s). But when we restore Dinah as the (grand)mother of two of our tribes, Leah (as Asenat’s grandmother) reunites with Rachel (as Joseph’s mother) and together, through Dinah, the sisters produce Efraim and Menashah – the two siblings in Genesis who are not ever depicted as being in conflict with each other.
May we strive towards a sacred narrative in which all have a voice, and in doing so, may we find a measure of justice and reconciliation for all who need it in our broken world.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Dark Night/Bright Morning (2013/5774)
When Ya’akov comes into conflict with his brother Esav and heads for the City of Charan, Torah says, va hashemesh: the sun sets (Gen 28:11). Twenty years later, after Ya’akov leaves Charan, reconciles with his brother, and wrestles with a mysterious stranger, Torah says, vayizrach lo hashemesh, the sun shines for him (Gen 32:32). The sun sets on Ya’akov’s life as he enters Charan and rises when he leaves.
During that long metaphorical night in Charan, Ya’akov enters into an arranged marriage and a marriage of love, fathers twelve children, works as an indentured apprentice, becomes a master sheep-breeder, finally amasses enough wealth to support his large family, and leaves his father-in-law’s household with the support of both his wives.
These are the most productive years of Ya’akov’s life. How could Torah describe them as Ya’akov’s night? One answer is found in Richard Rohr’s concept of the two halves of life. In the first half, we learn to succeed at adult tasks. In the second half, we develop inner spiritual resources. Ya’akov succeeds brilliantly at first-half-of-life tasks. But the shadow of his conflict with Esav hangs over him, waiting to be healed, calling him early into second-half-of-life tasks. But Ya’akov cannot access his inner resources. Night comes to an end only when he wrestles with someone who has been a stranger to him – described in Torah simultaneously as his brother, his guardian angel, and his deeper self.
The prophet Hoshea teaches about developing inner spiritual resources (11:7-12:12). Don’t seek the answer in material things, he says. Let every part of yourself be open to God’s call: from your inner lion to your inner dove. Have compassion on yourself. Your sun will rise, as surely as day follows night.
From The Maqam Project
Vayishlach: The Service of Pillars and Altars
Returning to Beth El
Having survived the confrontation with Esau and his militia, the mysterious nighttime struggle at Peniel, the abduction of his daughter Dinah, and the battle of Shechem — Jacob finally made his way back to Beth El. Twenty years earlier, Jacob had stayed overnight in Beth El, dreaming of angels and Divine protection as he fled from his brother Esau. Now he would fulfill his decades-old promise to worship God in that holy place.
In preparation for this spiritual journey, Jacob instructed his family:
“Remove the foreign gods that are in your midst. Purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then we will rise and ascend to Beth El. There I will construct an altar to God, Who answered me in my hour of trouble, and Who accompanied me in the path that I took.” (Gen. 35:2-3)
The first time Jacob had come to Beth El, he had erected a matzeivah, a pillar to worship God. But now, Jacob built a mizbei’ach, an altar. What is the difference between worshipping God with a matzeivah and with a mizbei’ach?
The Torah later prohibits erecting a matzeivah, even if it is used to worship God (Deut. 16:22). The Sages explained that the matzeivah ‘was beloved in the time of the Patriarchs, but abhorred in the time of their descendants’ (Sifri Shoftim 146).
What brought about this change in status?
Service of the Klal
The difference between a matzeivah and a mizbei’ach is primarily a physical one. A matzeivah is a single large stone, while a mizbei’ach is an altar constructed from many stones. The switch from matzeivah to mizbei’ach indicates a paradigm shift that took place in the way God was to be served, between the time of the Patriarchs and their descendants.
Each of the three Avot — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — had his own path of serving God. Abraham served God with his overriding traits of love, kindness and hospitality. Isaac served God with awe and submission, traits he acquired at the Akeidah. And Jacob, the ‘scholarly man who dwelled in tents [of Torah],’ served God with his trait of Torah.
In the time of the Patriarchs, each of the Avot was the sole leading light of his generation. His special trait dominated the era; his path of serving God was the appropriate path for that time. This period was aptly represented by the metaphor of the matzeivah. A single stone, a single path to serve God.
As Jacob returned to the Land of Israel, however, the situation had changed. He arrived at Beth El with twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. No longer was there a single spiritual path for the generation. This was the start of a new era: the service of the klal, the collective. Each of Jacob’s sons developed his own way of serving God, based on a unique combination of the spiritual paths of the three Avot.
The Jewish people requires a variety of talents and fields of expertise. Spiritual leadership and kohanim came from the tribe of Levi. Kings and national leaders from Judah, while Issachar excelled in producing scholars and judges. Other tribes specialized in commerce, agriculture, and defending the nation.
With Jacob’s return to Beth El, the new paradigm of serving God became the mizbei’ach, composed of many stones. This was no longer a time of one single, uniform service of God. There were many paths to serve God, which joined together in one altar, as all aspired to the same goal of serving God.
‘Change Your Clothes’
With these divergent paths to serve God, however, a new problem arose. Each group may come to believe that their path is the most important, and belittle the efforts of others. Jacob realized, as they prepared to worship God with the multiple stone mizbei’ach at Beth El, that it was necessary to take special measures to unite the family.
Jacob therefore instructed his family, “Remove the foreign gods in your midst.” The Sages taught that the evil inclination is a ‘foreign god’ (Shabbat 105b). Jacob pleaded that they remove the evil inclination which makes others ‘foreign’ and estranged. We must recognize that, on the inside, we are united in purpose and soul. For this reason, the Torah refers to Jacob’s family as “seventy soul” (Ex. 1:5) — in the singular. For the souls of the Jewish people are united at their source.
It is only the externals — in deeds and actions — that separate us. Therefore Jacob requested that they purify themselves by changing their clothes. It is only the superficial exterior which conceals our true inner unity.
Then, Jacob announced, we will be ready to ascend to Beth El, and worship God together. There we will serve God using a mizbei’ach, composed of many stones and many paths — but all working together toward the same goal of serving God.
(Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 74-75)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Fun With Genealogy (2012/5773)
Do Biblical genealogies make your eyes glaze over? This week’s Edomite genealogy, filled with subtle treasures, just might change your mind.
Women appear frequently as men are identified by the names of their mothers, sisters, and wives. Two women, Timna and Oholibamah, are named as chiefs of a clan. Were the Edomites more egalitarian than the Israelites? When Leah’s daughter Dina “goes out to see the local women,” is she visiting with friends who have a great deal of social freedom?
Eight Edomite kings, who reigned before the Israelite kings, are named. The first is Bela ben Beor – whose Hebrew name differs from that of the seer Balaam ben Beor by only one letter. Are they the same person, a miraculously long-lived magician from a royal line, who can’t help but bless the Israelite tents? No, says commentator Ibn Ezra. Bela was an Edomite while Balaam was an Aramean. And despite the midrashic view that Balaam is the same person as Lavan the Aramean, common sense says he is not – though both did meet God in dreams.
Anah discovered mules living in the wilderness while he was shepherding his father’s donkeys. For his time, commentator Ramban says, his discovery that horses could mate with donkeys was considered wise. Only later did people understand that mules would be sterile; hence Torah’s later teaching that mixing species is a bad idea.
Esav’s son Reu’el named his children Nachat, Zerach, Shamah and Mizeh. Their names mean: “Joy,” “Shone” “There” “From This.” Was Reu’el happy to have children or what? Did his children feel pressured or appreciated? Would you give your children names like these?
Smile – and may Shabbat joy shine in your heart.
Torah Reading for Week of December 4-10, 2011
“Reluctant, Necessary Transformation”
By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ’04
Although the term “angel of G-d” appears 116 times in Tanach, the plural, “angels of G-d” only appears twice, both times to Yaakov, who is the focus of this parasha. The first episode occurs in Genesis 28:12, the well known dream involving a ladder with angels going up and down….UP and down, implying that the angels’ journey began here, with us, on this level of reality. Yaakov’s first encounter with angels concludes with G-d’s promise: “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15) The second occurs just a few verses before the beginning of our parasha, in Genesis 32:2, where the text states “Yaakov went on his way, and angels of G-d encountered him”. This second incident with multiple angels sets up the fulfillment of that promise by setting the stage for Yaakov’s transformation, as he is indeed on his way, returning home.
“Home” is not just a physical place, but the realm of memory, holding both the promise of comfort and the potential for renewing old conflict. Yaakov’s past history with his brother Esau, replete with trickery and deception, led him to anticipate conflict, escalating to fear as Esau approached with four hundred men.
Anthropologists find that transformations are often comprised of three phases: a preparatory phase of leaving the past behind, a liminal phase of confusion and uncertainty, and a conclusive phase, during which the transformation is publicly marked.
For Yaakov, he begins as his ‘old self’, dividing his camp to protect his assets in case he fails in battle with Esau, only praying to G-d after attempting to secure his military position, and then attempting appeasement by sending his servants with gifts. Yaakov is acting as we all do when we are reluctant to change, trying the strategies we’ve used in the past. In these situations we often use the expression ‘dragging our heels’, perhaps in reference to Yaakov, whose name is explained as meaning “holder of the heel” since he was born holding his twin brother Esau’s heel. Now, no longer protected by his troops and with reduced material wealth, fleeing Laban and fearing Esau, Yaakov begins to reassess himself.
About to start the second, liminal, stage of transformation, he voluntarily sheds his material prosperity, sending his wives, maidservants, children and all his possessions across the river Jabbok. Then, “Yaakov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”. In mysterious and bewildering encounter with the ‘ish’ (the Hebrew specifically does NOT describe this as an encounter with an angel), one wonders whether the ‘ish’ was in fact Yaakov, his past and future selves in conflict, engaged in the kind of painful identity forming experience that few choose willingly. We drag our heels when we need to change, until the pain of remaining in the past is overwhelming, and replaced by our relatively less painful anxiety about the unknown future, and we change.
In the final stage, Yaakov has been transformed: physically damaged, spiritually transformed, his arrogance replaced by humility, and with a new name, Israel, “G-d wrestler”. No longer the grasping, sneaky, resentful young man avoiding responsibility, Yaakov has grappled with his former self, struggled with his conscience, and determined to face his brother, his homeland and his G-d as a responsible adult. He is ready to return home, truly a new man, and a fitting forefather whose name we proudly carry unto this day.
The multiple angels Yaakov encountered helped him get ready for his personal metamorphosis. Let us remember that, if we are open to them, Divine messengers are available to us as well, to help facilitate life’s necessary transformations.
Small Alef poetry 4
December 5, 2011
I run to him I kiss him hug him,
over my head
a ribbon of light.
Any moment now
might erupt –
the memory that heals.
Holding his foot as we chuted toward the light,
when we touch
over my head exploding
a ribbon of dots
a ribbon of light.
Small alef: poetry
Small Alef: Poetry 5
December 5, 2011
What used to define
shed skin acquire a name
limp away –
Mr. Sometimes This Mr. Sometimes That –
With you in the ring
angel or demon
I go to the mat with God.
Small alef: poetry
Small alef; poetry 6 [Al Tira Avdi Yakov]
December 7, 2011 |
Do not be afraid
what is there to be afraid of?
Yourself transformed yourself untransformed.
When we meet again
My compassion will lift
and I will kiss you with all my heart –
A ribbon of dots over our heads.
Small alef; poetry
From American Jewish World Service
by Alana Alpert 5769
When I traveled to Ghana with AJWS during the summer of 2005, I was seeking a challenging experience. I hoped it would be an opportunity to learn, through mind and body, just a little bit about what it means to live in the Global South. I did not know just how challenging it would be; how it would force me to look at the world and myself differently; how painful it would be to see the injustice of poverty up close. Yet it is critical to seek out productive discomfort such as this, and to let the experience stay with us, change us and shape us, and lead us to action.
Jacob experiences such a life-changing encounter in Parshat Vayishlach. The night before his reconciliation with Esau, he finds himself alone and wrestles with a “man” whom the commentaries have commonly viewed to be an angel. The wrestling match is typically understood as an attack on Jacob by the angel, but Aviva Zornberg suggests that Jacob may have sought out the confrontation.1 Zornberg’s interpretation of Jacob as the instigator, stemming from a grammatical reading of the text, presents a radically different understanding of this mysterious scene: Jacob has left the comfort zone of his family and actively grapples with the unknown. The commentaries offer many interpretations for what this encounter means, but all agree that Jacob is fundamentally changed by it.
During their wrestling, the angel injures Jacob’s thigh. Some commentators say that he will always limp, and the pain stays with him the rest of his life.2 Jacob learns that it is not enough to have had this strange and intense experience. He says to the angel, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”3 The blessing he receives is a new name, one fitting to the experience: he will be called Israel “because [he] has striven with beings divine and human.”4 Because of Jacob’s name change, his identity is now intertwined with this encounter and he becomes defined by it: as someone who “strives”—or struggles—with both the moral and the human.
Our own moral and human struggles—like my transformative encounter in Ghana—are rarely marked with physical pain or public changes. Yet they are often emotionally painful and visceral. We feel the pain of new and uncomfortable knowledge. Visiting the Global South, we learn that rights that we take for granted, such as education, are not afforded to all. We realize that millions of children are malnourished. We witness the debilitating effects of lack of health care. And perhaps most painfully, we realize that our societies are complicit in these injustices. And though the pain dulls, as did Jacobs’, we carry with us the emotional scars.
Our challenge, since we are lacking something as concrete as a new name or a limp, is to retain the sharpness and urgency of life-changing experiences that tend to fade over time when we return to every-day life. We need a way to hold on to these experiences, to make our discomfort productive, to lead us to take action. Zornberg goes on to say that “[Jacob] wants to become Israel, by mastering the angel. The wrestling match is an occasion for clarification, for discovery of the parameters of personal power.”5 Our own wrestling with injustice should help us gain clarity and discovery; to find our full “personal power” as change-makers.
One way to do this is to share the experience and help others to be transformed. While Jacob’s injured thigh was an internal reminder of his transformative encounter, his change of name was a public sign that would become the name for the entire Jewish people. In this case, the power of an individual’s experience affects the consciousness of the collective. We learn from this that it is not enough to wrestle alone; rather, we must push others within our communities and governments to act as well.
Let us not only witness hunger, disease and poverty. Let us be transformed by what we have encountered and, with our communities, let us go to our personal limits to seek domestic and global change. The name “Israel” is descriptive and prescriptive. To be a Jew is to be as Jacob: to struggle, to be transformed and stretched by experience, and to inspire a nation defined by action.
And as Jacob realizes when he says, “I have seen a divine being face to face”, the struggle is holy.
And Jacob remained alone (32:25)
This is because the righteous know that their material possessions contain “sparks of holiness” which are redeemed and elevated when the object or resource they inhabit is utilized to fulfill the Divine will. The righteous person sees these sparks of Divine potential as virtual extensions of his own soul, since he understands that the very fact that Divine Providence has caused them to come into his possession indicates that their redemption is integral to his mission in life.
(The Chassidic Masters)
And [Jacob] prostrated himself to the ground seven times, until he came close to his brother… And the maidservants and their children drew near and prostrated themselves. And Leah and her children drew near and prostrated themselves, and after [them], Joseph and Rachel drew near and prostrated themselves (33:3-7)
When Mordechai refused to bow to Haman, they said to him: “You’re going to get us all killed! How dare you go against the decree of the king?”
Said Mordechai: “I am a Jew.”
Said they to him: “Did not [our] forefathers bow to his forefather?”
Replied Mordechai: “I am a descendant of Benjamin, who was in his mother’s womb at that time. Just as my forefather did not bow, so, too, I shall not kneel nor bow.”
And Timna was a concubine to Eliphaz, Esau’s son, and she bore to Eliphaz Amalek (36:12)
Manasseh the son of Hezekiah examined Biblical narratives to prove them worthless. Thus he jeered: Had Moses nothing better to write than, “And Lotan’s sister was Timna… And Timna was concubine to Elifaz”?
What, indeed, is the Torah’s purpose in writing, “And Lotan’s sister was Timna”?
Timna was a royal princess, as it is written (Genesis 36:29), “Duke Lotan.” Desiring to become a proselyte, she went to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but they did not accept her. So she went and became a concubine to Elifaz the son of Esau, saying, “I would rather be a servant to this people than a mistress of another nation.” From her was descended Amalek who afflicted Israel. Why so? Because they should not have repulsed her.
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 99b)
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas VayishlachRav Reconnecting – Re-establishing bonds
This week’s Torah reading opens with Yaakov/Jacob returning home after many years of exile. He had left to escape the wrath of his brother Esav/Esau who wished to kill him.
Yaakov is returning to make peace with his brother. He begins by sending messengers, or “angels.” These angels represent his pure thoughts of love towards his brother. The message comes back to Yaakov that Esav is approaching with an army of 400 men.
Yaakov prepares himself and his family for war, prays for guidance, and finally encounters Esav.
Upon seeing Esav approach, Yaakov “prostrated himself to the ground seven times, until he came close to him, to his brother. And Esav ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (32:3-4)
Something crucial changed between Esav’s approach for battle and his subsequent embrace of Yaakov.
Between war and embrace, there were the 7 prostrations of Yaakov – and this seems to change the whole relationship between the brothers.
When a person prostrates themselves, they are physically breaking the straight line of their body, and this spiritually represents a breaking of kelipah/ concealment,(Kidushin 29b) a movement that allows for a seemingly immutable outer reality to crumble and a new reality, that reflects an inner truth, to emerge.
7 represents the natural order of the world, the outer concealment that hides the miraculous. By prostrating seven times, Yaakov breaks the old reality that seemed so unshakeable and revealed the truth of their story – the natural love between brothers that was always there beneath the concealments.
“Until he came close to him, to his brother”
He prostrates himself until he can reach “his brother” not the external Esav who now hates him, but the inner Esav, his twin brother.
This works, and Esav responds from love, they kiss and embrace.
The Energy of the Week:Re-establishing bonds. Healing Rifts
This week give us the strength to heal relationships with others, particularly family, that may have been marred in the past.
The actions of Yaakov sets a map for a way that we can reconnect. Reach out carefully, being aware of the hard feelings and the need to break through. Sending messengers, or messages if you will, is a way to begin.
Preparing for ‘war’ represents an understanding that you are only one half of the equation, and if the good will is not reciprocated, you may have to acknowledge defeat, and wait for another time.
Prayer represents a reaching out beyond yourself – understanding that there is something greater than yourself and your estranged friend or family in this picture, and that it will affect a change for good in the entire universe if this rift is healed.
And finally there is the need to prostrate – to humble our voice that wishes to hold on to an old reality and break free of what we have felt to be true until now. Thus revealing a deeper truth that has been there all along.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
November 15th, 2010 |
Holy Shabbes Inspiration Vayishlach
in which Peniel, the face of God, becomes the site of a wrestle,
Jacob the heel becomes Yisrael
the God wrestler
Yakov to Yisrael transformed –
the limp a sign.
No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob but Israel
for you have striven sarita im Elohim
wrestled with God
and with human beings
and have overcome. [Gen.32:29]
The root sin resh heh used only one other time in this form
in the entire Hebrew Bible.
Yisrael hundred of times –
but the verb form, this form, is used twice,
here and in Hosea.
The one who strives wrestles with God?
Why don’t we find it everywhere as a verb?
Jacob the only wrestler with God in the Bible?
I don’t think so.
We are all wrestlers with God
we are all of us
all the time
going to the mat with Hashem.
All of us striving struggling wrestling
so let’s not pay too much attention to that
he is both.
Here’s the deal:
Can a person overcome character
the capacity to transform
to change so radically that what formerly defines
now limits, can someone shed old skin acquire a new name
limp away from the confrontation bearing
the mark of transformation in his walk?
He does, Mr. Sometimes Jacob Sometimes Israel –
we do –that’s always the point.
The price for transformation —
your angel or your demon beckons you into the ring
lets you know you won’t be getting out
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler
A Teaching from Gershon…
Our teachers of old tell us that when our ancestor Ya’akov (Jacob) wrestled with the angel of his brother Ey’sav that momentous night, the two grappled so hard with one another to the point that the dust of their struggle rose high enough to reach the throne of God itself, so to speak, the highest and most beyondest of all the realms. Desperate, the angel finally struck Ya’akov’s sciatic nerve (Genesis 32:26), but Ya’akov still held onto him. The angel then pleaded with him to release him and send him on his way “because dawn was rising” (Genesis 32:27). Said Ya’akov: “What are you — some kind of thief that you have to sneak away before the light of dawn?” Replied the angel: “No, no, it’s not that at all. It’s just that from the time I was created I’ve waited for this very moment to sing a song that can be sung only in this very moment” (Talmud Bav’li, Chulin 91a). It was then that Ya’akov said to the angel: “I will not send you on your way unless you bless me” which he did, and then ascended.
Wow. Some wrestling match. So violent that the dust of the two rose to the highest realms of the heavens, the very throne of God, so that the divine realm was covered in the sands of the Canaanite desert! Not only that, but Jewish people are forbidden from eating the sciatic nerve of any animal because Ya’akov was struck there by the angel, and it caused him to limp! That is the reason given (Genesis 32:32-33). And what is this thing about the angel of Ey’sav’s singing debut coinciding exactly with his mission of engaging Ya’akov in combat?
Okay. Time for a little blend of Kabbalah and oral tradition.
This angel, this spirit, is believed to have been Sama’el, the trickster angel who wreaks havoc on us; who calls our bluff, tests our conviction. We can wrestle all we want with this force and get absolutely nowhere. Like running inside a hamster wheel. We can resist and we can overcome and we can overpower and we can overwhelm the forces in life that challenge us, and cling tenaciously to them in the guise of winning. Meaning, we presume that we are winning by virtue of the fact that the opposition is not winning.
Ya’akov figured he was winning because he had the angel in a hold. The angel then demonstrates to Ya’akov something very important. Hold on too long with the illusory presumption that you’ve got it all under control, and you’ll end up limping. Your sciatica, your capacity for maintaining balance in your life walk, will be affected, and you will never walk the same again. What is the remedy? None, as those with sciatica know well enough. What ought you to do, then? Do what Ya’akov did. Instead of saying “Ouch! Shit! What the…” he said: “Bless me.” In other words, in that moment, Ya’akov was struck not only by sciatica but also by an epiphany, a sudden realization that what hurts, what shoves at us, what wars against us, is comprised of heaven and earth, of the potential for evil and the potential for good. The angel he fought with came with the capacity to become enrobed in the cloak of wickedness as well as that of saintliness. It was up to Ya’akov to choose which, to shift perspective. And once he did, so did the angel, and the fighting morphed into dialogue and then into resolution. At first, “a man wrestled with him” (Genesis 32:25) and in the end it was “the face of God” (Genesis 32:31).
The metaphor of the dust from the struggle reaching the heavens is about Ya’akov reaching above and beyond his subjective experience with his opponent to acknowledge that his opponent is reversible and is as capable of good as he is of evil (16th-century Rabbi Yeshayahu ben Avraham in Sefer Ha’Sh’lah ahl Sefer Bereisheet, Parashat Va’Yish’lach, Torah Ohr). Not being naïve, he did not release his grip on that basis alone. He was not a leftist liberal, nor was he a right-wing hawk. He embraced this acknowledgment and then tested his opponent to see whether his opponent shared the integrity of being willing, as was he, to shift his perspective. “Bless me,” he said. “See me differently. Dare to shift your perspective.” And indeed the spirit of Ey’sav his brother did exactly that and renamed him Yees’ra’el: “No longer shall your name be called ‘He Who Follows at the Heel’, but your name shall be called Yees’ra’el, for you have wrestled with both Angel and Mortal, and you demonstrated that you could – that you knew how.” And Ya’akov then sees his brother, whom he had demonized and feared all these many years, as divine! “For I have seen your face like the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).
Of course it was such a moment, and such a moment alone that was worthy of the song of Ey’sav’s angel. Since the moment he was created, he had waited for this moment, this intersection of a choice and an action by a mortal that would reach the throne of God itself. It was perfect! “Send me away now,” the angel pleaded, “so that I might sing that very song for which I have been waiting all of my existence; the song I may never ever have gotten to sing were it not for your choice – even in the heat of battle, even in the desperation of survival — to transcend your long-entrenched patterns to see in me alternate possibility. So send me away now, kee alah ha’shachar [literally: for the blackness has lifted] and I can now finally sing that song.”
Next day — “And Ey’sav ran toward Ya’akov and embraced him and fell on his shoulders and kissed him and wept” (Genesis 33:4) – the same Ey’sav who years before had vowed to kill Ya’akov (Genesis 27:41) for snatching a blessing from their father that had been intended for Ey’sav (Genesis 27:35).
This is the song God waits to sing. Because, after all, angels are spirit-embodied manifestations of the will of God. On a core level, Ya’akov wrestled with God Itself, as Ya’akov himself declared after the match: “For I have seen God face to face” (Genesis 32:31). In that moment, when we each are capable of moving ourselves beyond our little worlds and lift the veil of darkness that blinds us from alternating our perspective – it is for that moment alone that God waits to sing a song that can only be sung then. This is the response of our people — through millennia of our exile into alien lands and cultures – to the ancient question posed by the psalmist: “How can we sing the Song of God in the land of strangers?” (Psalms 137:4). We found a way. We wrestled with our perspective. We became skilled tailors, and invented reversible jackets. And we steered clear of eating the sciatic nerve so that we would never forget. And thus we continue to limp, so that we would always remember.
I find it poignant and healing that while Rachel died in childbirth near Bethlehem exiled from the burial place of her family, in death she became a symbol of comfort for the Jewish exile. Rabbi Jill Hammer, in two places in The Jewish Book of Days describes Rachel’s legacy.
Joseph at Rachel’s Tomb
According to a medieval work, Sefer ha-Yashar, after Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, Joseph has an encounter with the spirit of his mother, Rachel. Part of a slave caravan bound for Egypt, Joseph has no home, nothing to comfort him, nothing to remind him of who he is. When the slave caravan passes his mother’s tomb, he breaks away from his captors and weeps on Rachel’s grave, pleading for her help. Rachel’s spirit tells Joseph he is on the right path, even though he is suffering. After this encounter, Joseph is able to accept his circumstances with courage.
Source cited: Sefer Ha-Yashar, Vay-yeshev
Rachel Pleads for Her Children
The Talmud imagines that the exile to Babylon is the result of a spiritual crisis. The Holy One is angry with the people for worshiping other gods, and sends them into exile. The patriarchs plead for the people’s redemption without success. Rachel, however, does not plead. Instead she reminds the Eternal of how she planned to marry Jacob, yet helped her elder sister, Leah, marry him instead. Caught between her love for her sister and her love for her future husband, Rachel chooses to protect her vulnerable sister. She even hides under the bed so that Jacob will hear Rachel’s voice while he lies with Leah, “If I can overcome my jealousy for rivals,” Rachel says to the Holy One, “why can’t you?” Shamed, the Eternal promises to redeem the people.
Sources cited: Jeremiah 31:15-17 (Rachel weeping for her children)
Lamentations Rabbah, Prologue 24
What I take from these stories about Rachel is that we never know for sure what our legacies will be. May they be a source of comfort and blessing for those who come after us.
Teaching From Rav Kook
VaYishlach: Reliance on Miracles
Miracles were no novelty for Rabbi Zeira. The Talmud in Baba Metzia 85a elates that the third-century scholar fasted for a hundred days in order to protect himself from the fires of hell. But Rabbi Zeira was not content with theoretical preparations. Once a month he would test himself by itting down in a burning furnace, to see if he would feel the heat. He didn’t. (Once his clothes were singed, but that story is for another time.)
Yet, on very windy days, Rabbi Zeira was careful not to walk among the palm-trees, lest a strong wind should knock a tree over. His caution in orchards seems bizarre. Why should a man who can sit unharmed in a burning furnace be concerned about the possibility of a falling tree?
The Talmud [Shabbat 32a] counsels the following attitude towards miracles:
“One should never put himself in a dangerous situation and say, ‘A miracle will save me.’ Perhaps the miracle will not come. And even if a miracle occurs, one’s merits are reduced.”
The Sages learned that one should not rely on miracles from Jacob. When Jacob returned home after twenty years in Laban’s house, he greatly feared meeting his brother Esau. He prayed to God, “I am unworthy of all the kindness and faith that You have shown me” [Gen. 32:11]. The Sages explained Jacob’s prayer in this way: “I am unworthy due to all the kindness and faith that You have shown me.” Your miracles and intervention have detracted from my merits.
We need to examine this concept. What is so wrong with relying on miracles? Does it not show greater faith? And why should miracles come at the expense of one’s spiritual accomplishments?
The Function of Skepticism
Skepticism is a natural, healthy trait. Miracles can have a positive moral influence, but they also have a downside. Reliance on miracles can lead to a weakened or even warped sense of reality.
At certain times in history, God disrupted natural law in order to increase faith and knowledge. However, this intervention in nature was always limited as much as possible, in order that we should not belittle the importance of personal effort and initiative. This is where skepticism fulfills its purpose. Our natural inclination to doubt the occurrence of miracles helps offset these negative side effects, keeping us within the framework of the naturally-ordered world, which is the greatest good that God continually bestows to us. It is preferable that we do not rely on divine intervention, but rather say, ‘Perhaps a miracle will not occur.’
Miracles and Nature
Ultimately, both miracles and natural events are the work of God. So how do they differ? A miracle occurs when we are unable to succeed through our own efforts. By its very nature, a miracle indicates humanity’s limitations, even helplessness. When miracles occur, we are passive, on the receiving end.
Natural events are also the work of God, but they are achieved through our skill, initiative, and effort. When we are active, we spiritually advance ourselves by virtue of our actions. Our zechuyot (merits) are the result of the positive, ethical deeds that we have performed. We should strive for an active life of giving, not a passive one of receiving. Such an engaged, enterprising life better fulfills God’s will – the attainment of the highest level of perfection for His creations.
Jacob ‘used up’ merits when he required God’s intervention to protect him from Laban and Esau. He admitted to God, “I am unworthy due to all the kindness and faith that You have shown me.” But Jacob later regained spiritual greatness through his active struggle against the mysterious angel. “For you have struggled with angels and men, and have overcome them” [Gen. 32:29].
[Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 70-72. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 166-168]
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
(And He Sent)
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok. He is injured and is given a new name and finally reconciles with his brother.
JACOB’S JOURNEY FOLLOWS the course of the ego’s development. Due to the nature of physical embodiment, the soul develops an ego to deal with our helplessness as infants. The ego emerges as a response to the challenge of having to squeeze a vast soul into a particular and limited form.
The small self (Jacob) is sent on a journey to rediscover its essential nature – Soul. Jacob, as ego, is the wheeler/dealer employing every manipulation to get what he needs to survive. On the journey home to the land of the soul, there comes a point where all the manipulations of the ego become useless and irrelevant; and one must stand naked and vulnerable before the truth. In that moment it is possible to receive the blessing of a closer identity with soul, allowing great access to the inner realms and opening the doors to a deeper level of self.
As Jacob journeys home, his past deceptions haunt him and he must confront his own twin brother, the one he had so cruelly deceived and desperately fears. Jacob’s fear is multiplied by guilt and shame about becoming such a con-man. All his manipulations have only strengthened the false self, and that false self must shore itself up with defenses, for it projects the only reality that the ego knows.
Before meeting Esau (who embodies Jacob’s past catching up with him), Jacob (as ego shoring up the false self) does everything possible to ensure his own survival. Jacob gathers intelligence, prepares a stratagem of escape in the event of battle, sends a generous gift of appeasement, and prays to God. Finally, after all his manipulations, Jacob is left alone.
All night long Jacob wrestles with a mystery. All his cunning and defenses are wrested from him that night. He is held in the grip of truth as layers of false self fall away, revealing, at the break of dawn, the soul’s hidden radiance.
ALL THROUGH THE DARK NIGHT we wrestle until our wrestling becomes a dance, and the dance an embrace. At dawn the embrace calls forth a blessing. We are given a new name, and that name represents our true essence. Our new name is the call of the soul. Who am I beneath this personality? Who was there before birth and will survive physical deterioration and death? By identifying with that aspect of existence, which is eternal, we can let our personality be shaped and refined by the power, wisdom and perspective of soul.
The blessing of that dark night on the banks of the river Jabbok is in the name we receive. A true name signifies and holds our essence. It calls forth our true power and sends us on a path towards remembrance.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
EVEN AFTER JACOB RECEIVES THE BLESSING of his new name, “Israel,” a reminder of soul-identity, he is still Jacob. For the rest of his story he is called by both names. Even after moments of profound awakening we oftentimes slip back into the habitual manipulations of ego. Even as we awaken the power of soul, we find ourselves tangled in the web that our ego has woven.
Jacob’s sons continue his pattern of deception. Even as Israel he must deal with the karmic legacy of his past. The spiritual challenge is to anchor ourselves in the glimpse of soul we receive. From such points of remembrance, we can face the challenge of acting righteously and responding from our soul wisdom in this moment, despite our shortcomings and flaws.
During Jacobs’s night of wrestling with a mystery, he was injured. Through that injury, God reveals to Jacob the true nature of his flaws. The touch of that moment of Truth left him with a limp, a constant reminder. Thus the inflated ego is humbled. We all need to be vigilant of the tendency of the ego towards inflation and self-deception. As we learn and accept the limitations of our physical, emotional and intellectual powers, the infinite spiritual reality is opened to us. As those doors open, the spiritual challenge is to let go of past identities as we step out of the confines of small self and expand into the unknown.
For Guideline for Practice please click on the link to the website.
From Aviela Barclay Soferet
Be-reyshit/Genesis 33:4, Parshat Va-yishlach has a scribal peculiarity in the word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ va-yishaqeyhu, “and kissed him”. It can be found here in the following Chumashim:
Plaut p.219, Cohen p.201, Hertz p.125, Sforno p.181, JPS p.52, Jerusalem p.38, Stone p.176
Here we have Ya’aqov and Esav reuniting after decades of separation, having spent their lives competing against each other and defining themselves as so different from the other. The last time they saw one another was when Ya’aqov bought Esav’s Firstborn Birthright for a bowl of lentils, after which Ya’aqov usurped Esav’s blessing from their father Yitz’chaq and then hightailed it back to Paddan-Aram, to his mother Riv’qah’s family, about ten miles east of Damascus.
Ya’aqov was returning home from exile to Israel, and to mend his relationship with his only sibling. A sibling with whom he defined what he was not. What am I? I am not him. It took twenty years of being away from each other for the brothers to finally meet as who they were, instead of who they were not. An intense narrative which many of us share.
וַיָּרָץ עֵשָׂו לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבְּקֵהוּ, וַיִּפֹּל עַל-צַוָּארָו וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ; וַיִּבְכּוּ.
And Esav ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him; and they wept.
Va-yaratz Eysav liq’rato va-yechab’qeyhu, va-yipol al tzavarav va-yishaqeyhu; va-yiv’ku.
The word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ va-yishaqeyhu has six dots, one over each letter. Why?
What does this mean?
We are taught by several sources (Avot deRebbe Natan, Rav Hayim David HaLevi, among others) that where dots appear in our Holy writings that it means we are meant to either erase the word from the text altogether, or to apply its opposite meaning.
For example, perhaps the pasuq, the verse, is meant to read only, “And Esav ran to meet him and embraced him, and fell on his neck; and they wept”, with no mention of a kiss.
Or, maybe this brotherly kiss was really something else? It is explained by the Rabbis that Esav did not sincerely kiss his brother Ya’aqov, rather he would have preferred to (Ba’al Ha-Turim; Avot deRebbe Natan 30b) give him a נְשִׁיכָה neshikhah, a bite – these two words have a similar sound. This was not a true reconciliation on Esav’s part.
The root of the word “kiss”, נִשֵּׁק, can also mean just to meet up with someone, or to get together casually (נָשַׁק). However, it can also mean “weapon”, נֶשֶׁק, which is a word you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever entered an Israeli shopping mall, because the security guards with the metal detectors you have to pass through will search your bag and ask you if you have a nesheq, gun. It can also mean “to sting”, like a scorpion.
Sibling rivalry is tough! Be-reyshit/Genesis 25:22-23 teaches us that these two boys had been fighting in utero! And now they embrace after so many years, and it stung them…
Alternatively, according to R’ Shim’on ben Eleazar, this was the only time Esav was genuinely expressing his affection for his brother, and all other times it had been insincere.
So what do we do with this word? What do you think?
Copyright © A. Barclay.
Cross-posted at Mah Omeret Ha-Soferet
Diane Elliot writes
What a beautiful and apt drash! I bless you that your “va’yishlakh” awareness continues to grow and illumine you for many, many years to come, ad meah v’esrim. This week I’ve also been thinking much about the many dualities that Ya’akov’s life and character hold in suspension. He is born a twin, set over-against his brother by the polarities between his mother and father; his life spans the gap between east (Haran, old consciousness) and west (Canaan, new consciousness); he marries two women, sisters who embody seemingly opposite qualities (Leah, p’nimyut or inwardness, and Rachel, khitzoniyut, external beauty, according to some hasidic commentators); and when push comes to shove,as he moves toward reunification with the split-off part of himself that has become his “enemy” (Esau), he is seized by a “yetzer” (32:8)–an impulse born of fear– to divide his camp in two. Yet, despite (or perhaps because of!)all these splits, Ya’akov’s very name speaks of the relatedness of actions and events: Ya’akov, from ekev, “heel,” can also mean “to follow on the heels of,” i.e. to have consequences. So, in some way, Ya’akov’s spiritual task is to teach himself and us about karma, about how we create, live with, and grow from the consequences of our acts, through the holding of seeming irreconcilable differences in the face of the larger Unity. This week I had an insight that Ya’akov is associated with the sephira of Tiferet not because he so perfectly embodies harmony, but because it is his spiritual challenge. His life teaches us something about how to move from the jumping back and forth we often do between mokhin d’gadlut (expanded mind, Yisrael) and mokhin d’katnut (contracted mind, Ya’akov)into integrated awareness (Tiferet, harmony). When Ya’akov says “yesh li kol,” it strikes me that he is saying that at this moment,fresh from his wrestling match with the “ish,” his life, his learning, his encounters with Holiness and with self have all converged to lead him to a place of grace (Shabbat!), where he can hold the Unitive consciousness fully and perceive G~d’s Light shining through even the densest dark, even the most difficult person, even his brother, even himself. Of course, he doesn’t stay there, as none of us can…. Thank you for your gift of insight, Aryae, and happy birthday!
Reb Sholom Brodt
YAAKOV THE WRESTLER
32:23. He got up that night and took his two wives, his two handmaids, and his eleven children, and crossed over the ford of the Yabbok [River].
32:24. He [then] took them and crossed them over the stream. He [also] sent over all that he possessed.
32:25. Yaakov remained alone. A man wrestled with him until daybreak.
32:26. He [the stranger] saw that he could not defeat him, and he struck the socket of his hip, Yaakov’s hip joint was dislocated as he wrestled with him.
32:27. He [the angel/man] said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.”
After wrestling all night long, Yaakov finally forced Eisav’s arch-angel to concede the rights to their father’s blessings.
He [Yaakov] said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Eisav’s angel/man then gives his “blessing” – a rather unusual blessing – 32:28. He [the angel/ man] said to him, “What is your name?” And he replied, “Yaakov.”
32:29. He [the man] said, “No longer will your name be spoken of as Yaakov, but as Yisrael, for you have contended with God[ly beings] and with men, and you have won.”
The Kloisenburger rebbe zt”l thus raises two questions. Surely it is not this angel/man who is changing Yaakov’s name; it is Hashem who will soon change his name, as we read further on in the parsha. >
35:9 G-d again appeared to Yaaakov, when he came from Padan-aram, and He blessed him.
35:10 G-d said to him, “Your name is Yaakov. No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisrael will be your name;” and He named him Yisrael.
35:11 G-d said to him, “I am G-d Almighty. Be fruitful and increase, a nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come out of your loins.
Thus it seems, that all that Eisav’s arch-angel is doing, is informing Yaakov that his name was going to be changed from Yaakov to Yisrael, explaining – “for you have contended with godly beings and with men, and you have won.” (Bereishis 32:29) What kind of blessing is this? And furthermore why did he choose to inform Yaakov about his upcoming name change?
The last Kloisenburger Rebbe, ztz”l, told and answered his questions with this story:
Once on a Friday afternoon, it was Erev Shabbos, when the terrible news reached the Baal Shem Tov. In a certain town, the ‘paritz’, who was a fierce anti-Semite, ordered the Jews to either convert to Christianity or die. Most of the yidden gave their lives ‘al kiddush Hashem’ and there were a few who didn’t have the strength to do so. The paritz was so evil that he even murdered those who had converted. This was the tragic news that reached the Baal Shem Tov that Friday afternoon.
Immediately, the Baal Shem Tov threw himself on the floor of the Beit Midrash, in front of the Aron ha-Kodesh. He was screaming and crying: Ribbono Shel Olam! Master of the Universe, if this is how You chose to conduct Your world, that You allow such cruel tragedies to come upon us, and You even kept it secret from me, not giving me a chance to pray, a chance to divert the decree, a chance to try and save my brothers and sisters, then please take me away from here, i no longer want to be here.
The Baal Shem Tov remained there sobbing on the floor, surrounded by his students, for a very long time. Shabbos was getting closer and closer, but the Rebbe did not get up. It was already time to go to the ‘mikveh’ and get dressed for Shabbos, but the Baal Shem Tov, did not get up. He lay there with his face to the floor, crying, refusing to get up. The ‘Talmidim’, the Baal Shem’s holy students were stunned, not knowing what to do. It was already time to light the Shabbos candles, to welcome the Shabbos Queen, to pray, to sing and dance and rejoice, but the Baal Shem Tov did not get up!
Late late at night, maybe it was already one or two hours after midnight, the talmidim heard their Rebbe say: “Good Shabbos Adam Harishon.” A few moments later they heard him say: “Good Shabbos Avraham Avinu”. “Good Shabbos Yitzchak Avinu …. Yaakov Avinu…. Moshe Rabbeinu”; and so he was heard saying Good Shabbos to all the holy shepherds, but he still did not get up. He stopped crying and remained on the floor for a while longer, in deep silence. Finally he got up and dressed for Shabbos, as did his ‘talmidim’ and they welcomed the Shabbos.
After Shabbos was over the Baal Shem Tov told his holy students that he had decided that he was not going to get up for Shabbos, and then Adam and all the holy shepherds came to comfort him and to try and make peace between him and Hashem, but he refused; until the Holy Shechinah itself came and promised him that something like this would never happen again. Only then did i get up to welcome Shabbos.
Further the Baal Shem Tov instructed his students to prepare themselves with a certain deep meditation, which they were not to interrupt and to ensure that under no circumstances would they to succumb to even the slightest thoughts of haughtiness. They were to sit in an open circle and lift their hats up to expose their foreheads and meditate deeply. He told them that the evil one would be arriving soon, for he was going to confront him, and he, the Baal Shem tov needed his students to do this meditation during the confrontation.
They entered into the meditation as they were instructed and the evil one arrived, dressed as a peasant. The Ball Shem Tov said to him how dare he to have forced these Jews to both convert and then kill them! The evil one explained that since those who had converted would consequently suffer terribly in Hell, he therefore decided to do them a ‘favor’ and reduce their suffering by killing them in this world. [Here, the Kloisenburger Rebbe gave a sad chukle, saying, “Such are the ‘favors’ of the Satan!”]
They continued to argue for a while [the rebbe did not recount the rest of it] and then the evil one got up to leave. Before he left, he approached the circle of the Baal Shem Tov’s students, who were meditating all the while. He walked about inside their circle looking at them intensely, saying “Gevaldt! It’s been a long time since I have seen such a gathering of holy souls.” But the students of the Baal Shem Tov did not pay any attention to him. He repeated once more, “What an amazing circle of holy people – just awesome!” But they did not succumb to his temptations, and he then disappeared.
The Kloisenburger Rebbe then explained that before leaving, the satan made one last attempt at knocking the Baal Shem Tov off – by trying to seduce his students with haughtiness.
And this too was the intention of Eisav’s arch-angel [thereby answering the above two questions]. Seeing that he was not able to overcome Yaakov, he made one more attempt at knocking him off with haughtiness, by telling him, “You are so awesomely holy – in fact it is already known in the supernal realms that “No longer will your name be spoken of as Yaakov, but as Yisrael, for you have contended with God[ly beings] and with men, and you have won.” But Yaakov Avinu did not succumb to him.
The Kloisenburger Rebbe then concluded that indeed such a double tragedy, whereby Jews were both forced to convert and subsequently murdered, never did occur again.] Zy”a.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Beyond binaries: Jacob and Israel (Radical Torah repost) 2006
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.
This may be the most dramatic moment in this week’s portion, Vayishlach. In many ways it’s the pinnacle of this particular story: Jacob spends the night wrestling with this stranger, this divine messenger, and at the end of the night Jacob receives a new name as a blessing for having “prevailed.” What does that mean to us, and what can we learn from Jacob’s injury — and what can we take away from Jacob’s new name?
I want first to look at the last few words of the quotation with which I began this post. Sarita im-elohim v’im-anashim vatuchal, the Hebrew says: “You have striven with God and man and have prevailed.” That’s how most English versions render it, though I think the Hebrew has a different tone, indicating simply that Jacob was able. Able to what? Perhaps to endure — to remain in the struggle.
Though the English translation suggests winning, I don’t think that connotation is present in the Hebrew. This story isn’t about Jacob besting the mysterious stranger; they didn’t wrestle for best two matches out of three, or even the best of their single night-long contest. Jacob “prevailed” in remaining in the moment, in the struggle, even though doing so meant enduring some pain. Jacob prevailed because he stayed in it.
Because Jacob didn’t relinquish the struggle, he wound up with a hip out of joint. Thereafter, the text tells us, Jacob walked with a pronounced limp. A record of the struggle was written on his very body, a souvenir he carried with him for the rest of his days. At the beginning of his life, Jacob is described as an ish tam, a simple or homespun man — though that adjective can also mean “perfect.” After this wrestle, Jacob is no longer perfect; his body is blemished, scarred by his encounter.
Jacob’s wound arises out of his engagement with the world, with this mysterious stranger, with the presence of God. Like Jacob, we too may find that the experiences where we find God, our engaged periods of wrestling with reality, leave us scarred and limping. The only way to avoid injury altogether is to avoid the world, and that kind of disengagement is not the path Judaism valorizes. Jacob received the blessing of the new name because he was willing to struggle; because he was present to the moment, even though that moment hurt.
And what of Jacob’s new name? Henceforth, the text tells us, he will be known as Yisrael, he who wrestles with God. There are myriad drashot which hinge on this name change. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev reads “Yisrael” anagramatically as “Yashar El” and “Li Rosh” (“straight to God” and “God is at my head / the forefront of my consciousness.”) He suggests that Yisrael-consciousness is connected with God at all times. (Jacob-consciousness, in contrast, is mundane and boundaried. Perhaps it arises out of Jacob’s continual grasping, which began even in the womb.)
It’s a beautiful teaching, which would seem supported if Jacob were known only as Israel from that point on (like some of his forebears whose names changed — once Abram becomes Abraham, his old name vanishes.) But in the remainder of Jacob’s story, he is known by both names, Yaakov and Yisrael. What gives? Did the name change, and the essence-change it’s meant to reflect, somehow not stick?
Another possibility is that his two names, and the two states of consciousness that they reflect, are important and valuable to us precisely because of the ambiguity they allow. Jacob earns the new name because he’s open to transformation, but that transformation is neither instantaneous nor irrevocable; it’s something he has to continue working at, a process rather than an endpoint. As a result, he’s continually oscillating between his two sides, the part of him which lives in duality (Jacob) and the part of him which lives in continual awareness of the presence of God (Yisrael.) In a sense, his real new name is the back-and-forth between the two sides of who he is.
That oscillation should be recognizable to us, because it’s something we experience too. Sometimes I live, and act, out of my highest self which is aware of God’s presence in all things; sometimes I don’t. Like Jacob/Israel, I’m a house divided. In this week’s parsha, we read about his literal division of his household (he divides his possessions, people, flocks and herds and camels, into two camps, so that if Esau destroys one half at least the other half will survive) — but I think there’s a metaphorical division at work here, too. Jacob is a man of binaries.
I’d like to think, though, that’s he also a man of transcending those boundaries. He is both in the world, and beyond the world; he finds God in all things, except when he doesn’t. Just like us. He’s willing to open himself to the wrestle, even when that opening results in a painful wrenching which will shape the way he walks in the world. It’s this which makes him our role model, the patriarch from whom we collectively take our name.
From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner Five Cities of Refuge
It’s a struggle between Jacob, intent on transcending the ignominy of his past and the sitra akbra (the other side), intent on wounding him with it. Apparently, Jacob’s nameless adversary has power only in the darkness of night. But this dark side of creation’s psyche can also bestow new names, victorious and healing ones. Light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. Perhaps it’s no accident that the Jewish Book of the Dead is called Ma’avar Yabok (The Ford at the Jabok). That’s where the struggle happens at a place where the river is shallow; if you’re careful, you can make it back and forth.
Commentators have long disagreed over the identity of the unnamed wrestler and over just whose agent he was. Did he serve God–after all, he does confer the blessing of a new name–or does he work for Esau, the enemy, the dark side? The correct answer may be “Yes, both of the above.” The dark side has always been in the employ of the Holy One just as the reality of God necessarily includes darkness and other horrors. And just this is Jacob’s resolution, his transformation into Israel: that God is not just one or the other. God is both.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer The Jewish Book of Days
Wrestling with an Angel
The being that Jacob wrestles may be an angel, or it may be Jacob’s brother, Esau (or Jacob’s inner image of Esau), come to confront Jacob after years of bitterness. Whoever the mysterious wrestler is, he brings light to Jacob by giving him a knowledge of himself he did not have before. So too, by lighting the lights of Hanukhah, we shed light on our memories and our inner selves.
Rashi comments on Genesis 32:25 that Jacob meets the angel because he has gone back to retrieve some small jars (pachim ketanim) he has forgotten. According to Nachman of Bratzlav, one of these small jars is handed down through history and becomes the small jar of oil found in the Temple, the one that miraculously lasts for eight nights. So Jacob’s wrestle with darkness is deeply connected to the festival of Hanukhah.
On the Death of Deborah, Rebekah’s Nurse on Simchat Torah
The book of Jubilees claims Deborah, the nurse of the matriarch Rebekah died on this day. Little is known about Deborah other than she was buried under Alon Bakhut, “the oak of weeping.” Deborah may have been a person of some importance, a prophet and healer perhaps, as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb suggests in her book She Who Dwells Within.
Deborah’s death is intertwined with the symbolic death of the Torah, and her burial under a tree represents the Torah’s rebirth. This is the message of Simchat Torah; the Torah is reborn again and again, year after year. The oak of weeping becomes the oak rejoicing.
Julilees 32:25-30 is referenced.
When Yacov and Esau finally see each other after 20 years of separation, the thing they talk about is gifts. Yacov has sent his brother many gifts. Essau responds by saying that he doesn’t really need these gifts. “I have much (yesh li rav) my brother; what is yours is yours.”
At the last Torah Circle Steve Diamond pointed out that in Perkei Avot (5:13), according to some rabbis, the person who says “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours,” is on the level of Sodom. How can this be? Can it be that Sodom is really just a law abiding place where people respect property rights? Isn’t this what Esau is essentially saying?
Yacov answers, “I have seen your face which is like seeing the face of God… Take my gift/blessing (birchati) that I have brought you … because I have all (yesh li kol).”
What’s going on here? The brothers have had years of great bitterness between them, and Yacov has been fearful of what might happen when they met. So what does he mean about looking at his brother and “seeing the face of God?” And what does that have to do with saying “I have all?”
Reb Nadya Gross, at a time years ago when there had been great strife between people in our community, taught us something very important. When someone is absolutely the most difficult for me to get along with, then I have to look deeper at him or her until I can see God. And if I can’t, it’s because I’m not looking hard enough. Once I can do that, once I can see the light and holiness in everyone, then I’m living at a different level.
Reb Shlomo used to say, some people, when they receive a gift, the first thing they ask is, “What?” What’s inside the box, what’s the gift? Then there are other people who, when they receive a gift, the first thing they ask is, “Who?” Who gave it to me? This “Who” — “Mi” in Hebrew — is one of God’s names.
The Sefat Emet comments on the conversation between the brothers by pointing out the difference between “much” and “all.” “Much” is about the world of duality, of property rights, of measuring one’s wealth by what one has accumulated. Esau’s wealth is on the level of “much.”
Yacov’s wealth is on the level of “all.” For one who cleaves to the Shoresh Elyion – the root of the Most High – everything he has is “all.” “All” he says, is the level of Shabbos, where nothing is lacking, and everything is complete.
“Much” is what comes from the creation of human hands. “All” is what comes from receiving everything we have in this world, everything, from God’s hands. Even difficult people.
Reb Levi Yitzchak Berditchever says that Yacov and Esau are in each of us. Rebbe Nachman says that every character in each Torah story is us.
There is no easy solution here, no point of arrival. Each of us is Esau. Each of us is Jacob. We all are living on the levels both of “much” and “all.” That’s why we were sent here. To give and receive gifts. To have the conversation. To see past all the apparent dualities in which we find ourselves every day, and to every day bring the disparate parts of our world and our lives back to the All.
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